Flawed Genius Definition Essay


David Lubinski

Professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University.

Genius is arguably one of the rarest, if not the rarest, phenomenon in the human condition. In Murray’s (2003) compelling analysis of Human Accomplishment, genius is seen as describing individuals who generate products that transform humanity. When leaders in the field examine their creative contributions, a frequent response is: “How could a human being have done that?”  Because genius is such a rare phenomenon, some have questioned whether it is meaningful to attempt to study it scientifically. Given some estimates suggesting that only about 400 individuals over the past 2,000 years could meet the unassailable criteria across all domains (literature, the military, and science & technology, to name just a few), are there ways to scientifically examine these rare occurrences? 

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Darrin M. McMahon

Professor of history at Dartmouth and author of Divine Fury: A History of Genius (Basic).

If you’ve been to the movies lately, chances are you’ve learned something about what makes a genius a genius. Benedict Cumberbatch’s stunning depiction of the British mathematician Alan Turing in the Imitation Game and Eddie Redmayne’s no less compelling performance as the physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything provide master-classes on the particular virtues long believed to set these particular creatures apart.

Both films present men of daunting intelligence as creative visionaries and highly original minds. Turing, in cracking the Nazi Enigma code, conjures computers before there is any such thing; Hawking stares into space to perceive events on the horizon of possibility, where others see nothing at all.    

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Rex Jung

Neuropsychologist and assistant professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico.

In 1984, when I was 20 years old, I felt a burning sensation in my stomach that would not go away. I was a sophomore in college, taking courses in finance and trying to get a young lady in one of my classes to take notice of me. The gnawing in my gut grew worse as it became increasingly evident that her affections were elsewhere. I went to the doctor, dutifully swallowed the pink “barium” milkshake, and was diagnosed with a duodenal ulcer. The doctors told me that this ulcer was due to “stress,” a penchant for spicy food, and various other defects of my character that I must stop, immediately, in order to rid myself of this disease.

I would like to say that I won the heart of that young lady, that I gave up spicy foods, and that I abandoned my stressful ways. None of that happened. Instead, my ulcer gradually dissipated, I finished my degree, and life trundled on. But around the same time, something wonderful was happening.

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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Global religious leader, philosopher, author and moral voice for our time.

In 1756, Voltaire wrote a sharply anti-Semitic essay on the Jews. They had, he said, contributed nothing to civilization. Their religion was borrowed, their faith superstitious, their originality non-existent. They were “an ignorant and barbarous people.” Still, he added, “we ought not to burn them.”

In the course of the next two centuries, Jews (or individuals of Jewish descent) became pioneers in almost every field of endeavour: Einstein, Bohr, Durkheim, Levi-Strauss, Freud, Adler, Klein, Spinoza, Bergson, Wittgenstein, Mahler, Schoenberg, Heine, Bellow, Agnon. The litany has become a cliché: less than a fifth of a percent of the population of the world, Jews have won 22 percent of all Nobel prizes.

What led to this efflorescence of genius? 

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John Steele Gordon

Author and scholar of business and economic history.

As playwright Peter Shaffer brilliantly elucidates in Amadeus, the distance between competence and genius is, paradoxically, at once minuscule and infinite. Antonio Salieri was a good, competent, and popular composer—but Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a genius. So Salieri is forgotten; Mozart, immortal. 

We will probably never know what makes the difference between competence and genius in the arts. But genius is found in every field of human creativity, and in many, its essence can be perceived.

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Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein

Founder and director of The Elijah Interfaith Institute.

All religions recognize there are outstanding individuals, whose spiritual insight and power surpass those of others. These individuals help create, define, drive, reform, and inspire their traditions. To a large extent, they serve as models that others hope to emulate, the bodily manifestation of ideal traditions. What makes these individuals more than the ordinary teacher or the successful practitioner is that they bring something novel to the religious community. They thereby facilitate a regeneration of the tradition and a spiritual renewal in the lives of its adherents.

The religious genius has the capacity to apply intuition and intellect to bring about a new understanding, one that is grounded in awareness of a broader existential dimension that leads to a deep personal transformation. The new understanding offered by the religious genius provides creative and constructive solutions that help solve religious and spiritual problems. A religious genius will accordingly have high positive output, effectively addressing challenges that are fundamental to a tradition or, more universally, to being religious.

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Johnson was much loved and greatly hated -- not just liked and disliked but adored by some and despised by others. Some people remember him as kind, generous, compassionate, considerate, decent, and devoted to advancing the well-being of the least advantaged among us. Others describe him as cruel, dictatorial, grandiose, and even vicious....

The journalists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak have given us an indelible picture of Johnson applying "The Treatment" to people who needed persuading. It was,

supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint, the hint of threat. It was all these together. It ran the gamut of human emotions. Its velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction. Interjections from the target were rare. Johnson anticipated them before they could be spoken. He moved in close, his face a scant millimeter from his target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows rising and falling. From his pockets poured clippings, memos, statistics. Mimicry, humor, and the genius of analogy made The Treatment an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless....

Johnson was a man possessed by inner demons. From early in his childhood he manifested character traits that shaped his behavior throughout his life. As a boy and a man he suffered from a sense of emptiness: he couldn't stand to be alone; he needed constant companionship, attention, affection, and approval. He had insatiable appetites: for work, women, food, drink, conversation, and material possessions. They were all in the service of filling himself up -- of giving himself a sort of validity or sense of self-worth....

Johnson's neediness translated into a number of traits that has a large impact on his political actions. He had a compulsion to be the best, to outdo everybody, to eclipse all his predecessors in the White House and become the greatest president in American history. As journalist Nicholas Lemann says, Johnson "wanted to set world records in politics, as a star athlete would in sports. 'Get those coonskins up on the wall,' he would tell people around him."....

As a senator, he had to be top dog, and drove himself to become Majority Leader. He turned a post with limited influence into the most powerful position in the Senate, from which he directed the passage of significant laws affecting labor, the elderly, housing, civil rights, defense, and space exploration. As Majority Leader, he was thrilled to be the first legislator in Washington with a car phone. When Everett Dirksen, Republican Minority Leader and a friendly rival, also acquired one, he telephoned Johnson's limo to say that he was calling from his new car phone. "Can you hold on a minute, Ev?" Johnson asked. "My other phone is ringing." .... After Johnson won election to the vice presidency in 1960, he "looked as if he'd lost his last friend on earth...I don't think I ever saw a more unhappy man," one of his secretaries recalls. He found it hard to explain how John Kennedy, a more junior and less accomplished senator, could have bested him for the presidential nomination. He expressed his distress and rivalry with JFK during a telephone call on the evening of the election. "'I see you are losing Ohio,'" he told Kennedy. "'I'm carrying Texas and we are doing pretty well in Pennsylvania.'" "Doesn't that sound like him," his old friend Jim Rowe told Hubert Humphrey.

He was a reluctant Vice President. He had hoped and planned for the presidency, but fate or the limitations of his time, place and personality has cast him in the second spot. And he despised it.

The same neediness that made Johnson so eager for personal grandeur contributed to his desire to help the least advantaged. Throughout his life he identified with poor folks who has neither the material possessions nor the social regard held by and accorded to the most affluent members of society. He remembered his first teaching job at Cotulla, Texas, in an elementary school with Mexican-American students as an awakening of his desire to help "those poor little kids. I saw hunger in their eyes and pain in their bodies. Those little brown bodies had so little and needed so much. I was determined to spark something inside them, to fill their souls with ambition and interest and belief in the future." Both in Cotulla and later, there was an almost desperate urgency to Johnson's desire to give sustenance to the poor, as if he were filling himself with the attention and affection he so badly craved....

The (Vietnam) war brought out the worst in Johnson. His failure to deal effectively with the conflict partly rested on his character flaws: his grandiosity that could overcome every obstacle and his impulse to view criticism of his policies as personal attacks which he would overcome by increasing his efforts to make his policies succeed. Johnson fought in Vietnam for many reasons. He genuinely believed it essential to hold the line in Vietnam against Communist advance. Otherwise, the United States would face the loss of all of Southeast Asia to a hostile ideology. He also believed that a failure to stop the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese in South Vietnam would embolden Moscow and Peking and raise the likelihood of another larger, possibly nuclear, war....

Johnson saw liberal opponents of his Vietnam policies as disloyal to him and the country. Vietnam was a war he believed in; it was nothing he wanted to do, but he felt he had no choice, it was vital to the country's well-being....

The only satisfactory explanation he saw for the dissent was Communist influence. He believed that the driving force behind the marches, rallies, teach-ins, sit-ins, draft-card burnings, and written and oral expressions of opposition by intellectuals and prominent public officials like Senators George Aiken, J. William Fulbright, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, and Wayne Morse was the Communists.... In 1965-66 the war became a personal crusade for Johnson. It was his war, being fought by his "boys," with his helicopters and his planes and guns. Withdrawal and defeat became unthinkable. In 1967, when Leonard Marks, LBJ's director of the United States Information Agency and a close friend whom Johnson had always treated with consideration and respect, privately suggested that the President follow Senator Aiken's advice in Vietnam--declare victory and leave--Johnson glared at him until Marks asked: "What do you think?" Johnson shouted at him: "Get out." As increasing numbers of Americans died in the fighting and Johnson couldn't appear in public without risk of protests, he became emotionally distraught. By 1967, Georgia senator Richard Russell, a Johnson mentor, couldn't bear to see Johnson alone at the White House, because the President would cry uncontrollably....

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