What ideas do you find yourself thinking about when you catch your focus drifting off onto something else?

Is it another project? Something specific? Or maybe a more abstract concept -- something that's been ruminating in the back of your mind for several years?

Whatever it is, explore it more deeply. This may guide you to your true passion. Your true potential. If you're not passionate about something, it will never consume you so it won't resonate in your mind long enough to find true genius within it.

Genius in Terms of Perspective

In Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, he explores what makes a person successful and asks the question, "Why do some talented people flame out early while others go on to brilliant careers?"

Malcolm's main premise is, "Success doesn't have much to do with talent. It's almost always a product of hard work and the culture of which we live our lives."

And while Malcolm says he's not, I think what he is really describing is the development of genius and how the environment/culture either encourages or discourages people from focusing on certain areas or ideas. Go the wrong way and you miss developing into your true potential.

Genius is the extreme form of insight. It's really not a measure of IQ, although a high IQ helps. I like to think of genius in terms of perspective and thus measure it by how rare and valuable a perspective is.

Getting to a rare perspective is usually a product of building up a mental framework and then seeing patterns in- and making associations or connections among seemingly unrelated phenomena. True genius is seeing associations among things previously unseen.

A high IQ gives you more ability to build the mental framework needed to see these associations, and a genius has actually applied it.

Paul Cooijmans, founder of the Giga Society, has a similar perspective

So does Seth Godin (see "Genius Is Misunderstood as a Bolt of Lightning").

When you don't have a good perspective, stuff doesn't make sense. Nothing fits. Everything is a one-off. But when you have a good perspective, a good mental model for something, when you see things the right way, stuff starts to make sense. Everything just seems to fit.

At Xerox PARC Alan Kay was known for saying, "A change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points."

Many would agree that Warren Buffett is an example of a financial genius. It should be easy to see that one of the things that separates Warren Buffett from the rest of us is that he has a unique perspective of the financial world – he sees all of the dynamics and intricacies of the financial world in a way that few others do.

Developing these rare or unique perspectives usually takes a deliberate and devoted focus on something. Einstein said, "It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer." Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000-hour rule. He says, "Studies suggest that the key to success in any field has nothing to do with talent. It's simply practice, 10,000 hours of it — 20 hours a week for 10 years."

Einstein wasn't a genius because he was most skilled in math. Einstein became a genius because he would relentlessly explore a problem, following it out farther than anyone had taken it before. This allowed him to see how the universe connects in a way that no one had seen before, and his discoveries were valuable to humanity.

His work consumed him. It took years for him to build the mental framework that led to his unique view of the universe, and the result of his devotion to this pursuit and his willingness to immerse himself in it led to the insights that ultimately changed our perspective of the universe.

Perspective is the key to genius.

Becoming Perspective Conscious

Once you understand the significance of perspective and become "perspective conscious," it can accelerate the expansion of your perspective in all other areas.

And if everyone around you -- at home, at school, at work or in your social life -- understands this simple principle and keeps the idea of trying to build perspective in the forefront of their mind, it's amazing how much this simple change can improve your environment, your life.

Insights from Weak Associations

Neuroscientists say that new perspectives, epiphanies, or these “flashes of insight” come from noticing weak associations. Weak associations are the vague connections among two or more seemingly disparate ideas.

Your ability to notice these vague connections amongst all the noise, amongst all the internal chatter going on inside your head, is what separates the insightful from the unaware, the unobservant.

In the NeuroLeadership Journal, Mark Beeman said that variables that improve the ability to detect weak associations may improve insight solving. What does he mean by this?

David Rock presents several ways to improve your abiltiy to detect weak associatoins in his book "Your Brain at Work." In it he explains how to create an environment that will improve our ability have insights. You can watch his Google Tech Talk Your Brain at Work.

Remember Galileo's words -- "All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them." Insights are often so simple, so obviously true once you see them. But we are often blinded by our fixations, our hubris, our limited frames of reference -- our narrow perspectives -- which prevent us from seeing.

Tight Mental Frameworks

A mental framework is your mental structure that organizes your thinking in a given domain of knowledge. I view this as mental scaffolding constructed from your connections or associations among related concepts, and a foundation on which you can develop more advanced ideas.

You can find genius everywhere. We talk about musical geniuses, artistic geniuses, philosophical geniuses. Many say Roger Federer is a tennis genius. But if you're not passionate about something, you won't focus on it or spend the time it takes pondering it to build up the mental framework to develop any truly unique insights.

People also talk about creative genius. But is there any other kind?

And just because you're a genius in one domain that doesn't mean that you're a genius in every domain. If you're a computer genius, it doesn't mean you're also a tennis genius or a musical genius. Unless you spend time focusing on something, you won't develop the requisite mental framework needed to get to these rare and valuable perspectives.

Novice Mind Expert Mind Genius Mind

I visualize the mental framework as a mesh of the mental connections or associations that you make between different concepts. As you make more connections and explore ideas further and further, the scaffolding gets tighter. The tighter and tighter the framework gets, the closer together the connection points become.

As your your framework gets tighter and the connections points move closer together, a clearer image of the big picture starts to emerge. Seeing new connections will be easier, and you'll start to see more connections that interconnect different domains, rather than just primarily noticing connections within your domain of expertise.

Notice that the World Wide Web models this concept almost identically.

Breadth Before Depth

Often what the novice thinks is important and initially focuses on has been determined by the expert or the genius, through deliberate thought, to be unimportant or the wrong thing to focus on.

How many times have you heard a novice ask an expert something, and the expert replies, “You're asking the wrong question”? This is because the novice isn't seeing the big picture and is focused on the wrong thing. So as a novice, your primary goal should be focusing on discovering the most important things to focus on.

Playing a sport like tennis or a musical instrument like the cello requires taking time to develop physical abilities in addition to the mental ones. Finding time to make the extended physical commitment can be hard, but everyone has access to their mind 24 hours a day.

Keep a few problems or concepts in the back of your mind that you're interested in, and in your daily life continually try to see if you can find things that relate to them. This will help you generalize the concepts and see the bigger picture.


A satellite view of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris

Maybe the key to noticing these flashes of insight is not so much about trying to think outside the box , but more precisely it's trying to look down from above the box so you see the other boxes, and as you pull back the boxes appear closer together, making it easier to see the connections between them.

Hardware and Software in the Brain

Researchers are discovering that our thoughts and memories may actually be stored as neural connections.

Sebastian Seung is a leading researcher in the new field of neuroscience called connectomics, which studies the wiring of the brain, and he is a professor at MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. He is focused on mapping the connections between each neuron and calls the mappings our "connectome," which he says it's as individual as our genome.

Watch his fascinating 20-minute TED talk, "I Am My Connectome":

He says that scientists have hypothesized for years that each thought, each memory is actually stored as a neural connection.

Think of the connectome in your brain as the hardware and the thoughts in your mind as the software.

A Google Tech Talk by Dr. Michael Merzenich on the neuroplasticity of the brain covers this more detail.

I am curious to know if associations are weak because they are indirect paths from one node – one neural connection -- to another. And if so, how much does a more direct path optimize you mental ability?

And does the act of noticing more direct associations between concepts establish more direct neural pathways and therefore upgrade your mental hardware? Could this be the physical underpinning for Alan Kay's insight, "A change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points"?

Put another way, is a change in perspective the change in the brain's software that causes the brain's hardware to establish more direct routes?

You can learn about this field of research at the The Human Connectome Project.

UPDATE April 2, 2011: I emailed Sebastian Seung asking him these questions.

This is what I said:

I liked your TED talk. My friends and I were discussing it the other day, and I made the analogy of comparing the connectome in your brain to hardware and the thoughts in your mind to software. Is that a fair analogy?

David Rock wrote a book called "Your Brain at Work" where he says that insights come from detecting weak associations (he gave a Google Tech Talk on this too).

If the brain software/hardware analogy is right, is there a similar relationship between weak associations of thoughts and neurons that are "distantly" connected? In other words, are associations weak because they are indirect paths from one node – one neural connection -- to another, and would a more direct path optimize you mental ability?

This is what Sebastian said:

The hardware-software analogy is wrong

  1. the brain is not a general purpose programmable computer. different areas are specialized to different functions
  2. the connectome changes over time, unlike hardware

you're right that direct vs indirect paths do matter, unlike in communication networks. but the weakness of an association might have to do with the strength of synapses, not just the length of the path.

i'm addressing these questions in my book which will appear in feb 2012 if all goes well.

So maybe a better analogy for the brain would be a network of specialized computers, like a private cloud connected to the Internet because the cloud can change with demand, and the size of connection and number of hops both affect performance.

For example, pushing data closer to the client is one of the primary reasons CDNs were invented -- to optimize content delivery so content is fewer hops away from the user. And in graph theory a common problem is trying to find the shortest path from one node to another.

Thoughts Are Things

In 1937 Napoleon Hill wrote Think and Grow Rich, the seminal work on achievement. In it he said, "Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve. Thoughts are things."

Advances in neuroscience have given us a clearer picture of what this actually means. Thoughts are the neural activity in your brain, and they get stored as physical objects -- the neural connections. They get stronger as you think more about them and they can go away too – so we have a scientific explanation for the adage, “Use it or lose it.”


First ever 3D map of a brain’s neurons. This is a map of an owl-monkey brain.

The idea that there is the equivalent of hardware and software in the brain is significant. When you learn something, your brain wires itself to make it easier in the future. This can be good or bad -- bad habits can get hardwired in your brain too.

But, if you have developed bad habits, or bad thought processes, it's exciting to know you can change your thoughts (the software) and retrain your brain to hard wire itself in a positive way -- you can think your way to a better brain. In other words, changing your perspective can change the way your brain is hardwired -- your thoughts can actually change your brain's physical structures -- thoughts can change reality.

The Path to Genius

Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius:

You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, “How did he do it? He must be a genius!

Pay attention to these “hits”, these flashes of insight, because they can illuminate a bigger picture and be the beacons of light leading you on your way to genius.

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