This past summer the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics published a revised version of my essay “The Genius Box“. In the original 2018 version I had asked “What are we doing when we call someone a genius?” and I had tried to show the ways in which having a special category of people called geniuses is harmful. At the journal’s request I added some new material to the published version, and put in a short new section called “Myth and Countermyth” that showed how one version of The Genius (the lightning-fast thinker) can give way to an antithetical version (the slow, deep thinker) without really fixing the problem with certain people being called geniuses in the first place.
While putting the finishing touches on the published version, I came across a relevant quote from a major twentieth-century physicist who was on a first-name basis with most of the people hailed as geniuses in the twentieth-century physics community. Here’s what he said about the pioneers of quantum physics and about himself:
“I was an ordinary person who studied hard. There’s no miracle people. It just happens they got interested in this thing and they learned all this stuff. They’re just people.”
The reason I opted not to use the quote is that the person who said it was Richard Feynman, and he’s one of the main examples of a “genius” Moon Duchin critiques in her essay “The Sexual Politics of Genius“, which was the main inspiration for my essay. Moreover, it’s hard to talk about Feynman without acknowledging that he was what used to be called a womanizer (is “man-izer” even a word?). I feared that the origin of the quote would overshadow the points I was trying to make, especially since I wanted to stress how the genius myth hurts women: for, despite the flexibility of the genius archetype along many axes (formality versus informality, chastity versus promiscuity, quick thought versus slow thought), it has been very inflexible along the axis of gender. Enlisting Feynman as an ally in making my case might make for good courtroom drama, like calling a witness for the defense as a witness for the prosecution, but the drama would have distracted readers from my argument.
It’s been credibly asserted that Feynman was a self-conscious performer of a certain version of himself, curating his public persona in a manner that colleagues like Murray Gell-Mann envied but could not duplicate. Was Feynman’s declaration “There’s no miracle people” just a bit of disingenuous shtick — a way to get people to say “Wow, he’s not only brilliant, but humble too!”?
I don’t think so. Feynman never pretended to be humble. The closest he came to humility was the Socratic stance of claiming to be smart enough to know how little he and all the rest of us really understand. Reading his books “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” and “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”, I got the sense that Feynman wanted to impress people in rather specific ways: he wanted people to think of him as deeply curious about the world, brave about being different from others, irreverent about things that don’t deserve to be revered, and yes, smart, but with the kind of smarts that come from effort.
What impelled Feynman to work hard was his curiosity. “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” was subtitled “Adventures of a Curious Character”. The subtitle is a pun, since ordinarily “a curious character” means someone whom others are curious about rather than someone who is curious about things. And yes, Feynman liked being a character — a memorable individual with a distinctive personality who couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else. But he was also deeply curious about many aspects of the world, and this curiosity impelled him to spend a lot of time thinking about things. Call it work or call it play, but he logged the hours.
It’s instructive to compare “I was an ordinary person who studied hard” with the self-appraisal of Isaac Newton, of whom a contemporary wrote “I cannot believe otherwise than that he is a genius” (pivoting from the old notion of a genius as a divine vehicle of inspiration to the modern notion of a person animated by such inspiration): Newton wrote that his secret to solving hard problems was “always thinking unto them”.
I missed meeting Newton by several centuries and an ocean, and I never crossed paths with Feynman, but I did meet John Conway, another curious character who’s been called a genius. (Siobhan Roberts’ book about Conway is called “Genius at Play”; James Gleick’s book about Feynman is called, more simply, “Genius”.) My recent blog-essay “Confessions of a Conway Groupie“, written shortly after Conway’s death, touched on a particular kind of harm caused by the genius myth that I hadn’t considered in “The Genius Box”: when we put someone on a pedestal of any kind, we give license to bad behavior we’d be less likely to tolerate in someone we saw as a peer.
The mathematician Mark Kac declared that Feynman (unlike “ordinary geniuses”) was a magician, by which he meant someone whose insights were inexplicable. But Feynman was always eager to explain his tricks. He credited his overall approach to science to his father’s tutelage, and he credited some of the inspiration for his revolutionary ideas about path-integrals to a high school teacher who took him aside one day and taught him about the least-action principle. Feynman loved performing mental math, but he also loved to explain how he used his bag of number-tricks to do those internal calculations. He was a wonderful explainer who relished the challenge of expressing deep ideas in simple language. In “The Genius Box”, I called on thinkers to cast aside the mystique of genius and to explain where their ideas came from. I think Feynman met that challenge better than most scientists of his day and ours.
Part of what it takes to be a great explainer is an understanding of how other people’s minds work. Feynman had a knack for this, and he was introspective enough to have an idea of how his own mind worked as well. He was also intrigued by the differences between minds; for instance, the quote about “no miracle people'” came from an interview he gave (captured in the video Richard Feynman: Thinking) in which he described how he trained himself to measure time in his head and how his friend John Tukey did the same thing using a completely different method. Feynman was fascinated by the contrast. If there’d been a qualitative difference between the way Feynman’s mind worked (the “genius way”) and the way other peoples’ minds worked, he would have noticed it, he would have found it interesting, and he would have talked about it. Since he did not, I surmise that he found no such difference.
To paraphrase Maya Angelou: When someone tells you they’re not a genius, believe them.
Postscript to this postscript: My wife, a psychologist by training, pointed out that quoting Feynman on the issue of whether there are such things as “miracle people” is still, well, quoting Feynman — lifting him up by putting him in the public eye. Haven’t we heard enough from him? “Why not quote a woman and person of color who has been called a genius and has actually devoted years of her life to studying the nature of achievement? Why not quote MacArthur Genius Award winner Angela Duckworth?” (Feynman himself admits “I’m no psychologist”, so why quote him on what is mostly a question about psychology?) In the preface to her book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” Duckworth writes about how when she was young, her father would tell her “You know, you’re no genius.” Many years later he told her how proud of her he was, but still, she writes that he wishes she could travel back in time and tell her father:
“Dad, you claim I’m no genius. I won’t argue with that. You know plenty of people who are smarter than I am. But let me tell you something. I’m going to grow up to love my work as much as you love yours. I won’t just have a job; I’ll have a calling. I’ll challenge myself every day. When I get knocked down, I’ll get back up. I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I’ll strive to be the grittiest. In the long run, Dad, grit may matter more than talent.”