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The Little Book of Genius
By Keith Souter, Fiona McDonald
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Dr Keith Souter
All rights reserved.
YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE A GENIUS
Genius is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.
Thomas Alva Edison
Inventor and genius
It must be pretty amazing being a genius, don't you think? To be able to develop an idea that is so mind-bogglingly clever that you alter the very way that people think. The French philosopher, mathematician and physicist René Descartes did just that in 1637 when he wrote 'cogito ergo sum,' meaning 'I think, therefore I am.' In that simple aphorism, which tells you that you prove your existence merely by the act of thinking about it, he literally raised the consciousness of western civilisation. Accordingly, he was rightly hailed as the 'Father of Modern Philosophy.'
And how marvellous it must be to unravel the nature of the mysterious force of gravity, or reveal the way that the solar system works, and then invent a whole new branch of mathematics in order to have the tools to delve where no mind had delved before. Sir Isaac Newton did all that and much more in the closing years of the seventeenth century.
Living and working in Italy during the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci was hundreds of years ahead of his time in too many areas to cover. He was the greatest representational artist of all time, an inventor, anatomist and engineer, and he pushed back the frontiers in all of those areas.
William Shakespeare, England's great Tudor playwright, left us plays that make us laugh, weep, think and wonder. The characters that he created are wonderfully formed psychological studies of emotions which are equal to anything that was written by Freud, Jung or Adler almost 400 years later.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a virtuoso on the keyboard and violin, and was able to compose music at the age of 5. When he died at the tragically young age of 36 he had written over 600 pieces of music and enriched the world.
Charles Darwin, the great English naturalist, wrote On the Origin of Species in 1859. Undoubtedly this is one of the most influential scientific books of all time, outlining his theory that all species of life on Earth have descended from common ancestors, in a branching, evolving manner that he called 'natural selection.'
Thomas Alva Edison was the most prolific inventor in history, holding well over 1,000 patents on various inventions. And what inventions they were: things like the light bulb, the phonograph and the film projector.
And, of course, Albert Einstein, that epitome of genius, gave us the special and general theories of relativity which have transformed the world of physics, our whole view of reality and the nature of the universe and time.
All of these great men deserve to be called genius, although by his own admission Thomas Edison felt that much of his genius was down to sheer hard work. And this rather begs the question, 'what is a genius?' It is a question that we must look at quickly, if only to get it out of the way.
SO WHAT IS A GENIUS?
This is a word that is bandied about a lot these days. That is understandable, since our modern world is dominated by celebrity culture. The use of superlatives has become second nature to people. We describe qualities or inadequacies as being hyper- or ultra-, to emphasise that they are well beyond the norm, even when they patently are not. Some people, who were at one time proclaimed to be stars in their particular walk of life, would nowadays be referred to as super-stars or even mega-stars. Similarly, people who would once have been called 'talented' after making some modest contribution to art or knowledge will these days be accorded the title of 'genius.'
This is a step too far, in my opinion. A genius is a unique character. To be a genius requires far more than merely being intelligent, or attaining a certain rating in an intelligence test. It is having the ability not merely to push back frontiers, but to create new ones that no one else believed to be possible. It is the ability to conceptualise the previously inconceivable and express it in terms comprehensible to lesser brains.
On that basis, I think I would have reservations about including Edison in the select little group that I started with, and would place him in the lower realm of ordinary mortals, where most of us belong. That is not to lessen his gargantuan achievements, for he undoubtedly belongs within the upper echelons of the intelligentsia, along with your common-or-garden Nobel Prize-winner. And what is wrong with that? It is still a level to which most of us can only aspire.
Yet being a genius probably makes life difficult. How do you get a partner, for one thing? If you are brighter than everyone else around it must make for a pretty lonely existence. Of course, this presupposes that a genius is a genius in all areas of their life or in everything that they think. There is actually no reason to suppose that to be the case.
William Shakespeare may have been a dab hand at writing plays, but could he play the ukulele? Similarly, could Mozart work out the reason for the anatomy of a sea-whelk or the behaviour of a barnacle? We know that Isaac Newton could be preoccupied to the point of rudeness, forgetting that he had dinner guests, or that he had even had dinner on occasions. There is possibly a price to pay for genius.
I am being slightly facetious here. While one can laud genius, admire it and strive hard to understand it, if you were handed it on a plate, would you really want it? I suspect you would, but remember, gentle reader, the downside. There is the weight of expectation. You have to use that genius. You have to show that you are able to fathom the unfathomable; you must be brave enough to visit realms unthought of, to pose a question then answer it in a highly creative manner that is beyond that of your fellows. You risk ridicule, envy and, worse, self-loathing if you under-achieve what only you are capable of believing to be possible.
BUT YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE A GENIUS
The chances are that you are not a genius! OK, I've said it. You have read it and you can either gnash your teeth, throw the book into a corner, or accept it and get on with life.
Once again, there is a serious point here. Just imagine that you are sitting round a dinner table with one or other of these geniuses, or are having a drink with a group of them in the pub: would they fill the air with words, would their wit scintillate you and would their contributions to the discussion leave everyone in their wake?
We do not know, of course, but just because they exhibited genius in one area does not mean that they did so in all that they ever thought or did. A genius out of his or her particular environment might be nothing but a dullard and a bore.
On the other hand, there may be others at the table or standing by the bar who positively glitter, and they may have no actual genius for anything. Yet at that particular gathering they may appear to be the genius in your midst.
Now, if you already are that type of person who everyone listens to, then this book will have little appeal. However, if you are a genuine genius, but, despite your genius, you sometimes come across as a dullard or a bore, then maybe you will reap the rewards that may be gained by reading the whole lot. And if you are one of the crowd who would just like to be listened to, then read on.
DO YOU WANT TO SHINE?
This is really the crux of the matter. If you are the sort of person who hovers in the background and hopes that no one is going to ask for your opinion, then this book is for you. You may not be as confident as the chap who will expound on anything, even if you are just as bright as or more intelligent than him. Some people even find themselves agreeing with others when they actually totally disagree, so dented is their confidence to stand up for their own point of view. If that describes you, then read on. There may be help for you in this book.
Does it gall you when you seem to get beaten in arguments all the time, when no one listens to your point of view, or when your point of view is ruthlessly swept aside? Why is that, you may ask? Is it because you are ignorant of a subject? Do you simply not have the confidence to stand your ground? On the other hand, could it be that you actually are less able than those around you?
Don't even go there. You can be the person that people listen to. It can be your argument that wins the day. And it can be your knowledge that people admire. The simple truth is that you don't have to be a reservoir of information. You can get by with heuristic knowledge. You can win arguments by practising the art of sophistry. And you can use various techniques to shine and impress people in all sorts of social and professional situations.
They may even think that, in a way, you are a bit of a genius.
That is what this book is about. And that is what I am going to show you.
FIRST OF ALL FORGET ALL THAT IQ NONSENSE
That's right – forget it!
People may hold their hands up in horror at this suggestion, but don't worry about them. They are either psychologists who have a vested interest in setting IQ tests or people who have high IQs and believe that this makes them more intelligent than other people. That is nonsense. All that an IQ demonstrates is an aptitude to do IQ tests.
What a ridiculous thing an IQ score is. It is a bit like having a golf handicap, only in reverse. A good golfer is someone with a low handicap; a good IQ puzzle-solver has a high IQ. A low golf handicap shows that you have an aptitude for knocking a golf ball around a field in fewer shots than other folk, but it doesn't indicate that you are especially good at anything else. True, in golf clubs you will go to the top of the pecking order, you will belong to that part of the membership who describe themselves as 'tigers,' whereas the poor golfer possessed of a high handicap will have to play with others of his ilk, and be derided as a 'rabbit' by the tiger group.
The same thing goes for the IQ brigade. They love knowing that they have higher IQ scores than the riff-raff. To them, that score officially means that they are members of the intelligentsia, the cognoscenti, the boffins' club. The higher the score the more are they apt to think that they have or are not far short of genius.
Well, stuff and nonsense. Don't for a minute allow yourself to be brow-beaten by a high scoring IQ puzzle-solver. Don't imagine that their score means anything in the real world.
No, none of it matters. Your own IQ is a total irrelevance. What we are talking about here in this book is how to make the best of yourself to win arguments, get your point across, make good decisions and appear to know what you are talking about. Generally, to be more confident in life.
And you can learn to do all this by understanding a bit about how the mind works, developing strategies to apply and use in arguments, and how to use basic knowledge to hold your own in any discussion. If you understand heuristics, or rules of thumb, which I shall come to later in the book, then you will appreciate the concept that 'less is more.'
Confidence may be one of the issues that you have, especially in social settings. Your confidence can be built up if you equip yourself with techniques to 'shine.' And here is how we are going to do it.
YOU CAN LOSE AN ARGUMENT BEFORE YOU OPEN YOUR MOUTH
That is perfectly true. You may expect to lose and may even tend to avoid arguments and discussions because of your poor history in arguments or debates. Yet you may watch politicians in the news or on TV panel programmes spout utter nonsense, only to give a counter-argument on a later occasion or after there has been a change in party policy. You may form the opinion that politicians are dishonest bounders who change their minds and their opinions more often than you change your socks. If you think that, you risk missing the point. Politicians tend to be brilliant arguers. They don't lose; they win arguments, even when they should lose. They know how to argue or debate.
And you can do this as well. It is a matter of knowing some simple techniques. That is what politicians do. They do not all enter the world with innate tough skins, bulldog tenacity and hyper-intelligence.
Let us stick with politicians for a moment and look at a single example of how they win arguments. They don't answer the question asked of them.
It is as simple as that. Watch them on the news and you will see. They will not answer a question immediately, unless they really know their onions. More usually they will be evasive for a while. They will go off on a little diatribe during which they will refer to the political credo of their party, then they will eventually give a round-about answer that more or less answers the question, but which no one notices because they have diverted you from the original and you are either left marvelling at their intelligence or cursing their audacity. But they will have had their say.
The political answer is only one of several manoeuvres that you need to spot and understand. If you can see what other people are doing in a debate, then you can understand and apply the appropriate measures that can undermine their arguments. Arm yourself with, say, half a dozen of these little techniques and your confidence in such matters may soar. We will look at this in the chapter on the Lost Art of Sophistry.
UNDERSTAND HOW PEOPLE MAKE DECISIONS
I am sure you will have marvelled at the wisdom of some people. And at the same time cringed and cursed the incompetence and rank stupidity of others. Decision-making is a fascinating study in itself. Whether it is a world leader making an unbelievably important and far-reaching decision, a top banker deciding how to handle his bank's finances or a general ordering a hazardous mission, all of them think that they are making a balanced, bias-free decision. Yet they probably are not. When it comes down to it, a decision may seem multi-faceted, complex and based on massive data, yet ultimately it will be stripped of all of these complexities and data to become a simple final choice one way or the other.
If you can understand basic decision-making you may make life a bit easier for yourself.
CULTIVATE A SENSE OF HUMOUR AND CONSIDER TELLING THE ODD JOKE
Well, don't you envy those joke-tellers? It really is a useful thing to be able to do. Especially if you can drop in a quick-witted quip or an appropriate anecdote that isn't going to bore everyone or make them cringe.
I don't mean that you have to aim at doing a stand-up routine suitable for the Comedy Club, but you can learn ways of delivering a good wheeze to get them chuckling.
CULTIVATE YOUR MEMORY
There is nothing worse than having to excuse yourself for not remembering someone, forgetting their name or what they do. People will recognise you, recall your name and oddities, so why can't you?
Well of course you can. It is lazy not to and it is arrogant to think that you don't need to. If you want to shine, lick that memory into shape.
As we shall see, it is not that difficult.
All of this is working towards better awareness of yourself, your strengths, your weaknesses and your emotional tendencies. If you can understand yourself better then you can interact with others more effectively. And if you can understand other people then you are on your way to the most useful type of communication with them. This is what life is about.
BASIC KNOWLEDGE OF EVERYTHING
That might sound a tall order, but really it is not difficult to pick up the rudiments of anything. You may shy away from some areas in the belief that you know nothing about a subject. Take mathematics as an example. Many people struggle with elementary mental arithmetic and positively shudder at the mention of anything as rarefied as trigonometry or differential calculus.
But you don't need to be a maths whiz to get by. Everyone can learn a few basic mental arithmetic techniques to shine. And if you just brush up on a few facts then you will be surprised at how well you can hold your own at dinner parties.
In the second part of this book we are going to look at all sorts of things, from art to Zen, from poetry, philosophy and economics to science, sport and cooking. None of these chapters will be enough to get you a degree, but they will cover sufficient points to help you get by.
So, you may not be a genius, but you can still shine.CHAPTER 2
HEURISTICS AND RULES OF THUMB
A heuristic can make you smart,
And a rule of thumb can too.
Whether it be science or art,
These things will work for you.
Professor Phineas J. Stackpool
Phrenologist and mesmerist
Judgement is difficult. No one ever really teaches you how to do it. Parents may drum their code of morals into you, teachers may tell you what society expects, but when it comes down to it, you end up making your own decisions for good or ill. You may think that your teachers, professors and all the people who occupy positions of trust and responsibility have a special handle on judgement, but the truth is that they don't. Even geniuses don't always get it right. So what hope is there for mere heads of government? They are as much in the dark as you and I. Yet it need not be as gloomy as that, if you understand a little about how we think. If you can do that then you are on your way to making mental short-cuts. And that will help you see what this book is all about.
Excerpted from The Little Book of Genius by Keith Souter, Fiona McDonald. Copyright © 2011 Dr Keith Souter. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part 1: The Seeds of Genius,
1. You Don't Have to be a Genius,
2. Heuristics and Rules of Thumb,
3. A Matter of Character,
5. The Lost Art of Sophistry,
6. Improve Your Memory,
7. Comic Genius (Or How to Tell a Joke),
Part 2: Omni-Science,
16. Medicine and the Body,
17. Religion and Belief,
18. Economics and Finance,
20. A Little Latin,
21. Cooking or Cuisine,