Perspiration vs. inspiration

Practice, practice, practice creates geniuses, writes David Brooks in the New York Times. Forget the “divine spark.” It’s not easy being a genius.

If you wanted to picture how a typical genius might develop, you’d take a girl who possessed a slightly above average verbal ability.

Introduce her to a famous novelist to give her “a vision of her future self.”

It would also help if one of her parents died when she was 12, infusing her with a profound sense of insecurity and fueling a desperate need for success.

Hmmm. Seems a bit extreme.

Armed with this ambition, she would read novels and literary biographies without end. . . . Then she would practice writing. Her practice would be slow, painstaking and error-focused.

I think this is a formula for producing competent writers, not geniuses.

About Joanne


  1. That’s why I don’t read modern fiction unless it’s genre fiction. Nobody’s more than “competent.”

  2. Exactly. This what Salieri is so awed and yet crushed by in Amadeus: competence, even mastery, can be taught; genius just happens.

  3. Michael Jordan was born with superior hand and eye coordination, lots of fast twitch muscle fiber, and yet, he’s the guy who spent more hours in the gym than anyone else on his jr. high and high school teams. He had the genetics, but it’s the will to succeed and the grit to put in the hours of practice that make a champion.

    Writing is the same. Write, rewrite, and rewrite again.

  4. greifer says:

    salieri vs mozart is a great example.

    Brooks’ prescription had been done by Eastern bloc communists in just about every possible domain. They took children with talent and specialized and pushed them. as a result, they had world class hockey players, gymnasts, physicists, piano players, chemists, tennis players, etc. But while these talented youth certainly outperformed the large majority of talented American youth, no one sees the Russians or Romanians or Chinese as producing geniuses in any of these fields. For every thousand professional hockey players, there was still only one Wayne Gretzky. For every gold medal gymnast of the Eastern bloc there was still only one Nadia. No matter what Brooks says, there are only two physicists who physicists call geniuses: Isaac Newton, and Richard Feynman.

    Feynman is a great example. He wasn’t encouraged toward physics the way Brooks describss at all. more, Feynman’s presence in his undergrad and grad schools caused other extremely talented physicist students to drop out of physics over and over again. you see, they saw what he could do and became totally discouraged. They thought they had to be like him to be any good, and knew they were never ever capable of it. (e.g. at the first conference where feynman worked out and presented his theory of quantum electryodynamics, he heard another physicist give a talk, which presented certain material and ended with future directions. Feynman saw that the problem could be solved by QED and did it that night in the motel. the next day, he showed his work to the presenter. the presenter was floored–it had taken him months to do one example case; feynman just solved the general case in a couple hours.

    that’s genius. and it doesn’t come from nurturing.

  5. It’s not either or. It’s not either they have natural ability, or they practice alot. They practice alot because they have natural ability. People like to spend time doing what they’re good at.

    No amount of practice will create genius. Compentency, yes, genius, no.

  6. greifer says:

    arrgh..perhaps I should have finished that thought…
    specifically, you can nurture talent and skills, but nurturing talent and skills does not create genius. It reveals it.

  7. Foobarista says:

    The real point is you need both mastery and creativity. Creativity without mastery may be interesting, but it won’t advance the world much. Mastery without creativity will produce fine technical ability, and can be quite useful in the daily world, but won’t produce “genius”-level results.

    You don’t attain mastery in any interesting field without a whole lot of drudgery and intense dedication.

  8. So what’s the point of Brooks’s drivel? That stratified outcomes are a mark of failure, and that the goal of an education system should be to produce an equal level of “genius” in all students? After all, if geniuses can be created at will, why shouldn’t they be?

  9. In Outliers M. Gladwell illustrates the benefits of lots of practice by referring to folks who created pretty influential technical advances: UNIX, Microsoft, and others. Of course, these folks happened to be practicing their skills at a time when the value of those skills rapidly became very valuable.