Sunday, November 07, 2010

Uncommon Genius (How Great Ideas Are Born) - Denise Shekerjian

As I had said in my previous post, I was uncertain if a book on genius or creativity would be worth reviewing. I had come to this conclusion after reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book 'Creativity'. In 'Creativity', a number of eminent people were interviewied, including two-time physics Nobel laureate John Bardeen, whereas in 'Uncommon Genius' Denise interviews 40 MacArthur fellows. The problem with both books is that there's too much pattern-seeking going on. Creativity requires such and such conditions or so and so methodology. The funny thing however was that in the course of the books, both Mihaly and Denise ended up mentioning a particular trait and its opposite as necessary. For instance, they would realise after speaking to some of those creative people that its important to be aggressive in one's ambition, so that one dreams big and achieves at least a fraction of what one dreams, but elsewhere come to the conclusion it is important to hold one's calm and be patient in the face of obstacles or resilient in the face of failure. They find that its important to be connected/socially networked with one's peers so that one is up-to-date on the field, but at the same time declare elsewhere its important to have isolation so that ideas can incubate. I could go on and on, but the bottomline is that there's no clear pattern or formula that can be worked out for creativity or 'genius'. If not, everyone would be 'creative' or a 'genius'. However, that being said, Denise does a better job than Mihaly and rightly points out that at least the right sort of conditions can be created to foster creativity. She says it beautifully thus: "Its the defeatist who seeks to explain away creative achievement solely in terms of luck, a perspective that would have us believe the role of luck in creativity is something akin to a fortuitous flash of lightning. A more accurate assessment would be if a person went into the hardware store, bought the best lightning rod he could find, climbed to the highest point of his roof, bolted the contraption in place, and then waited patiently for a storm." This really sums up what creativity and genius are all about. And that is what you really learn from all the people interviewed as well. It is not a miracle process and there's no clear-cut pattern. The so-called 'geniuses' themselves can find no pattern, although the authors desperately try to. When one dwells on ideas in a field for a sufficiently long time, the conditions are created for new ideas of one's own to congeal from the soup of ideas one is exposed to. As one reviewer pithily summarised on the very essential, Genius is always interesting. This is the primary reason I managed to finish both books. I will also add that Denise has a more flowing narrative non-fiction tone to the book. That makes for easier reading. However, it can also lead to character misrepresentation. There is much hero-worship of the geniuses and Denise, a former trial attorney, looks at them with the awe of one who doesn't understand their work. Her focus is excessively on character portrayal and less on accurate representation of their work. For instance, while mentioning Robert Axelrod's work on the iterated prisoner's dilemma, not once did she clearly mention that it was the iterated version of the prisoner's dilemma that she was referring to when she said Axelrod had organized a tournament on the game. One can skim over the overarching pattern-seeking by both Denise in this book and Mihaly in Creativity and just focus on the interesting, and oftentimes insightful words of the interviewees themselves. So I'll just end this brief review with words from the Fellows that I thought interesting:

'I'm not afraid of risk because risk is a part of change, and change is what new ideas are all about." - Debbie Meier

Peter Sellars - "...the first two hundred years of American culture were made by Europeans coming to New York...If something happened elsewhere in the land, it had to go to New York and get the seal of American culture stamped across its forehead...I think the next two hundred years of American culture are going to be shaped by another set of immigrants - Asians and Hispanics - who are going to create another set of vocabulary with its own sense of moral values, and the distribution center will be Los Angeles."

"Purpose is what dictates the entire range of the enterprise. Through intention, goals are shaped and ideas are generated to fulfill them. Through relentlessness come the cultivation of skills and the perfection of technique. Through motive come the decisions as to which projects to pursue and in what order. Through resolve, resources are marshaled and the necessary strength mustered to overcome obstacles rather than be overcome by them. Through tenacity, friends and collaborators are selected. And through will comes the wisdom to know when to part paths with influences one has outgrown." - Denise (author)

Thanks to (Howard) Gardner's work, the old question: How smart is he? is giving way to the more meaningful inquiry: How is he smart?

"Chance favours the prepared mind" - Louis Pasteur

...encourage our luck. There are three ways, at least, of doing this: being attentive, so you notice the nuances in daily life; being curious and inquisitive enough to follow your curiosity around a blind corner; and being able to relax and have a good time.

He took an interest in their stories and told them his, which was in keeping with his belief that only through an exchange of stories can one person know and trust another. - Denise on Robert Coles

1 comment:

Saleem Rana said...

Denise has a beautiful liveliness and eloquence to her book. Apart from the excellent research, the quality of the description and the precision of the analysis makes it a pleasure to read.