Child Prodigies, Geniuses, and Numb3rs

A friend recently lent us her DVDs for the first season of Numb3rs. We watched the pilot episode last night, which was quite enjoyable.

In one scene, an older scientist is telling the younger that geniuses (in the science field) usually make their large discoveries over a short period of time – maybe 5 to 8 years of their entire career, which may last many decades.

I’ve heard this more than once. I’ve also heard that this genius period for scientists usually occurs quite early on – most likely while the person is in their 20’s.

I don’t know if either of these statements are true. But let’s assume they are and see if we can come up with reasons as to why. And maybe even how we may maximize our probability of genius.

Hey, it’s pure speculation, but this ain’t the New England Journal of Medicine

IEEE Standard Poodle (har, har…)
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Question #1: Why does this genius period not usually happen before the 20’s?

If youth and neuroplasticity were the prime prerequisites for scientific breakthroughs, it would seem that geniuses would be more likely to do better work in their teens, rather than their 20’s.

Sure there are long lists of child prodigies, but are prodigies geniuses? Consult the Holy Book of Wiki (recognizing that many do not have complete faith in the accuracy of these scriptures).

According to Wikipedia, a child prodigy is someone who masters one or more skills at an earlier than average age.

On the other hand, it says that a genius is someone who displays great intelligence and originality in thinking. That’s not quite the same thing (at least to me), though the entry does claim that many geniuses start off as child prodigies.

I’m more inclined to assign “genius” status to those who make significant intellectual breakthroughs and contributions to scientific knowledge – not those who just blow through school fast enough to enter university at age 11 (maximum respek, though…).

So here’s my answer for Question #1.

One reason why the genius “breakthrough” period may not occur earlier, is because you haven’t yet had higher education in your chosen field, and therefore don’t possess the theoretical “toolbox” (i.e. fundamentals of the discipline) in order to have a decent framework from which to attack problems.

Sure Wiki says that many genii begin as child prodigies and they no doubt start filling their toolboxes earlier, but the key word is “many”, not “most”. Our premise was that most geniuses make their breakthroughs in their 20’s.

So assuming this theoretical toolbox is so important, that leads to …

Question #2: Why aren’t great discoveries continuously made by genii after the 20’s?

Could it be that most scientists in their 20’s only recently completed university and therefore the fundamental theorems are still fresh in their minds?

We science types know that once we leave academia for industry, most of what we learned in college is quickly forgotten.

Maybe… but it seems to me that most brilliant people end up having university and/or research related careers.

If it’s soley the theoretical toolbox that’s important, research types only continue to add to their toolbox each year. Therefore you’d expect the number of great discoveries per decade to increase as these people worked through their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and beyond.

But we’re told that’s not the case.

Now I’m sure that neuroplasticity plays some role, but I’m betting with Question #2 that something else may (also) be at work – the so-called beginner’s mind.

When you’re in your 20’s, you have enough of a theoretical framework to keep you from completely stabbing in the dark while you problem-solve, but your theory isn’t so solid that you immediately rule out “crazy”, “unreasonable”, or “previously disproven” ideas that your more experienced (older) collegues automatically would.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” – Shunryo Suzuki

Likewise, as a beginner you don’t yet completely trust the few fundamentals you do have in your toolbox. Part of being open to possibilities includes doubting – doubting whether what others accept as true (those fundamentals), might in fact be wrong.

Don’t many breakthroughs come from disproving what was, up until that point, unquestionably true?

Final question…

Cognitive Prodigy
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Question #3: Are we doomed to low probability of insightful breakthroughs after we leave our 20’s, or is there something we can do to improve our odds?

Well we could always read and ponder Suzuki’s Book, and try to keep a fresh, open mind. But I’d be leading you astray if I told you to look there. The book wasn’t really meant to be a How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. More of a “How to Keep Your Meditation Practice Productive”.

But I think there’s a lot of crossover potential in the basic idea…

Here’s an alternative suggestion. Make sure you don’t stay at the same job for too long. It’s one thing to attempt to cultivate a beginner’s mind when it’s SSDD (and that’s not “single sided, double density”), but quite another to be thrown into beginner’s mind and unable to escape it, when you find yourself, once again, truly a newbie.

For all of you graduate degree-ers out there (who had honest advisors), weren’t you told it would be best for your growth to leave your undergraduate alma mater and go somewhere else for graduate work – so that you’re exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking?

Four or five years in the same place – then on to somewhere new. That’s sounds about like the right time frame. I made an employment change recently after 7 years and now realize I stayed about 2 years too long.

Just something to ponder – especially if you’re bored, unchallenged, or just plain unhappy at your job but still find yourself showing up at the same place to do it year after year.

Let’s close with some quotes from the Suzuki book. Sure he’s talking about Zen, but you know it applies elsewhere:


In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything. It is open to everything.

This is also the secret of the arts. Always be a beginner.

It is the open mind, the attitude that includes both doubt and possibility, the ability to see things always as fresh and new. It is needed in all aspects of life.

If you discriminate too much, you limit yourself.


And for the truly brave and adventurous out there, how can you take this idea to the Green Beret level?

You not only periodically change jobs, but occasionally change careers. 😉

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