What is Genius?

This is the first of a series of posts on genius, and genius organizations. Enjoy!

At Genius Engine we define genius as “the ability to create remarkable value”.

We say that genius is an ability to create value, because we are not interested in an abstract definition that ignores the context of a person’s or group’s genius.  Value is always valuable to someone in particular.  We use the word “remarkable” because we want to express that genius is something exceptional or beyond the norm — but again, we know that it is beyond the norm because people perceive it as specially valuable, not because it meets an abstract test about which few people care. Genius matters — if it does not matter, it is not genius.

Historically, people have understood genius to be a fortunate spirit (giving good luck to a place, a family, or a person); more recently genius has been seen as a personal quality — a particular sort of talent, even a measurable level of general intelligence that is produced by some combination of genes and environment. There has been a shift from looking at genius as something external, collective, and mysterious, to something internal, individual, and measurable.  By talking about the ability to produce remarkable value, we keep the measurable aspect of modern ways of talking about genius, but we allow ourselves to focus on both individual and collective, internal and external, qualities of genius.

Some scholars still think of genius as a collective trait. Keith Sawyer makes a clear argument (which is consistent with the pioneering work of historians and sociologists of science such as Thomas Kuhn and Bruno Latour) that every invention is the result of a wide network of previous work, of critics and collaborators, of patrons and customers.  The airplane could not be invented without certain materials, certain engine innovations, certain scientific disciplines, and the Wright brothers are known as the inventors of powered flight not only because of their insights but also because of their embodied skills as bicycle mechanics, hackers who were very familiar with reworking vehicle technology by hand, and because of their ability to popularize their work — which allowed them to develop positive relationships with a curious world.

Certain qualities allow individuals and groups to create remarkable value. We look at genius as having three primary drivers: special resources, useful complexity, and integrity. Special resources includes internal resources such as genetics, external resource such as access to the right tools, and personal history which is both internal and external. Useful complexity includes individual types of complexity — mental and emotional — as well as collective types such as social complexity and genetic diversity. We define integrity as the mutually beneficial connectedness within a living system (person, organization, or community), and between that system (the person, organization, or community) and its environment.

One of the benefits in looking at genius in this way is that we can see potential strategies for increasing the genius of a person or a group.  One might look at a person’s ability to create value, and think “this person is very detail oriented, and enjoys logical puzzles — if only this person could use better tools, they might be able to produce some amazing electronics”.  That would be an approach to enhancing genius using special resources.  One might also look at that person and think, “I wonder if they have learned about cybernetics?” By adding the cognitive complexity of cybernetics to the person’s repertoire, that person might be able to create more valuable electronic craft-pieces.  Lastly, we might address the person’s integrity — “how is this person relating to himself and his colleagues? Could he take a stand more often? Could he love himself as he is? How could we support him in developing his integrity?”  Any one of these approaches might yield a significant increase in this person’s ability to produce value.

When we ask these questions over and over, for ourselves, our colleagues, our organizations and our communities, we begin organizing ourselves for genius.  This is the path to the Genius Organization.