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The Genius Myth
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The Genius Myth

Our need to define and quantify human potential comes at its expense

W hen Albert Einstein died, his enigmatic brain became the subject of numerous studies. Against the physicist’s personal wish to avoid idolaters by having his body cremated, Yale-trained pathologist Dr. Thomas Harvey salvaged Einstein’s brain during the autopsy. Harvey and other researchers seized on the opportunity to identify a physical tell, perhaps an extraordinary prefrontal cortex, that might explain the physicist’s legendary mental capacity.

Today, “Einstein” has become virtually synonymous with “genius” in the public imagination, but the case of Einstein’s brain demonstrates our tendency to treat geniuses, however respected, as unique anomalies. The consequences of this public fascination, along with the personal pressure to succeed that torments many geniuses in their lifetimes, are a few of the themes explored in The Queen’s Gambit, a new limited series written and directed by Scott Frank on Netflix. By evaluating the idolization of geniuses, as well as looking critically at how they are recognized and nurtured, we can better understand what the “genius” myth reveals about ourselves.

Part One

Conception of Genius

Eureka!

illustration by Emma Dajska

The promise, built into the word “genius,” is a tempting one: that a person could be born with such innate talent that, with a single “Eureka!,” they might unlock the Laws of Nature or compose The Marriage of Figaro. As complex as Einstein’s scientific breakthroughs were, our perception of him is one-dimensional. This conception of genius aligns with Western individualism, a cultural ideal tracing a person’s success to the singular qualities or abilities they possess. The genius myth suggests anyone lucky enough to win the genetic lottery could, by way of their own precocity and ingenuity, revolutionize an entire field.

Of course, this version of genius ignores a key reality: that a number of external factors influence the trajectory of genius figures, particularly privilege, and the opportunities and resources that go with it. Gender and racial achievement gaps in fields like physics and philosophy, in which “genius” is part of the job description, reflect these environmental factors. A familiar cycle ensues, in which lack of representation limits who seeks out these fields in the first place, let alone who achieves success.

Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Bobby Fischer, Michelangelo, and Stephen Hawking can all be categorized as geniuses. Notably, they can also be categorized as white men. While not all cultural examples we have of “geniuses” fit that description—Marie Curie often makes a textbook appearance as the first woman to win a Nobel Prize—it’s difficult to ignore the fact that an overwhelming number of them do.

With regard to Einstein and others, public fixation on the personal characteristics of the genius figure—whether high IQ or artistic vision—also deemphasizes the hard, often collaborative work contributing to their personal success. For instance, the idolization of Einstein overshadows the contributions of a number of his contemporaries, including Emmy Noether, a female mathematician recognized by Einstein himself as the “most significant mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.”

Our recognition of genius is influenced by the same gender and racial biases that plague society at large, shaping our collective assumptions about who is, and who can be, a genius. As a result, our presumption of individual genius limits the fulfillment of human potential. Is it possible to expand our definition of genius, as well as our understanding of how someone becomes one, to better support collective success?

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Who is Beth Harmon?

The Queen’s Gambit, adapted from the 1983 novel by Walter Trevis, follows Elizabeth Harmon over the course of her development as a chess prodigy. Harmon discovers her talent for chess at 8 years old, after a family tragedy places her in a Kentucky orphanage. She displays a key quality Ellen Winner, author of Gifted Children: Myths and Realities describes as characteristic of child prodigies: a rage to master.

“They are intensely motivated. You cannot pull them away from their domain in which they have high ability,” Winner explains. “That’s all they want to do.”

Harmon, despite an early introduction to trauma and drug addiction, exercises a fierce motivation to master chess that eventually propels her to the world stage. As her talents manifest, she finds support from a number of mentors who open up opportunities to encourage her growth. According to Winner, in addition to the natural proclivity a child has toward learning their field, these resources are also critical.

“It’s not just hard work,” she explains. It also requires an “environment that recognizes, values, and enables development in that area.”

Part Two

Recognizing Genius

The Pipeline Is Broken

illustration by Emma Dajska

Maria Anna Mozart was born in 1751, five years before her brother Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. She was a gifted harpsichord player, and she and her brother performed together as children across Europe. In a letter, her father wrote of her, “my little girl, although she is only 12 years old, is one of the most skillful players in Europe.”

Despite her talent, when Maria Anna Mozart reached young adulthood, she was pulled out of touring to marry, while her brother continued to perform. Although it’s impossible to calculate how much potential was lost when Maria Anna Mozart’s music career was cut short, she and her brother demonstrate the divergent paths of talent fostered and talent neglected. In the younger Mozart, a prodigious musical gift bloomed into adult mastery. In the elder, the same gift fizzled into an unrecognized life.

David Feldman, professor of human development at Tufts University, who studied child prodigies for his book Nature’s Gambit, describes the actualization of a child prodigy as a cosmic probability game, in which time, location, parental support, mentorship, and societal values, in addition to the child’s talent, all play a role in the outcome.

“Every time one of those things is off, the probabilities of that amazingly talented child fulfilling themselves goes down,” Feldman explains.

The potential for those factors to align is more likely to happen for some children than others. In Maria Mozart’s case, societal expectations for women during her lifetime meant marriage superseded her career. Katherine Johnson, an award-winning mathematician, might have earned the label “genius” for her work at NACA’s West Area Computers during the Space Race if not for a number of factors working against recognition for her contributions, not the least of which were racism and sexism in her own workplace.

But those factors are still present today. A 2016 study published in PLOS ONE found that students in higher education were more likely to use the words “brilliance” and “genius” in their reviews of male professors and about academic disciplines in which Black people, and women across races, were less represented amongst PhD-holders.

As Feldman suggests, recognition and support play a critical role in the development of geniuses. Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy who is the heroine of Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, was able to cultivate her skills only after an early mentor identified her talent, opening opportunities for better training and competition. Therefore, it’s worth evaluating the tools we use to recognize giftedness, genius or otherwise.

At the national level, the United States relies heavily on IQ testing to determine educational tracks for students. Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman brought the IQ test to America in 1916, adapting the test French psychologist Alfred Binet had developed five years earlier to identify “slow” children in need of extra support.

Terman’s Stanford-Binet IQ test offered schools and organizations a quick, standardized means to measure someone’s “intelligence,” and the test was soon adopted in classrooms, offices, and even the military. As a eugenicist, Terman considered the intelligence he was measuring to be genetic and fixed, unchanged by circumstances like home life, education, or economic class. In 1916, he made the overtly racist claim of Black, Mexican, and “Spanish-Indian” families: “Their dullness seems to be racial or at least inherent in the family stocks from which they come.”

Predictably, the IQ test reflects the racism of its creator. In the 1971 lawsuit Larry P. v. Riles, six parents of Black elementary school students in San Francisco sued the California Department of Education to call out those biases. While Black children represented only 10 percent of the general student population in California, they made up 25 percent of enrollment in special education classes. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found the IQ test was biased against Black students, and its use served to disproportionately segregate “minorities in inferior, dead end, and stigmatizing classes.”

Donna Ford, distinguished professor of education and human ecology at Ohio State University describes these built-in biases as “cultural loading,” by which the language of the test favors white, financially privileged experiences.

She offers the example that “on some intelligence tests there are questions about going on a plane.” With that inclusion, the test automatically disadvantages students who have never flown.

The result, Ford says, is widening racial achievement gaps, as white students are funneled into advanced classes and Black and Latinx students are left unchallenged and with fewer educational resources.

“You’re not living up to your potential,” she explains of students who fall victim to this system. “You don’t have the opportunity to do so.”

According to the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, Black and Hispanic students respectively made up 15 and 25 percent of American school enrollments in the 2015-2016 academic year, yet accounted for only 8.5 and 18 percent of enrollment in gifted and talented programs.

“When you look at those discrepancies, you see that that pipeline is not just leaky,” she explains. “It’s broken.”

Ellen Winner, professor of psychology at Boston College and author of Gifted Children: Myths and Realities suggests moving away from reliance on tests and instead observing a child’s interests and talents.

“Just look at what they do on their own when they have free time. If you find that a kid is spending all their time drawing or sitting at the piano all day, then you have your answer,” Winner says. “ You don’t need a test.”

Yet people, like tests, have biases. Gatekeepers—teachers, employers, and mentors—wield significant power through referrals and daily interactions over who achieves their potential and in what fields. Lin Bian, assistant professor of human development at Cornell University, sees this play out in her research on the developmental roots of gender biases.

“When you ask little kids to find teammates to play a game that requires ‘brilliance,’ children tend to pick boys as opposed to girls,” Bian explains of her study. “So even from the very beginning, they start to demonstrate this tendency to provide opportunities to boys for activities said to require intelligence.”

Identifying external circumstances, including gender and racial achievement gaps, helps contextualize why some privileged figures are recognized, supported, and celebrated by the public as “geniuses” while other talented people, for whom the same factors don’t align, may go unrecognized or never realize their potential.

Part Three

Reality of Genius

Simple Explanations For Things That Aren’t Simple

illustration by Emma Dajska

When we attribute genius exclusively to native talent, as with Terman’s IQ assumption, we lose sight of the fact that those we deem “geniuses” are still people with individual complexities navigating their way through the world. If we assume the success of these few wunderkinds and savants is entirely their own, it follows that so are their failures. The intense public and personal pressure that accompanies “genius” can have dangerous mental health consequences for those who embody it—especially those who are identified early on.

“I think it makes you miserable,” says Winner, who often sees depression as the unfortunate outcome for child prodigies who don’t transition into adult geniuses.

Tension also arises when parents or teachers supporting a child prodigy believe the myth that children who demonstrate exceptionality in one field will excel in all areas of their lives.

“The more gifted you are in a particular area, the more likely your profile is to be jagged,” she says. “Meaning high for that area, but not for other areas.”

To help everyone reach their potential, both those with extraordinary natural gifts and those with different abilities, David Feldman believes we need to embrace complexity. He points to the myth that a prodigy’s gifts come effortlessly: “That is completely untrue.” He compares the work prodigies put into their fields to the intense practice of star athletes: “You don’t get that kind of extreme performance without extraordinary effort.”

Feldman argues that a more accurate understanding of individual achievement recognizes the hard work required for success in any field, along with the socioeconomic circumstances factoring into that trajectory. He suggests a nuanced definition of “genius” offers a “richer, fuller” and ultimately “more human” means for supporting success.

Emphasizing hard work over natural talent may also help counter gender biases associated with genius, according to Cornell professor Bian. She takes particular interest in the connection between gender stereotypes and achievement gaps.

Her research suggests we can make a direct impact on women and girls’ interest and success in male-dominated fields like physics, philosophy and economics by changing the language by which they’re described.

Bian and her research partners described games to a set of children in two ways. When the game was described as requiring brilliance, Bian found “around age six and seven, girls were less interested.” But when the same game was phrased as requiring hard work, boys and girls were “equally interested in the same game.”

Bian’s research builds on previous studies demonstrating the impact of stereotype threat, the phenomena by which fear of confirming negative stereotypes inhibits personal performance.

Teachers, parents, and employers have the opportunity to better support fulfillment by deemphasizing intelligence or natural ability. In other words, the path to a more inclusive conception of achievement might require doing away with the idea of innate genius altogether, and instead supporting the interests, talents, and needs that an individual actually has.

“Whether that leads to being a prodigy or not isn’t really the point,” Feldman says. “The point is that the child has the opportunity to express whatever it is that makes them unique and special.”

Moving away from our fascination with a few genius figures and toward an understanding of genius that recognizes the hard work, external factors, community, and resources that contribute to a person’s genius doesn’t mean everyone ends up with the same gifts. But it moves us closer to a world in which everyone has the opportunity to discover and cultivate their own gifts without barriers.

Follow Elizabeth Harmon’s experience discovering and developing her talent as a chess prodigy in The Queen’s Gambit, now streaming on Netflix.

Watch The Queen's Gambit Trailer