Genius & craft

We all worship geniuses, but while we might respect people who are really good at some craft we also kind of sneer at them. What they're doing is only a craft after all: some kind of lesser skill which you learn through an apprenticeship and long practice rather than at university, the way proper geniuses learn. But genius and being really good at a craft are much more similar than people often like to admit: one of the most important characteristics of being a genius is the ability to put in a huge amount of practice.

There are many good examples of this. Take Einstein, perhaps the canonical example of someone we think of as a genius. He published the special relativity paper in 1905 (as well as a bunch of other papers, including the one he won the Nobel prize for), but general relativity was not published until 1916 and was not sorted-out at all until that year (he didn't just sit on it for a long time). What did he do in the eleven years between SR and GR? He worked, really hard, most of the time: he learnt a bunch of mathematics (and learning mathematics well enough that you can use it as a tool requires a lot of rote practice: I know this, because I've done it and eventually failed to put in enough practice) and he went through a bunch of incorrect attempts at dealing with gravity and generally struggled with the thing. And it took him eleven years to do this: GR was not some stroke of genius which appeared out of the blue, it was the result of years and years of work, of years and years of practice.

Now, well, if I spent eleven years from 1905 working on a theory of gravity I would be unlikely to have come up with GR: Einstein was, in fact, smarter than I am. But he was also willing to work much harder than me over a much longer period of time. Much, perhaps most, of what we call 'genius' is this ability to put in astonishing amounts of practice.

And much, perhaps most of what is needed to become really good at a craft is also the ability to put in astonishing amounts of practice. So what, in fact, is the difference? The difference is that we've anointed the things geniuses do as important, while we treat the things craftspeople do as, well, just crafts. They might require just as much work, and just as much dedication, but they will never be as good because it says so in our big book of good things. Well, I say this book is junk: what brilliant craftspeople do is the same as what the people we call geniuses do, because geniuses are brilliant craftspeople, and brilliant craftspeople are geniuses.


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