Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Genius Fallacy

During our department's PhD Open House this past spring, a student asked what I thought made a PhD student successful. I realized that my answer now is different than it would have been a few years ago.

My friend Seth tells me I need to build more suspense in my writing*, so let me first tell my life story.

The whole time I was growing up, I was slightly disappointed that I wasn't some kind of prodigy. It seemed that my parents were telling me every day about so-and-so's toddler son who was playing Beethoven concertos from memory, so-and-so's daughter who, as an infant, had already completed a course on special relativity. In order to give me the same opportunities to demonstrate my genius, my parents spent all their money on piano lessons, gymnastic classes, writing camps, art camps, tennis camps, and extracurricular math classes. Unfortunately, nobody ever said, "This is the best kid I have ever seen. I must take her away from her family to train her for greatness."

"Child prodigies have hard lives," my father would tell me, probably trying hiding his disappointment. "It can be difficult for them to make friends because others can't relate to how gifted they are."

"Just work hard, be a nice person, and try to be happy," my mother would tell me. "You didn't know how to cry when you were born. I'm glad you're able to talk in full sentences."

Despite the comforting words from my parents, there was always a part of me that held out hope of discovering a secret prodigious talent. But the angst of not being a prodigy was small compared to the existential angst of being newly alive and so I mostly tried to work hard, to be a nice person, and to be happy. This got me all the way to college, where I thought I could leave all this prodigy nonsense behind me.

In college, I discovered that the pressure to be immediately and wildly gifted came in another form. In my first two years of school, I attended many talks and panels by professors telling us what we should do with our lives. I attended a research panel in the economics department, where one of the professors kept repeating the word "star."

"You have to be a super star to succeed in a department like ours," he said about what it meant to be on the tenure track in the economics department. "I want undergraduate researchers who are stars."

I didn't know what a star was and I didn't presume to be one, but I liked the professor's research, so I emailed him my resume and said I would like to work with him.

He never wrote back.

I resigned myself to not being a star. I took hard classes with people who had medaled in math, informatics, and science olympiads, wondering how it would feel to do the problem sets if I had such a gifted, well-trained mind. I also became concerned about my future. What was my place in a world that worshipped instatalent?

It all began to change when I began to talk more with the professors in the Computer Science department. Despite my lack of apparent star quality, my professors seemed to like answering the questions I asked them. They pitched me projects I could do, and before I knew it I was applying to PhD programs and preparing to spend the next few years doing academic research. As I was graduating, I spoke with my one professor to get advice about my future in research.

"Research isn't just about smarts," my professor told me. At the time, I thought this was a white lie that professors told to their students who weren't prodigies.

Then she told me something that turned my worldview upside down. "My biggest concern for you, Jean, is that you need to start finishing projects," she told me. "You need to focus."

It was then that I began to realize that maybe the myth of the instagenius was but a myth. I had gone from interest to interest, from project to project, waiting to find It, that easy fit, that continuous honeymoon. With some projects I had It for a while, long enough to demonstrate to myself and others that I could finish. Then I moved on, waiting to fall in love with a problem, waiting for a problem to choose me. What I had failed to see was that this relationship with a problem didn't just happen: I had to do my share of the work.

Still, I clung to the dream of the easy problem. At Google, employees get to have a 20% project: a side project they spend the equivalent of one day a week working on that may or may not make its way into production eventually. In graduate school, my 20% project was looking for an easier project--a project with which I had more chemistry, a project with fewer days lost to dead ends and angst. One of my hobbies involved interviewing for internships in completely different research areas. Another one of my hobbies was fantasizing about becoming a classics PhD student, despite knowing no ancient languages. (I once took an upper-level literature seminar on Aristotle with the leading world scholar on Homeric poetry and I thought he had a pretty good life.)

But because I like to finish what I started, the PhD became a process of learning to persevere. Instead of indulging the temptation to switch projects, advisors, or even schools, I kept going. I endured something like five rounds of rejections on the first paper towards my PhD thesis, and multiple years of people telling me that maybe I should find another topic, because I didn't seem in love. Eventually, I learned that every problem that looks like it might be easy has hard parts, every problem that looks like it might be fun has boring parts, and all problems worth solving are full of dead ends. I finally learned, in the words of my friend Seth, that "the grass is brown everywhere."

And this shattering of my belief in instagenius has shaped my conception of what makes a student a star. There was a time when I, like many people, thought that the superstars were the ones who sounded the most impressive when they spoke, or who had the most raw brainpower. If you asked me what I thought made a good researcher, I may have said some other traits like creativity and good taste in problems. And while all these certainly help with being a good researcher, there are plenty of people with these traits who do not end up being successful.

What I have learned is that discipline and the ability to persevere are equally, if not more, important to success than being able to look like a smart person in meetings. All of the superstars I've known have worked harder--and often faced more obstacles, in part due to the high volume of work--than other people, despite how much it might look like they are flying from one brilliant result to another from the outside. Because of this, I now want students who accept that life is hard and that they are going to fail. I want students who accept that sometimes work is going to feel like it's going to nowhere, to the point that they wish they were catastrophically failing instead because then at least something would be happening. While confidence might signal resilience and a formidable intellect might decrease the number of obstacles, the main differentiator between a star and simply a smart person is the ability to keep showing up when things do not go well.

It has become especially important for me to fight the idolization of the lone genius because it is not just distracting, but also harmful. Currently, people who "look smart" (which often translates into looking white, male, and/or socioeconomically privileged) have a significant advantage for two main reasons. The first reason has to do with self-perception. Committing to hard work and overcoming obstacles is easier if you think it will pay off. If someone already does not feel like they belong, it is easier for them to stop trying and self-select out of a pursuit when they hit a snag. The second reason has to do with perception by others. Research suggests that in fields that value innate talent, women and other minorities are often stereotyped to have less of it, leading to unfair treatment.

And so I've written this post not just to reveal my longstanding delusions of grandeur, but also to start a discussion how the myth of instagenius holds us back, as individual researchers and as a community. Would love to hear your thoughts about how we can move past the genius fallacy.

Related writing:

* Seth also tells me the main idea of this blog post is the same as Angela Duckworth's book Grit. I guess I should tell you that you could read that instead of this. On the subject of the lack of originality of my ideas, you should also read what Cal Newport has to say about the "passion trap."


  1. Great post, mirros Carol S. Dweck's research/premise you may want to check out

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful post Jean!

    I think one way of going past the genius fallacy is to stop comparing yourself to others (and don't let others compare you blatantly). This is difficult. I know. Everyone wants to be 'the genius'.

    IMHO, culture plays a big role in this. You might be surrounded by external factors that perpetuate comparisons (eg. your parents, advisor, colleagues or friends). Especially in academia, high-pressure environment, publish-or-perish culture and limited number of researcher positions make it difficult to ignore others. At least, by being aware of how our surrounding environment makes us like race horses, we can start to cope with the genius fallacy.

  3. Priyanka Kukreja10:14 AM

    OH MY GOD!!! Thank you so much for saying this!
    However, if you don't "love" the problem, what drives you to complete it? Is it the reward? But what if the rewards are tentative?

  4. Priyanka, that's a good question. For me it's not the reward but some idea that seeing it through will yield something meaningful, either in terms of the lessons or the results.

  5. Excellent post, Jean! The prodigy problem you mention is something I faced too, and like you, I have come to realize the importance of perseverance. I still wish time to time that I had some incredible, innate talent - but do you think that being a genius, and being aware of your own massive intellect can sometime hold people back from giving them their all?

    If I know that I am not some prodigy, and to make a positive impact I will have to work incredibly hard - then this realization may help in actually pushing myself to great heights, right?

    Anyway, this is a great read, and I agree with it. I have a feeling that as I gain more experience, I will only agree more.

  6. Great stuff as usual Jean.

    If you wrote this a few years ago, I could have show this to a couple of students who were enamored with the idea of being "in love" with a project. Those students eventually had to learn the lessons you described, but in someone else's lab.

  7. Brilliant post! Congratulations for drawing attention to the importance of tenacity. An academic career is not about how hard you hit, but about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward (quoting Balboa, the philosopher).

  8. Anonymous2:35 PM

    Indeed, the ability to deliver is important to be an academic "star". But that is only a part of it. Another one are luck and external factors: graduate from the right university (sometimes even high school), get into the right PhD program (e.g. see here:, publish in the right venues, form the proper connections. Without all of them raw talent, hard work, resilience and all the nice things will lead you to nowhere.

  9. Anonymous3:53 PM

    Amazing post, thank you very much for this.

  10. Yes! This is incredibly important. And I have always followed Cal Newport, so he really first introduced the idea to me. For me, it wasn't just the genius trap, it was also the passion trap. I always felt incredibly bothered by not having a "passion". I still don't. So not only did I worry about not being a "genius" or just not having that "star quality", I also worried I was not nearly passionate enough. I am now learning the importance of hard-work, and discipline, and perseverance. Because as a PhD student, these are quality I WILL definitely need. Thanks for the gentle reminder.

  11. This was lovely to read and reassuring!! (I'm a CS PhD student) thank you.

  12. This was a great read! I'm reminded of this article by Jimmy Soni, the author of the biography, "A Mind at Play" where Claude Shannon's thoughts on what makes a genius is summed as "A genius is simply someone who is usefully irritated".

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. A very honest and emotional autobiography about a plague holding many people back, believing in the ultra-super-genius person, the omniscient thermonuclear theoretical physicist that will stand before audience, put his hands in his pocket, hold the marker and start writing the ultimate formula for the theory of everything.

    Success is about working hard, investing in your skills, standing up again and again every time you fall and accepting your weaknesses and fails, while working harder to overcome them. No matter how talented you are, hard work has the most weight.

    The most famous, believed to be a "genius" in a million years, Albert Einstein denied the false honour long time ago: "It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer". This is the key of it, plain and simple, from the words of the most cherished "genius".

    I believe your reflection about this touched a lot of people.

  15. Anonymous10:34 AM

    Have to agree with your comments. And you made to through without quoting Thomas Edison's famous quip about 99% sweat. Or this one, "Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."

    1. Exactly. Thanks for pointing out this last Edison's quote. This is the essence of it.

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

  17. Fully agree, ability to finish projects - obtaining publishable results step-by-step within a larger problem - is a very influential factor in determining your fate in academia. Very nicely written! Can you add a print button to your blog posts?

  18. Anonymous1:19 PM

    Nice post.

    Even Einstein ended up saying "Im no Einstein", due to the god-like status the media had lifted the name to.

    On another not he said genius is 99% hardwork and 1% talent.

    It is also dangerous to call kids geniuses, as they will have significantly more pressure to perform or they might stop working thinking they dont need to work since they are geniuses.

  19. Anonymous8:08 AM

    Another important side of being a "star", or at least perceived as one is relentless self-promotion. Be active on social media talking about how great your research is, do the same thing in person during conferences and informal meetings. Work hard to appear to be smart. Eventually the impression management will pay off, and the "visibility" and "greatness" waves will start to propagate by themselves. Again, working/studying at the "right" place helps.

  20. Anonymous8:19 AM

    And what is the point of being a "star" anyway? Can't we just be decent humans, do our job, think about science, share the results and be humble? What is the point of this endless egomania of "excellence" and "rock-star science"? The society shares its hard earned resources with scientists to get the job done, to have scientific progress. Scientists don't get payed for having "outstanding careers" and "shine" as "rock stars". I am afraid that at some point the lion's share of scientific budget will be spent in vain on feeding ego of "star scientists" instead of advancing science. At this point it will be worth for the society to think again whether it is worth to fund science. I am afraid that this point is not that far off in the future.

  21. @ Pranav

    Being an actual genius is damaging for most because of isolation. I terrified my fathers’ PhD colleagues because I wanted to talk with them about their research (I edited his papers) when I was 8 and, I don’t know, you’re not suppose to do that. My mother asked me to teach her to read as soon as I started school so we bought a dictionary so I could learn English so I could teach her to read the newspaper’s job postings. From there, the children’s books were boring so I went to the adult section and then I explored the college library reading whatever interested me and then my father asked me to help him write. From my perspective I had just been working at it a lot longer but I also seemed to understand things faster than either of them. A lot of this honestly probably is because children have almost no distractions or worries.

    Most geniuses I know had to catch up learning how to interact with others which is a lot more important in life than learning things quickly.

    Also, learning faster has little bearing on getting actual work done/implementations which are much more time consuming. And everyone has to work hard to get anything done. I recommend regret minimization framework for motivation and also 10/10/10 rule. You want to optimize for future you who will appreciate current you for exercising/flossing/asking that girl out for coffee instead of making worse decisions.

    And also try to build towards the life you dream of.

  22. @Mike Xie

    That is a great personal insight. Thank you!

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  24. Hayden Le8:39 AM

    Thank you for this amazingly well-written and thought-out piece.

    I'm an undergraduate junior student worried she's not "smart enough" to get through a PhD program nor contribute significantly to any field. I, also, have a penchant for switching between disciplines and projects, desperately trying to find something I "love" (and failing). Your post reminded me that "love" involves more than just the honeymoon period, and that anything "worth loving" is worth struggling through, even if there happens to be periods of doubt. Additionally, it's significantly improved my understanding of how I should approach research, academia, and life in general.

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