As an executive search consultant that specializes in technology, I frequently encounter genius candidates. It is my job to determine which ones are top performers. While it is easy to be blinded by brilliance, successful candidates much do more than think,
The Autism-Genius Connection
Geniuses frequently hyper-focus on their area of interest. It enables them to draw brilliant insights others miss. One condition that enables people to filter out life’s distractions is autism. Though they are diagnosed as suffering from a developmental disability, autistic savants demonstrate cognitive abilities that exceed what most people can do. They often demonstrate breathtaking genius in art, music, arithmetic, spatial relationships, or and calculating dates. A savant can determine what day of the week some date is with speed and accuracy.
Interestingly, those in the autism spectrum seem especially drawn to technology, which is where I come in. I recruit some of technology’s most brilliant minds. According to evolutionary psychologist Nigel Barber Ph.D.in Psychology Today, ten percent of autistic people have savant abilities. About half of savants are autistic, the rest suffer from some form of brain injury or disease. A growing number of software employers are discovering that autistic people make ideal software engineers because coding requires an extraordinary amount of attention to detail.
If you ask, some people with autistic spectrum disorder including autism and Asperger’s Syndrome prefer to be referred to, collectively, as Autistics or Aspergerians or Aspies. Others prefer to use the person-first as in ‘person with autism’ or ‘person who experiences autism.’ Many in the autism community are of the belief that the condition should not be considered something in need of a cure, especially given the connection between genius and autism. (See What Genius and Autism Have in Common, Time Magazine). They make a good case. Imagine a world without Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Andy Warhol, or Dan Aykroyd. Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been described as “a robot,” and having “a touch of the Asperger’s.
Still, genius is as magnificent to behold as it is awkward, as this scene from HBO’s Silicon Valley captures so well. Here, the genius of venture capitalist character Peter Gregory is revealed through his process.
Genius — or insanity — is the ability to see what others do not. With genius, what you see is real. It just hasn’t been made manifest yet. In addition, geniuses make connections that elude everyone else, as was the case with math prodigy and schizophrenic John Nash Jr., on whose life the movie A Beautiful Mind is based. Remarkably, Dr. Nash is able to discern which imaginings are delusions and which are intellectually transcendent. While in a bar, Russell Crowe’s Nash discovers what later became known as Nash Equilibrium in game theory.
In Rainman, Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt is an autistic savant with the ability to memorize part of the phone book. That was when there were such things as phone books.
Yet Babbitt’s stunning ability to memorize has little practical application in the real world. We have computers with the ability to store vast amounts of data. Employers don’t need a human to do that, particularly if that human lacks social skills. Far more important is our ability to reason, to extrapolate, and to play nicely with others — unless the others aren’t so nice in return, as is the case in this scene from Good Will Hunting.
As is also the case in the movie Social Network. Here the Mark Zuckerberg-like character portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg verbally shreds his opponents in a lawsuit.
You Don’t Have to Be a Genius Like Albert Einstein
Of course, if you weren’t born a genius, that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. You may simply be a late bloomer, as Malcolm Gladwell’s article in The New Yorker details.
Yes, there was Orson Welles, peaking as a director at twenty-five. But then there was Alfred Hitchcock, who made “Dial M for Murder,” “Rear Window,” “To Catch a Thief,” “The Trouble with Harry,” “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” and “Psycho”—one of the greatest runs by a director in history—between his fifty-fourth and sixty-first birthdays. Mark Twain published “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” at forty-nine. Daniel Defoe wrote “Robinson Crusoe” at fifty-eight.
While IQ can play an important role in determining one’s success, research has found one cannot succeed on genius alone. Wisdom is required.