1953 - ON GENIUS

From Intelligence to Interest

      So what determines success if not genius? My experience has been that it is not a matter of intelligence but of interest. I flunked elementary school, I flunked High School, and I flunked out of Glasgow University. After my fateful meeting with Oliver Carmichael, who persuaded me to take a course in Public Speaking to sell more magazines, I noticed there were courses in psychology. I had always been interested in psychology but didn't think I could make at living at it. I took them out of interest. Interest led to competence, which led to more interest, which led to more competence, and I rode this upward spiral to a Ph. D. at Cornell University. (Just as I had previously taken a downward spiral of disinterest and incompetence.) I'm no more "intelligent" than the laborers, chicken farmers, sailors I would have been if I had accepted the verdict that this was my stop on the academic railroad.

      Subsequent research cast some light on this phenomenon of interest. Fifteen months into an 18-month study of technophobia - the fear of machines, I realised that what I was really studying was neophobia - the fear of new things. Technology is what happens currently to be new. Neophobia is not so irrational. It makes good biological sense to be afraid of new things. As long as things remain the same, there is no danger. It is change which is threatening. That is why the nervous system is designed to detect change. That is why the bank robber says No sudden moves! More sophisticated animals, like ourselves, have built-in curiosity, satisfied by novel things, which balances the organically built-in fear of new things. Curiosity causes us to explore new things which turns the unfamiliar into the familiar and, thus, removes the danger and the threat of danger.

      One useful image of ourselves is as a child at a mother's apron-strings. The child ventures out to explore but rushes back to base when threatened. As we get older, we move out further and further and stay out longer and longer. Harrison Schmitt and Charles Moss Duke got all the way to the moon without their mothers. However, we still spend our lives maintaining a precarious balance between the contentment of familiar things (the suburban castle surrounded by lawn moat, the corner bar or sidewalk café, the tenured position in university, or whatever symbolic equivalent we have substituted for our mothers' apron-strings) and the excitement of unfamiliar things.

      When I described this model to a friend of mine, he said that he is not balancing contentment and excitement but walking a tightrope between fear and boredom. We realised that he was saying the same thing - only phrased negatively, since that's the kind of guy he is. Boredom is the negative side of contentment and fear is the negative side of excitement. I'd rather face the fear whereas he would rather face the boredom. Mature people, like my friend, who have decided there are certain things they like and stick to them, provide the necessary stability to society. The down side is that they are the "conservatives" who resist each innovation and ensure that inefficient ways of doing things will persist. Meanwhile, people like me are continuing like children to explore and manipulate the world.

      There is a vast body of empirical evidence for a need for stimulation and another vast body of empirical evidence for a need for consistency. The need for stimulation is the organic basis for our need to know and the need for consistency is the organic basis for our need to understand (we need to organise what we know into a coherent framework). The need for stimulation underlies assimilation and the need for consistency underlies accommodation. We are self-organizing systems, evolving through alternating assimilations and accommodations a more and more complete and a more and more accurate subjective map of the objective world.

      One feature of human nature is that we favour the contentment of the familiar over the excitement of the unfamiliar. That is, we are habit-forming animals. This explains the qwerty phenomenon - the fact that we are stuck with the traditional qwerty keyboard even though Douglas Engelbart demonstrated empirically that his chord keyset was much more efficient. Abraham Maslow suggests further that the need to know may be overcome by the fear of knowing. The person is torn between the safety of the survival needs (biological and sociological) and the growth of the psychological needs. Most of us fail to venture far from our mother's skirts (or whatever symbolic equivalent we have established).  Interest is the "extra" that is added to "ordinary".

      Chance, as argued above, plays a role in both serendipity and zeitgeist, the two major environmental phenomena which influence creativity. However, in both cases, it is clear that chance favours the prepared mind. One has to have delved deeply into a subject before being able to take advantage of serendipity and zeitgeist. The usual formula of 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration sounds a bit grim. However, this hard work is sustained by a deep interest in the subject. Work seems more like play when it is sustained by interest. Nevertheless, chance plays a role. The chance of being born at a particular time opens up some opportunities and closes down others.

      For example, my cohorts and I missed the opportunity to be gangsters but took the opportunity to be jazz musicians. I read through a book of biographies of gangsters [NASH] and found only one born in 1935. (She didn't deserve to be in there anyway - Ann Gibson Tracy had killed her boyfriend in a moment of passion - she was not a career gangster.) On the other hand, I went through a book of biographies of jazz musicians (CARR ET AL] and found no fewer than 23 born in 1935. The window of opportunity had closed on gangsters and opened on jazz musicians. I have enough cohorts who are jazz musicians to form a Big Band. However, I've included in my karass only enough to form a sextet - that is, if a sextet can be formed of a saxophonist ("Tubby" Hayes), a trombonist (Roswell Rudd), two pianists (Ran Blake and Les McCann), and two bassists - one dead (Paul Chambers) and the other resurrected (Henry Grimes). With Herb Alpert as manager, this group should go far.

      The window also opened for astronauts - I've included five American astronauts (Roger B. Chaffee, Harrison Schmitt, Story Musgrove, Charles Moss Duke, and Rusty Schweickart) and five Russian cosmonauts (Valeri Kubasov, Vitali Sevastyanov, Georgi Shonin, Gherman Titov, and Vladislav Volkov) in my karass. Two members of my karass - Charles Moss Duke and Harrison Schmitt - are among the 12 people who have walked on the moon. Duke was there in April 1972 and Schmitt in December 1972. No one has been there since. This means that people born in the three decades after us have not had the opportunity of fulfilling this particular ambition.

      They can perhaps however become nerds, an option which is closed to us. Many of my cohorts will have the same attitude to being born too early to become nerds to being born too late to become gangsters. Who cares? However, I will argue later, in 1987 ON MEDIA, that that is where the action is and we are nowhere near there. Just a glimpse of what I mean. The above-mentioned astronauts and cosmonauts got into the same orbit around the same planet, even though they spoke different languages. It was the universal language of mathematics which they shared that got them into that orbit. The mathematics that got them to the moon was embodied in a computer with much less memory than is contained in a cheap laptop. A nerd with a laptop is Superman, whereas I pecking away on it as a typewriter am Clark Kent.

      It is unlikely that interest can be triggered and sustained in a village environment. All the members of my karass born in villages left them to move out into a larger world. As the movie Big Fish suggested, you can only become a big fish if you move into a big bowl. The major reason why my cohorts had to move out of their villages was that there was not enough information available in the village to sustain them. We are indeed moving into Marshall McLuhan's Global Village where, as he predicted, "the centre is everywhere and the periphery is nowhere". It will be interesting to see if later generations with vast sources of information at their fingertips through the internet, wherever they are, will be able to become Big Fish without leaving their Little Pond. However, even if they choose to stay at home, they will still have to favour excitement over contentment.

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