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Busting the 'Genius' Myth

08/26/2015 05:12 EDT | Updated 08/26/2016 05:59 EDT
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Take a moment to think about a famous scientist. Imagine this person in your mind's eye. What does he or she look like? Chances are, you pictured Albert Einstein with his wild silver hair and starry gaze. Failing that, you probably visualized an elderly gentleman wearing a lab coat.

The problem with this image is that it's misleading! It is a myth. The image does not represent what most brilliant scientists actually look like. How do I know this and why does it matter? Allow me to explain.

First, however, the backstory.

Last week, I traveled to Israel to meet with a number of Nobel Laureates participating in a science conference at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem -- the university Albert Einstein founded and bequeathed his estate to. The conference had delegates from over 70 countries, including 15 Nobel Laureates from around the world. The atmosphere was electric; young scientists dressed in their traditional garb, eating falafel and discussing quantum physics while swinging their hips to Latin beats playing in the background. That happened in one of the morning sessions, I swear.

I attended the conference in my capacity as an executive with Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University. My task: to meet with five Nobel Laureates attending the conference and invite them to contribute to the worlds first 3D-printed book celebrating Albert Einstein and the centennial marking his relativity theory.

So there I was sitting with one of our project partners, Laurie Metrick, and a colleague Yifat Sharon, when one of the Laureates we were scheduled to meet with entered the room. His name: Sir Harold Kroto, a Nobel prize winner in chemistry. After finishing our official business professor Kroto opened his computer and pointed to a picture of Dr. Emmet Brown on screen, the wacky scientist from Back to The Future. "Who do you think he looks like?" Kroto asked. "Albert Einstein" I replied. "Yes, he said shaking his head. That's the problem. Einstein's greatest discoveries happened in his 20's not 60's. We need a different portrait of Einstein and his genius."

That got me thinking -- Einstein was 26 when he wrote four of the most influential papers in physics. Marie Curie was 31 when she discovered Radium, Charles Darwin was 27 when he had his breakthrough leading to evolution, while Niels Bohr introduced his model of the atom at 28. Similarly, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerburg, the Google "brothers," and Elizabeth Holmes were also in their early 20's when they incepted their groundbreaking ideas. (To be fair, Holmes was only 19).

Professor Kroto made me realize something -- innovation doesn't necessarily happen when you are wise and old, but rather when you are young, foolish and naïve. When your capacity to imagine and make mistakes is at its zenith. When you are unencumbered by the world and have not been disillusioned or conditioned by society and its ways.

We therefore need to expand our cultural model of genius and realize that some of the most innovative people on the planet may be 20-year-olds wearing hipster T-shirts tinkering around in their parent's basement. What more, the innovators of today are not necessarily coming from North America and Europe, they are coming from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The process of reverse innovation is proving this to be true.

"OK. But how can you become a great scientist or innovator?" I asked professor Kroto. "Is there a formula?

"To be successful at anything," Kroto replied, "you have to satisfy your own curiosity." You'll never go far if you try solving somebody else's problems. The problem -- be it academic, technological, social or commercial -- has to tug at you. It has to draw you into its orbit and consume you.

What more Kroto continued, "the most basic scientific experiments have often led to the greatest discoveries." Einstein's relativity, Newton's gravitational theory, penicillin...these were not discovered in a lab using sophisticated equipment. It happened through simple experiments using tools most of us have access to. Einstein discovered his relativity theory between the Swiss patent office where he worked and his living room armchair. Marie Curie discovered radium in a crowded storeroom in the Paris Municipal School, while Steve Jobs invented Apple in his garage.

So what can we glean from these surprising facts? Here are a few takeaways:

1) Genius and innovation come in many shapes and forms, many of which contradict our cultural stereotypes. Let's be open to seeing those forms and recognizing their potential. That way, we won't miss out on the next Einstein.

2) Innovation can happen anywhere; not just in your office or lab. Most of the time, innovation happens in the gritty and mundane moments of life -- in those moments where you are not thinking about solving a problem, or not thinking at all. Eureka!

3) No matter what you do professionally, be curious. If you aren't bothered or deeply concerned about something happening in the world, get interested. Investigate your surroundings. Become curious. Get engaged. Curiosity is not just the key to success in life it is the key to life itself. It's what brought Columbus to America, and man to the moon, and early humans out of Africa to populate the globe. In fact, were it not for Adam and Eve's sampling from the forbidden fruit tree, you and I wouldn't be sitting here today (metaphorically speaking of course).

As Albert Einstein famously said: "I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious."

Now that's genius!

A few points worth keeping in mind following subsequent emails with Professor Kroto:

• Recognition for a scientific discovery is often delayed, as it can take decades to verify and prove a theory. This means that older scientist are often recognized for work they did as young adults.

• Scientific experiments are often much more expensive today than in the past.

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