Furthest Right

Linear thinking makes you a blockhead

I enjoy about half of what David Brooks writes. But sometimes, he just gets it wrong.

Some people live in romantic ages. They tend to believe that genius is the product of a divine spark. They believe that there have been, throughout the ages, certain paragons of greatness — Dante, Mozart, Einstein — whose talents far exceeded normal comprehension, who had an other-worldly access to transcendent truth, and who are best approached with reverential awe.

We, of course, live in a scientific age, and modern research pierces hocus-pocus. In the view that is now dominant, even Mozart’s early abilities were not the product of some innate spiritual gift. His early compositions were nothing special. They were pastiches of other people’s work. Mozart was a good musician at an early age, but he would not stand out among today’s top child-performers.

What Mozart had, we now believe, was the same thing Tiger Woods had — the ability to focus for long periods of time and a father intent on improving his skills. Mozart played a lot of piano at a very young age, so he got his 10,000 hours of practice in early and then he built from there.

The latest research suggests a more prosaic, democratic, even puritanical view of the world. The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It’s not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.


Everyone loves democratic views of the world. “I could be anything, so society must treat me as if I am special,” they drone, forgetting that around them are infinite others thinking the same thing, and that a society of selfish people makes for disorder, disorder makes for corruption, and at that point you’re well on your way to third-world levels of disorganization.

Brooks is playing to the crowd with this popular notion that he carefully avoids saying is scientifically verified. He says we are scientific and enlightened, and that we have a new notion of how things work; he leaves it to you to assume that means science “says” things are this way.

In fact, the actual data points in the opposite direction: high intelligence is genetically determined, and as measured by IQ, determines success in life.

But that’s not popular. “What, some are born to sweet delight, and others just born to the endless night? Well, I’m so much more afraid of the endless night that in my confusion and depression I think I’m prone to, I’m going to go find some of those sweet delight people and kick their asses.” That’s about the mentality we’re looking at here, translated through Brooks’ intelligent ability to market his writings.

And then there was the option I suggested, that people found inconvenient to mention:

Or, there’s the third option:

Divine spark of intelligence (high g) + hard work = “a genius”

Here, I’m thinking of your Schopenhauer, your Beethoven, your Planck, your Faulkner, and so on. These guys may appear lazy at a first glance, but the fact of the matter is that they spent endless hours in focused thought on what they were doing — and also, had the raw ability to process this thought.

There are also some like Franz Schubert who seemed destined for quick rise and fall. I don’t think Brooks’ formula explains that, so he’d have to invent something about fortunate circumstances, wealthy families, oppression of average-IQ “geniuses,” and so on — backward logic.

I might ask Brooks: so how many geniuses were born with average IQs? And how many people with average or above average worked really hard but didn’t end up geniuses?

However, backward logic is still there. He might simply opt to re-define genius, and insist we call some mediocrity a genius because they made pots of money or came up with an idea that pleases lots of people because it justifies their selfishness, inaction or failure.

The basic problem here is that people demand a simple explanation for the crowd, and then confuse the means used to achieve that demonstration with how reality works. That is: they say “show me the evidence” so the presenter constructs a model that shows BEFORE and AFTER states, compares one factor (“how hard they worked”), and then concludes that, for the instances studied, this is the Truth and the Word.

So the crowd surges forth from the auditorium, assumes that they can look at single factors and draw broad conclusions, and then they start practicing. Truth is eroded. By the time David Brooks gets to the scene, there’s no point even trying for truth; just try for a pseudo-truth that someone will buy. Geniuses work hard; therefore, hard work makes you a genius. It’s a simple cause/effect confusion that pleases a crowd and makes them easy to control.

It’s always interesting to see how people alter their reality with memes. They use them to control each other, but then, because they’re now a token of social discourse, find themselves controlled by them. I guess they never anticipated that effect and consequent disaster, but it seems obvious to me.

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