How Geniuses Think

Guest post by Michael Michalko

How do geniuses come up with ideas? What is common to the thinking style that produced “Mona Lisa,” as well as the one that spawned the theory of relativity? What characterizes the thinking strategies of the Einsteins, Edisons, da Vincis, Darwins, Picassos, Michelangelos, Galileos, Freuds, and Mozarts of history? What can we learn from them?

For years, scholars and researchers have tried to study genius by giving its vital statistics, as if piles of data somehow illuminated genius. In his 1904 study of genius, Havelock Ellis noted that most geniuses are fathered by men older than 30; had mothers younger than 25 and were usually sickly as children. Other scholars reported that many were celibate (Descartes), others were fatherless (Dickens) or motherless (Darwin). In the end, the piles of data illuminated nothing.

Genius is not about scoring 1600 on the SATs, mastering fourteen languages at the age of seven, finishing Mensa exercises in record time, having an extraordinarily high I.Q., or even about being smart. Creativity is not the same as intelligence. An individual can be far more creative than he or she is intelligent, or far more intelligent than creative.

Most people of average intelligence, given data or some problem, can figure out the expected conventional response. Typically, we think reproductively, that is on the basis of similar problems encountered in the past. When confronted with problems, we fixate on something in our past that has worked before. We ask, “What have I been taught in life, education or work on how to solve the problem?” Then we analytically select the most promising approach based on past experiences, excluding all other approaches, and work within a clearly defined direction towards the solution of the problem. Because of the soundness of the steps based on past experiences, we become arrogantly certain of the correctness of our conclusion.

When Charles Darwin returned to England after his famous trip to the Galapagos Islands, he showed the finch specimens he found there to distinguished zoologist John Gould. But Gould couldn’t understand the significance. Thinking the way he always thought, he assumed that, since God made one set of birds when he created the world, the specimens from different locations would be identical. As a result, he thought Darwin’s finches, which looked quite different from the English variety, represented a new species. He missed the textbook case of evolution right in front of him. As it turned out, Darwin who didn’t even know the birds were finches, but because of his unorthodox way of thinking, came up with the idea that shapes the way we see the world.

Knowing How to See

Geniuses think productively, not reproductively. When confronted with a problem, they ask “How many different ways can I look at it?” Genius often comes from finding a new perspective that no one else has taken. Leonardo da Vinci believed that to gain knowledge about the form of problems, you begin by learning how to restructure it in many different ways. He felt the first way he looked at a problem was too biased toward his usual way of seeing things. He would restructure his problem by looking at it from one perspective and move to another perspective and still another. With each move, his understanding would deepen and he would begin to understand the essence of the problem. Da Vinci called this process “knowing how to see.” Einstein’s theory of relativity is, in essence, a description of the interaction between different perspectives. Freud’s analytical methods were designed to find details that did not fit with traditional perspectives in order to find a completely new point of view. By not settling with one perspective, geniuses do not merely solve existing problems, like inventing an environmentally-friendly fuel; they identify new ones. It does not take a genius to analyze dreams; it required Freud to ask in the first place what meaning dreams carry from our psyche.

It is the willingness to explore all approaches, even after they have found a promising one, that separates genius from the rest. Einstein was once asked what the difference was between him and the average person. He said that if you asked the average person to find a needle in the haystack, the person would stop when he or she found a needle. He, on the other hand, would tear through the entire haystack looking for all the possible needles.

Earlier I mentioned Charles Darwin and his work on evolution. I have become fascinated with scholastic attempts to apply Darwinian ideas to creativity and genius. My own outlook about genius has roots in the works of Donald Campbell’s blind-variation and selective-retention model of creative thought. Campbell was not the first to see the connection between Darwinian ideas on evolution and creativity. As early as 1880, the great American philosopher, William James, in his essay “Great Men, Great Thoughts, and the Environment,” made the connection between Darwinian ideas and genius. Campbell’s work has since been elaborated on by a number of scholars including Dean Keith Simonton and Sarnoff Mednick.

The work of these and many other scholars suggests that genius operates according to Darwin’s theory of biological evolution. Nature is extraordinarily productive. Nature creates many possibilities through blind “trial and error” and then lets the process of natural selection decide which species survive. In nature, 95% of new species fail and die within a short period of time.

Genius is analogous to biological evolution in that it requires the unpredictable generation of a rich diversity of alternatives and conjectures. From this variety of alternatives and conjectures, the intellect retains the best ideas for further development and communication. All geniuses produce immense quantities of ideas. Thomas Edison held 1,093 patents, still the record. He guaranteed productivity by giving himself and his assistants idea quotas. His own personal quota was one minor invention every 10 days and a major invention every six months. Bach wrote a cantata every week, even when he was sick or exhausted. Mozart produced more than six hundred pieces of music. Einstein is best known for his paper on relativity, but he published 248 other papers. T.S. Elliot’s numerous drafts of “The Waste Land” constitute a jumble of good and bad passages that eventually was turned into a masterpiece. In a study of 2,036 scientists throughout history, Dean Kean Simonton of the University of California, Davis found that the most respected produced not only great works, but also more “bad” ones. Out of their massive quantity of work came quality.

An important aspect of this theory is that you need some means of producing variation in your ideas and that for this variation to be truly effective it must be “blind.” Blind variation implies a departure from reproductive (retained) knowledge. In nature, a gene pool that is totally lacking in variation would be totally unable to adapt to changing circumstances. In time, the genetically encoded wisdom would convert to foolishness, with consequences that would be fatal to the species’ survival. A comparable process operates within us as individuals. We all have a rich repertoire of ideas and concepts based on past experiences that enable us to survive and prosper. But without any provision for the variation of ideas, our usual ideas become stagnate and lose their advantages and in the end, we are defeated in our competition with our rivals.

How do creative geniuses generate so many alternatives and conjectures? Why are so many of their ideas so rich and varied? How do they produce the “blind” variations that lead to the original and novel? Growing cadres of scholars are offering evidence that one can characterize the way geniuses think. By studying the notebooks, correspondence, conversations and ideas of the world’s greatest thinkers, they have teased out particular common thinking strategies and styles of thought that enabled geniuses to generate a prodigious variety of novel and original ideas.


Following are thumbnail descriptions of strategies that are common to the thinking styles of creative geniuses in science, art and industry throughout history. These strategies demonstrate how geniuses get novel and original ideas by incorporating chance or randomness into their creative process in order to destabilize their usual way of thinking and reorganize their thoughts in new ways.

Geniuses Make Novel Combinations

Dean Keith Simonton, in his book Scientific Genius suggests that geniuses are geniuses because they form more novel combinations than the merely talented. His theory has etymology behind it: cogito–“I think–originally connoted “shake together”: intelligo the root of “intelligence” means to “select among.” This is a clear early intuition about the utility of permitting ideas and thoughts to randomly combine with each other and the utility of selecting from the many the few to retain. Like the highly playful child with a pailful of Legos, a genius is constantly combining and recombining ideas, images and thoughts into different combinations in their conscious and subconscious minds. Consider Einstein’s equation, E=mc2. Einstein did not invent the concepts of energy, mass, or speed of light. Rather, by combining these concepts in a novel way, he was able to look at the same world as everyone else and see something different. The laws of heredity on which the modern science of genetics is based are the results of Gregor Mendel who combined mathematics and biology to create a new science.

Geniuses Connect the Unconnected

If one particular style of thought stands out about creative genius, it is the ability to make juxtapositions between dissimilar subjects. Call it a facility to connect the unconnected that enables them to see things to which others are blind. Leonardo da Vinci forced a relationship between the sound of a bell and the ripples a pebble makes hitting water. This enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves. In 1865 F.A. Kekule’ intuited the shape of the ringlike benzene molecule by forcing a relationship with a dream of a snake biting its tail. Samuel Morse was stumped trying to figure out how to produce a telegraphic signal strong enough to be received coast to coast. One day he saw tied horses being exchanged at a relay station and forced a connection between relay stations for horses and strong signals. The solution was to give the traveling signal periodic boosts of power. Nickla Tesla forced a connection between the setting sun and a motor that made the AC motor possible by having the motor’s magnetic field rotate inside the motor just as the sun (from our perspective) rotates.

Geniuses Think in Opposites

Physicist and philosopher David Bohm believed geniuses were able to think different thoughts because they could tolerate ambivalence between opposites or two incompatible subjects. Dr. Albert Rothenberg, a noted researcher on the creative process, identified this ability in a wide variety of geniuses including Einstein, Mozart, Edison, Pasteur, Joseph Conrad, and Picasso in his 1990 book The Emerging Goddess: The Creative Process in Art, Science and Other Fields. Physicist Niels Bohr believed that if you held opposites together, then you suspend your thought and your mind moves to a new level. The suspension of thought allows an intelligence beyond thought to act and create a new form. The swirling of opposites creates the conditions for a new point of view to bubble freely from your mind. Bohr’s ability to imagine light as both a particle and a wave led to his conception of the principle of complementarity. Thomas Edison’s invention of a practical system of lighting involved combining wiring in parallel circuits with high resistance filaments in his bulbs, two things that were not considered possible by conventional thinkers, in fact were not considered at all because of an assumed incompatibility. Because Edison could tolerate the ambivalence between two incompatible things, he could see the relationship that led to his breakthrough.

Geniuses Look in Other Worlds

Aristotle considered metaphor a sign of genius, believing that the individual who had the capacity to perceive resemblances between two separate areas of existence and link them together was a person of special gifts. If unlike things are really alike in some ways, perhaps, they are so in others. Alexander Graham Bell observed the comparison between the inner workings of the ear and the movement of a stout piece of membrane to move steel and conceived the telephone. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, in one day, after developing an analogy between a toy funnel and the motions of a paper man and sound vibrations. Underwater construction was made possible by observing how shipworms tunnel into timber by first constructing tubes. Einstein derived and explained many of his abstract principles by drawing analogies with everyday occurrences such as rowing a boat or standing on a platform while a train passed by.

Geniuses Prepare Themselves for Chance

Whenever we attempt to do something and fail, we end up doing something else. As simplistic as this statement may seem, it is the first principle of creative accident. We may ask ourselves why we have failed to do what we intended, and this is the reasonable, expected thing to do. But the creative accident provokes a different question: What have we done? Answering that question in a novel, unexpected way is the essential creative act. It is not luck, but creative insight of the highest order. Alexander Fleming was not the first physician to notice the mold formed on an exposed culture while studying deadly bacteria. A less gifted physician would have trashed this seemingly irrelevant event but Fleming noted it as “interesting” and wondered if it had potential. This “interesting” observation led to penicillin which has saved millions of lives. Thomas Edison, while pondering how to make a carbon filament was mindlessly toying with a piece of putty, turning and twisting it in his fingers, when he looked down at his hands, the answer hit him between the eyes: twist the carbon like rope.

This may be the most important lesson of all: When you find something interesting, drop everything else and go with it. Too many talented people fail to make significant leaps of imagination because they have become fixated on some preconceived plan. But not the truly great minds. They don’t wait for the gifts of chance; instead, they actively seek to make it happen.


Recognizing the common thinking strategies of creative geniuses and applying them will make you more creative in your work and personal life. Creative geniuses are geniuses because they know “how” to think, instead of “what” to think. Sociologist Harriet Zuckerman published an interesting study of the Nobel Prize winners who were living in the United States in 1977. She discovered that six of Enrico Fermi’s students won the prize. Ernst Lawrence and Niels Bohr each had four. J.J. Thompson and Ernest Rutherford between them trained seventeen Nobel laureates. This was no accident. It is obvious that these Nobel laureates were not only creative in their own right, but were also able to teach others how to think creatively. Zuckerman’s subjects testified that their most influential masters taught them different thinking styles and strategies rather than what to think.

Michael Michalko is author of the best-seller, Thinkertoys. You can find out more about Michael’s work at

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  1. “Growing cadres of scholars …” is always a frightening term

    an entire article on genius/creativity and not a mention of consciousness or awareness … if it was understood that consciousness has subtler levels very little in this article would need stating, and the cadres could go investigate whatever else they could get funding for

    genius has nothing to do with thinking strategies, and everything to do with listening at a deeper level within one’s own awareness.

  2. Not “How Geniuses Think” but more in “What is genius” post-hoc definitions vein… eg. yeah I know they connect the unconnected, but *how*?

  3. @ Gregory… interesting comment, that you think the two are related. I actually happen to think linking creativity and consciousness is a case of anthropocentric conceit… you can probably build AI systems that capture a lot of creativity with no consciousness. I don’t think the two are actually related.

    @ Saurabh: candidate answer that you won’t like — ability to see connections (through mechanisms like metaphor that you may have awareness of, or through black-box aha! moments) seems to be genes/nature rather than nurture according to many. Can’t be learned (but if you have the talent, can be refined). Not sure if Michael would agree, but I kinda believe that. ISFJs can’t “learn” to be INTPs to use Myers-Briggs as the organizing scheme for a minute….

    As for the rest of Michael’s list, the ‘how’ is actually not very obscure in many cases. My ‘the fine art of opportunism’ article (linked at the bottom) is basically a how-to for Michael’s point that ‘geniuses prepare for chance’…this one CAN be learned and applied, though perhaps not at genius levels, by everybody.

  4. AI may build systems that exhibit intelligent behavior, a simulacrum, but i understand the creativity being talked about here is the realm of ideas

    where do you think thoughts come from if not out of consciousness?

    or are you one of those reductionists that think consciousness comes from meat?

  5. gregory:

    you are conflating materialism with reductionism. given your advaita references, you are a monist I take it. my view , for what it is worth is ‘unsolved problem.’ It is just too soon to take positions yet. you may want to check out my piece Framing the Consciousnes Debates. I also have a 2nd piece in this series on consciousness, where is I?, and more on the way at a slow pace…would welcome taking these debates there.

  6. thanks for you comments, and am looking at you prior posts

    what is like is the range of you inquiries, enquiries, however it is spelled, india has ruined my american english,

    and what i find i rebel against, probably projecting, is where academia and corporate mindsets seem to have trammeled the innocence of your other observations. and your art

    anyway, opinions, yuck.. will read your other work now.

    thanks for your time, gregory

  7. and here I was thinking you are a non-dualist :)

    why do you believe an ability to ‘be’ in a raw ‘be the consciousness’ sense is necessarily at odds with wanting to also look at things from an intellectualized perspective?

  8. Interesting reading> Our world is not the same without innovation/out of the box thinking…

  9. dan potter says

    the display of egotism in the longing to make one self seemily more intelligent by their choice of words far out reached the wish to express any true idea which true gensius long to be understood . this is what i find with some of the other’s comments about the artictle,they clearily are thr bottom feeders of the intelectual society. but only to this our majority is an artivle showing how a gensius could learn from follwimg rules will this be read by. i am no better. sad commentary on the intellect being sold like steak knifes.

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