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The Biggest Reason It’s Hard to Recognize Genius

By Shane Snow November 20th, 2014

On January 1, 1962, four young men—John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Pete Best—auditioned for a record deal at Decca Records in North London. They played 15 songs, vying for a break after two years of struggling in local clubs and pubs.

Decca was polite, but rejected the band. “Guitar groups are on the way out,” they commented. “The Beatles have no future in show business.”

This turned out to be one of the worst mistakes in the history of the music industry.

The Decca people weren’t idiots; they knew the music biz. But they were human. And we humans, it turns out, are bad at recognizing genius.

Said psychologist David Dunning in a recent interview with Smart Planet:

We cannot recognize the best among us, because we simply do not have the competency to be able to recognize how competent those people are.

That’s a little troubling, but it makes sense. For the last couple of decades, Dunning has performed experiments to show how people tend to overestimate their intelligence. (Forty percent of us think we’re in the top 5 percent of the intelligence spectrum, it turns out.) Recently, he’s turned his work toward genius, showing that people consistently underestimate the intellectual performance of their smarter peers. “Genius hides in plain sight,” he said. “People do not have the competence or the skill or the intellectual scaffolding to recognize people who out-perform them.”

And unfortunately, genius has another problem: True geniuses—and breakthrough ideas—often sound crazy.

Artistic works are often not recognized as genius until long after their time. Inventions like the telephone, radio, automobile, and television were all dismissed by the experts of their days. “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home,” said Digital Equipment Corp. president Ken Olson in 1977. When FedEx founder Fred Smith presented his idea for an overnight delivery service to his management professor at Yale, the professor shot it down. “In order to earn better than a ‘C’,” he said, “the idea must be feasible.”

“The best startup ideas seem at first like bad ideas,” writes Paul Graham, business essayist and founder of Y-Combinator. Graham has worked with hundreds of startups, including billion-dollar behemoths like Dropbox and Airbnb. “If a good idea were obviously good, someone else would already have done it. So the most successful founders tend to work on ideas that few beside them realize are good. Which is not that far from a description of insanity, till you reach the point where you see results.”

The sweet spot, he says, for great investments is therefore at the intersection of “sounds crazy” and “is a good idea.”

So we can’t see the brilliance in front of us because we think we’re right when we’re wrong. And truly revolutionary ideas, by definition, cut against conventional wisdom. But we’d rather not be Decca Records and miss out on the Beatles. Most of us could use a genius breakthrough or two in our work lives.

Is there anything we can do?

Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman, who’s regarded by many as the last great genius in modern physics, had only a 122 IQ—much lower than many working physicists today. The difference between Feynman and his peers, and the reason he was able to contribute so much to science despite a run-of-the-mill IQ, was his propensity to look at problems from weird angles. Instead of approaching questions based on the knowledge he had and the conventional ways that others thought of the problems, he rethought the questions themselves.

In other words, if we want to recognize genius (or perhaps be it), we need to pay more attention to people who ask questions like, “What if [common belief] weren’t true?” and “What if we had to approach this backward?” These are the kinds of questions that lead to breakthroughs.

Albert Einstein was once (allegedly) asked the difference between him and the average person. He replied that the average person would stop searching for a needle in a haystack once she or he found it. Einstein, on the other hand, would keep looking through the entire haystack for all possible needles.

Curiosity is a less daunting skill for “normal” people to master than technical aptitude or whatever it is we think makes for genius. After all, someone eventually gave the Beatles a record deal. And that someone didn’t have a 150 IQ.

Genius, it turns out, has less to do with the size of your mind than how open it is.

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