Nov. 28, 2022

Craig Wright | The Hidden Habits of Genius

Craig Wright | The Hidden Habits of Genius

Having examined the lives of those we have dubbed 'geniuses', Craig Wright reveals the characteristics and patterns of behavior common to great minds throughout history.

Having examined the lives of those we have dubbed 'geniuses', Craig Wright reveals the characteristics and patterns of behavior common to great minds throughout history. The truth is, genius involves so much more than intellect and hard work. It also requires a unique mode of thinking—one that is informed by creativity, perspective and curiosity. We can actively cultivate these same habits of mind in order to live a more fulfilling, insightful and happy life.

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Craig Wright: Two, two. What were you thinking? Trivia?

Srini: Yeah. It's funny, I was talking to a guest recently who was a professional violinist for many years and she quit. She wrote a book called Declassified about classical music. Oh. And we were talking about this and I said, yeah. I was like, we were talking about the Eighth Symphony. And I'm like, I told her, I was like, there's a tuba part in the Eighth Symphony, and you know what the tuba part is? One whole note.

I was like, did somebody sleep with this guy's wife who played the tuba? So he just put that in there to piss them off. But the thing that I wonder is, Beethoven's no joke. I know this 'cause I, there's no joke to even get in, and you had to have had some talent.

Craig Wright: Yeah. Before we get into that, let's ask the question. You can get in if you work hard and have a modicum of talent. I had a huge work ethic. I was always in the practice room and highly disciplined. I could make up for my lack of talent with hard work. That's the interesting question here: nature versus nurture, talent versus gift, that sort of thing. The role of work versus natural endowment—we could go on and on. Yeah.

Srini: So one, where does the work ethic come from and, based on your research, this is something I've asked a handful of people whom I've talked to on the show who have been professionals. Why do you often have this thing that happens where there are these kids who are prodigies as kids when they're musicians?

But very few young prodigies actually end up becoming professionals, leading in their field, particularly in music. I've seen this pattern when I've talked to probably half a dozen people on the show here. What is that all about? Why does that happen?

Craig Wright: That happens for one very simple reason. It seems to me, and I do write about this in my book. I think it's chapter three or something like that. I think it's on the Prodigy trap or something such as that. It's an interesting point because prodigies are essentially mimics. What they are told to do. And you can see this on TV shows like Child Genius or Genius Junior, neither of which are running at the moment, but were very popular a few years ago. And what happens there is that the young person with some great natural endowment is asked to replicate and perform any particular well-established discipline up to a standard that we already know the outcome.

You could be a prodigy with regard to chess, music, or even mnemonics; somebody who has an extraordinary capacity to remember things or wind speeds in particular, hurricanes, that sort of thing. All that is well and good, and it's astonishing because they are 20 or 30 years ahead of everybody else their age.

Gradually, as they move up 20 or 30 years, that particular level of understanding no longer seems truly exceptional. And what they have not been encouraged to do is think in any kind of

Srini: We, you alluded to this whole debate of talent versus skill, nature versus nurturing. This is a question that I've been asking a lot of people. I've had numerous conversations. I talked to Steven Kotler, who's a go-to guy on performance. We had Justine Musk here who is Elon's ex-wife. She wrote this article about the psychology of visionaries. And this is something I wonder particularly for you.

You said you got to Eastman, but you quit cause you realized you didn't have any talent. How much of this is like what role do genetics play in these extraordinary accomplishments? Because I think that we're lying to ourselves if we are saying that they don't play any role at all. And Steven Kotler said if you have perfect match quality, meaning that you can align your intrinsic motivators and the things you are good at with, the thing that you're doing, then you can be world-class in something.

But yeah, he made a good point. He said, "I'm 160 pounds and I'm never gonna play in the NFL. Yeah. And I'm short and I'm never gonna be in the NBA. Those are genetic limitations that are very

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Craig Wright: It's a very interesting question and it's something we would love to quantify the ingredients here. We would say what we need is 80% genetics and maybe a 20% quotient element of hard work here. But I think it depends on the individual. Luck certainly plays a role as well. I think personally that a lot of it is, in fact, as you were suggesting, Trini is genetic; you have to get in a high level of expertise or performance expertise or transform the world. You have to have certain genetic predispositions. Mine would not have been in mathematics, for example, but there are people that have this gift for mathematical or quantitative thinking. Natural ability is important. Your genetic hand that you're dealt genetically is very important, but at the same time, there's a component of hard work involved.

Now, my favorite story with this is, and again, I started to continue referencing my book, it sounds like some used car salesman here, but what interests me is, and I'm gonna go to a story. The story I am teaching online in the summers, 'cause I would always do that. I'd love to teach this course and given any opportunity, I would teach it

Srini: Fashion. Oh, let's go down that rabbit hole.

Craig Wright: Because Indian, whether it's Chinese or absolutely, or whether it's American Farm Boy, which is where I came from.

Srini: So yeah. This is such an interesting nuance because my old roommate and I would talk about grades in high school. He'd be like, "Did you get straight A's?" I was like, "Man, of course, I got straight A's. I'm Indian. I was like, but that doesn't mean I'm smart. It means that I had Indian parents because we jokingly say it's like they'll disown you if you don't get straight A's. But I think that makes a perfect segue into talking first about how you ended up quitting Eastman and then what's the trajectory from quitting Eastman to...

Craig Wright: Teaching at Yale?

I did have, there was one bit of good luck there, and I did have the fact that my father had a Ph.D. in economics and was a CPA who taught at a university. So I saw what was going on in university and I thought, "Hey, these are really cool people. You don't earn a ton of money, but it's a reasonably decent living."

And you can go in there and you can do interesting things. You get to work with young people. You get to communicate, you get to exchange ideas. And if you get this thing called tenure, then you can go out there and, as long as you "put butts in seats," in other words, you cover your enrollment and get kids coming in your classes, you can pretty much teach whatever you want to.

They don't care. So it's almost a numbers game at some point. So that's the other great advantage of that. You have a huge amount of creative freedom in a university situation, whether that's still there today, it's certainly there for the faculty members if they're courageous and curious enough to take advantage of it.

That, that's what the advantage that

Srini: Let's talk specifically about education and particularly elite education. At a place like Yale, we were talking about culture and I think that culture absolutely plays a role in how people end up in these situations.

Cuz I can tell you that the sort of narrative in an Indian household, which I'm sure is probably very similar in an Asian household, is you go to the best damn university you can get into. Was there something that William Dershowitz said in his recent book, The End of Solitude? He wrote an amazing book called Excellent Sheep, which was about the Miseducation of the American Elite.

But these are the two things that struck me from this book, the one that he wrote most recently. And he said the first disadvantage of an elite education is how very much it alienates you from the human. The second disadvantage, implicit in what I've been saying, is that an elite education inculcates a false sense of self-worth.

You learn to think of yourself in terms of those numbers. They come to signify not only your fate but your identity. Not only your identity but your value. And as somebody who

Craig Wright: Yeah, so...

Srini: As somebody who has been in the system

Craig Wright: What's going wrong? The problem is not with the students or the educational system, but with the parents and this false sense of values. I want my child to be a world-beater, so they have to go to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or the University of Chicago or something like that. That's a huge misconception.

When friends would call and ask me to give their son or daughter a tour around campus and write a note to the admissions office, I would do that. But then I would end by saying that there are at least 300 great universities in the United States, and our primary and secondary schools may be challenged.

Yesterday, both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times had front-page articles about the decline in test scores in the United States. But the good news is that because of private endowments and private philanthropies, there are a huge number of really fine educational institutions. And you can come out almost as well as if you had gone to the elite schools.

It's not the school, it's what is in you. How curious are you? How much independent thinking are you capable of? Are you risk-tolerant? Are you self-mot

Srini: Speaking of all these things that you mentioned, one of the things that you say in your book is, if IQ tests, SAT tests, and grades are unreliable predictors of career success, they're even worse predictors of genius, they generate both false positives - those who seem to be headed for greatness, and false negatives - those who seem to be going nowhere, but ultimately change the world. And I wrote an essay titled Advice to Freshmen Starting College, which was based on a conversation I had with one of my cousin's friends' sons who was starting college here at UC Riverside. It just went on to be this 25-word letter to my younger self. It's the advice I would give you. And one of the things I said at the very beginning is, you're not special, you're privileged - just because you're at an elite university. But the thing is that if these are unreliable predictors of career success and worst predictors of genius, then why is it that they are the way that we continue to measure in this country? Because, as you say, we continue to rely on standardized tests because there's just that standardized, a common set of questions that can be used to evaluate and compare the cognitive development

Craig Wright: I start, yeah. Where to begin? I'm not, and there are a lot of contradictory aspects here, and there's a case about to go to the Supreme Court having to do with affirmative action and Asian students. It's all worth considering. How, and to whom do we admit? It's absurd what's going on.

In some ways, people are immediately tossed out of consideration for these, let's not just say the elite schools, the top 300 schools, because of their zip code. If you file an application for a school such as Harvard or Princeton with a zip code of 100028, you might as well forget it because that's the Upper East Side of New York and they know that there are probably a lot of wealthy people there and so-called privilege.

Now those kids may be hugely smart, they may be hugely hardworking. But they've got a lot of strikes against them. So ironically, a lot of this is turning around in exactly the opposite direction, where we're getting discrimination perhaps against people that should be there. But this is not my area of specialization.

What I think I know something about, however, is this: I think it's

Srini: Let's talk about this whole idea of how genius develops and what those habits are. And one of the first ones you talk about is an obsession. You say geniuses have an obsession with their work.

Craig Wright: habit. Hold on here. SVEs. I meant to say direct. Oh, I'm sorry. That was intriguing. Now I gave this long exposition and then you immediately went on to a different topic.

My sensation was when you did. He wasn't satisfied with that or he knew all that, or he, that didn't lead to any intriguing follow-up questions here in Rie vest. I'm gonna ask you, yeah. In the spirit of good critical Socratic teaching here. What did you think of that? Fair enough?

Srini: called me out.

Craig Wright: Where am I? Where did I go wrong here?

Srini: Shva, you weren't wrong. Actually, you called me out on myself. I'm looking back and forth between my notes and your book and also trying to listen simultaneously, so you caught me on this because I always have my notes from the

Craig Wright: Book opening.

So did that make any sense to you?

Srini: So actually let me address that, right? So I think there is an absolute validity to this because this is something I have realized and mentioned on the show so many times, so I won't belabor it at this point.

At Berkeley, I would go and listen to lectures and have discussion sections, but the truth is that the same rote memorization approach that worked in high school made me a C student at Berkeley. What I realized was that there was a big difference between actually understanding something and just hearing about it.

Often what would happen is I would go through the motions of doing problem sets, reading the textbook, highlighting things, reviewing my notes - and then I'd get to an exam where they present a concept in a context I'd never seen before. I think that's because it wasn't a discussion; I never sat in a circle and asked how does this relate to the world we live in, or how does this apply? I just didn't have that experience.

At Berkeley, Laura Tyson - Clinton's economic advisor - was teaching the introductory economics class, and yet I didn't feel like I knew anything about economics until I did this show. I've talked to economists, I've

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Yeah, and you mentioned the word story or something, and that's so important and I think in teaching, and we don't know if we could somehow couch the morals or the takeaway or the facts inside of a narrative story or a life story, would it make a good deal more sense. And I tried to do that somewhat in the book and indeed reviewers say that what they liked about the book was not so much the specific information about all the stories, as we were talking about here though, let's pursue this.

But see, this is the virtue of pushback. So then, now something popped up in my

Srini: You say that because the reason I read The Wealth of Nations was Naval Ravikant, a venture capitalist, that

Craig Wright: It's a pretty thick book, folks. It's not a pleasant task, but God knows I'm gonna give it a go. The reason I read it is that I think it's important.

Srini: It was Naval Ravikant, who is the founder of AngelList and a prominent venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, who was talking about developing expertise and knowledge. And he said, if you want to understand business, he said, reading The Wealth of Nations will teach you more than reading a hundred business books because, he said, you want to go and look for the original text in a given field.

And I thought to myself, okay, that is a pretty valid case and you are right. It's a pain in the ass to read. Yeah. And I'll tell you what it was. I started to be able to look at my business through the lens of the things I saw in that book.

And suddenly I was like, oh, this division of labor thing, no wonder this is a foundational principle of economics. I was like, the only difference now is we're dividing labor not just between people, but between people and technology. And so I started to literally look at it, like, okay, let me assume that all the apps and tools I use are employees in my assembly line of what I'm trying to produce.

Because, I'm really fortunate in the fact that I, diver

Craig Wright: Yeah, probably maybe not so many. But then the question is, are those questions asked on the economic exam all that valuable for life's lessons? I don't know. That'd be an interesting issue. You were gonna... Okay, so that was a good example of how pushback and the kind of dialectic one want in a classroom rather than a monologue from the point of view of an instructor, the "sage on the stage" up there offering pushback dialogue. Because I really do think it was a good example of it. We had... Yeah, that was a fantastic

Srini: For example, it was such a good one.