There are various articles on this if you scour the internet but they are all really shitty. Mine won’t be. Partly this article is because I might soon decide to be a genius. I’m not really sure yet whether its worth it.
I’ve met geniuses and here is what I know:
Think A Lot and Think Hard
There is one guy I met who was smarter than me and I knew it. I was sure of it. So the question is how was the guy so smart. Its a question I frequently asked. What I realized is that he that about thinks a lot more than other people and he thought hard. Real hard.
Most people are capable of thinking hard but they simply don’t do it. Its really difficult to do it. It requires energy and most people are really really lazy.
I could pretty much end the whole article here and it would be tremendously valuable as a piece of genius advice. But I won’t.
Most people at this point are probably reading it and thinking, well that is just stupid. What do you mean think hard? What am I supposed to think about? What does it even mean to think hard? ABOUT WHAT? HOW?
Well lets go meta. Lets think hard about thinking hard. Its pretty difficult for me to see how one could become a genius in some particular field by thinking hard unless they were thinking hard about the field itself. Obviously you could not become a genius at math by thinking about unicorns. So the first element is to think about the subject itself. There is another thing…notice that when we even began this thing of thinking hard about thinking hard we started with something. We started with questions! So the first element of thinking hard is asking questions. Could I think hard without asking a question? The previous statement is an interesting one because I believe the answer is no but I can’t think of a reason why and indeed the previous statement itself about questionless thinking hard had to be formulated as a question. Which kind of indicates how difficult questionless thinking hard is.
Will any question do? Obviously not because we could spend the whole day asking the same question over and over again and it could be a very easy question. For instance we could ask the question: what does 1 + 1 equal? Obviously that won’t get us very far. So we have to start asking harder questions. So obviously we have to start asking questions that don’t have easy answers.
Now comes an important insight….the questions we ask are vitally important to thinking hard. If the questions I ask are too simple and have ready answers I won’t get very far. This is the reason most of are lazy thinkers…we ask ourselves questions where we have ready answers because ready answers are comfortable and easy. The life of a hard thinker is not an easy one because they must always be asking questions that don’t have easy answers. The best example of easy thinking I can think of is in politics where people mindlessly argue without any thought at all and indeed enjoy it. The road here is paved with stupidity.
Is asking hard questions with very difficult answers sufficient. Well lets say I asked myself the question What is the meaning of life? Its kind of a squishy mushy question. Somehow in the previous paragraphs we were able to make some kind of progress with our questions. When faced with a question like: What is the meaning of life?We are stuck. The problem with this question is that its too broad and undefined. What is meaning? Is it purpose. Is there only one meaning or many. So very hard questions tend to generate subsidiary questions which are more specific and easier to answer. So maybe very hard questions are sufficient in that even when they are mushy they inevitably result in clarifying questions. However I suspect the real meat of genius lies not in the mushy questions but in the clarifying ones.
Thus we could say part 1 of genius is to ask very hard questions and try to answer them.
Anyways the above gives you some flavour of what hard thinking looks like. In math and science its a bit different. Its also situation where the number of questions and question methods is not infinite. So we could catalog the various question techniques and come up with the sorts of questions you would ask yourself. Anyways the moral of this story is that a huge component of being a genius is asking yourself questions. In a further blog post I will go into more depth on how to ask hard questions and how to answer them. And also how to ask the right questions.
Think Very Very Very Very Very Very Slowly
This is an Einsteinian technique. Its not exactly the same as thinking hard and it doesn’t apply to all problems. But when you have certain very fundamental problems in a field and you need to question bedrock assumptions this is really the only technique you can use. You think really slowly. Now I could and should stop here. Because really I’ve given you all you need.
Probably again at this point you like WTF man? Think slowly! WTF does that even mean. Well here is where you should apply my first technique, Think Hard ,to my second technique: Think Slowly and if you try to think hard about thinking slowly you will end up figuring out what it means.
Lets consider what thinking slowly means. The opposite of thinking slowly is thinking quickly. Coming to snap judgement and quick decisions. For instance I see a woman walking and holding a child’s hand. I quickly assume its the child’s mother or some close relation. I have thought quickly. Quick thinking is fast and cheap and its usually right.
But its not always good enough. Now what are the hallmarks of thinking quickly: associations and assumptions based either on past experience or what society believes. I see the woman walking with the child and since most women walking with children I have seen in the past are mothers…I think well that is the child’s mother. ACTUALLY THAT PREVIOUS STATEMENT IS BIG FAT LIE. Or maybe I should say I thought too fast about thinking fast and it doing so made a mistake. The truth is that I have never asked any woman walking with a child hand in hand whether its the child’s mother. So then where did I get this idea?
Probably my associations of children as mostly being taken care of by their mothers. So a big part of thinking slowly is questions assumptions. Thinking slowly involves a slow reconstruction of ideas by examining carefully the basis for them in society and our experiences and then determining whether other possibilities might work.
It takes time because each idea is itself built on ideas and these ideas are in turn built on things and so it goes in a complicated web of association. Painstakingly examining each of the associations and assumptions, in turn, takes time and effort, and there is the obvious question of how far to go back. After all if I want to make progress I cannot keep questioning. I have to accept something basic otherwise I will be stuck in infinite regress.
This article is like my other ones. There is too much to say and I don’t have the space or time to complete it. But what I will do is basically outline the techniques and elements I see involved in genius:
1) Problems, problems, problems. You need to spend as much time as possible solving problems or doing whatever it is that the field involves. In investing it would be searching for and analyzing companies. In physics it would be solving problems.
2) Read read read. Read as much as you can. Research papers, books etc
3) Know the history of the ideas on the field. How did the field start? What were the ideas people had in the past. How did those change? What type of arguments did they make. In other words what led to the field its present state. This is pretty important. You should also try to learn some historical techniques other people used that may now be out of fashion
4) What are the current sore spots in the field. Usually in any field there are some areas which are hot spots and where there are some problems emerging in the field. Things aren’t quite right. Something is wrong. In physics at the turn of the century the sore spots were Maxwell’s theory which didn’t appear compatible with Galilean relativity without a mysterious ether which was not observable. The other sore spot was thermodynamics and atomic theory where classical methods could not explain what was being observed for blackbody radiation or why the electrons did not spiral into atomic nuclei. Obviously the genius should focus his efforts in these areas…he should avoid any area where standard ideas are working and where people are already making good progress and where there is a lot of competition.
5) Mental habits. A few examples:
a) Think hard
b) Do Fermi problems to acquire numerical intuition. I also highly recommend the book Street Fighting Mathematics. You need to approximate and guess at answers
c) Related to b) you should try to guess the answer to problems before you work out the solution in detail. Your guessing methods should have various levels of power. In other words you should be able to come up with a very quick guess which provides an order of magnitude estimate but then if given more time you should be able to refine your guess to a better answer
d) Avoid looking at solutions to problems and struggle but in a calculated way. This is kind of contradictory. What I mean is that if you are solving a problem never look at someone else or the “official solution” until you have worked out your own. A certain amount of struggle is good. But I said its calculated struggle and that brings us to
e) If you are not making progress on a problem stop working on it and come back to it later. Its important to struggle sufficiently that your mind is aware of the problem and has spent some time with it. But you should avoid the problem for a while and come back to it. Its not exactly clear why this works but it does. Poincare did it. Maxwell did it. Its very useful. Somehow your mind is able to make progress later on that it could not make at the time.