What is the difference between talent and genius?

Are geniuses born or made?

Jack Kerouac, American, Beat Generation author and poet, gave us early thoughts on that well-worn management question, ‘Are managers ‘born’ or ‘made’?’ when he wrote his 1962 essay for Writer’s Digest titled “Are Writers Made or Born?” (see Maria Popova‘s usual insightful essays on JK for a discussion on this topic). It was in this essay that he gave some deep thinking to considering writers who could be described as geniuses (e.g. Shakespeare, Melville and Whitman) and the genesis of their talent.

Kerouac argues that geniuses are born and those with talent are made, saying that the word genius ‘…is derived from the Latin word gignere (to beget)’, that ‘a genius is simply a person who originates something never known before’, that geniuses are the originators and talent the interpreters of that genius’ work’, so, essentially, ‘genius gives birth, talent delivers’.

Is exceptional talent a pre-cursor to genius?

Others, such as Chamorro-Premuzic, von Stumm, Furnham and Simonton, also discuss the different views taken between genius and talent, at times taking genius as an end result of developing exceptional talent.  Other titbits they provide on genius (and its relationship with talent) are:

  • The use of the word ‘genius’ can be tracked back to antiquity. It is derived from Latin. In Roman mythology each person was said to be born with a guardian spirit, called genius, the meaning of which is superlative intelligence and extraordinary achievement.
  • Galton’s Hereditary genius was the first scientific study of genius.

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  • Francis Galton:
    • believed individuals differed in “natural ability,” that these individual differences, being distributed in general population;
    • saw genius as related to eminence or reputation, having made a name for themselves in some domain of human achievement
    • took genius to comprise three distinct categories: exceptional creativity, phenomenal leadership and prodigious accomplishments;
    • took genius and talent to be intimately related concepts.
    • Genius equates to superlative intelligence, one recognized definition of genius – relates to a person’s intelligence quotient, or IQ score, of 140 or above, minimum threshold for ascription. Other methods for measuring genius are psychometric and historiometric. [Galton’s work had a dark history].
  • Poet Owen Meredith (the pseudonym of Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton, 1st earl of Lytton, Viscount Knebworth of Knebworth, 2nd Baron Lytton of Knebworth) said ‘Genius does what it must, and Talent does what it can’ (Owen Meredith)
  • “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius”; and “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see” (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).
  • Situational factors are as critical for the manifestation of genius than individual factors – determining when and where exceptional talent becomes exceptional genius.

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Malcolm Gladwell provides a list of American talent , 14 of whom all emerged within nine years of each other in the 19th century. 

The debates go on…

Developing scientific and technical talent has become a contemporary debate in educational circles and research in this area has thrown up interesting counter-findings to the well-worn discussions that practice makes for improvements in talents (and by implication, that practice encourages genius).  See Malcolm Gladwell’s work on Outliers for an interesting read:

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“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”
Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success