What Does it Mean to Be a Genius?

‘Genius’ is a word that we throw around lightly these days. Footballers can be geniuses if they score a great goal, you can proclaim yourself a genius for thinking to bring tissues on a night out and even a great meal can be ‘genius’ when you’re hungry enough. Apparently genius doesn’t require the ability to think or move…

But what does it really mean to be a genius? Is it something that’s learned or something that you’re born with? Here we will look in more detail at the definition of genius, and whether or not you could one day classify as one.


One of the most common measures of genius is IQ. IQ stands for ‘Intelligence Quotient’ and is a score used to measure ‘fluid intelligence’ (fluid intelligence being cognitive skills as opposed to ‘crystallised intelligence’ which is basically knowledge). Usually this score is obtained through an ‘intelligence test’ and is based on mean performance where a score of ‘100’ is set to be the average. In other words, if you score 100 on an IQ test, then that should mean that you have scored precisely averagely compared with the general population.

Modern IQ tests are also devised in such a way that standard deviation is set to 15. The idea then is that 95% of the population should have an IQ of 70-130 regardless of the test they take.

To be a genius by this definition then, you need to be an outlier when it comes to these scores, but there is disagreement as to whether the ‘cut off point’ should be 120, 140 or 180. Right away this creates a problem with trying to define genius, but complicating matters further is the largely arbitrary nature of IQ tests. There are countless different types of IQ test, with some modern examples including ‘Raven’s Progressive Matrices’, ‘Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale’ and ‘Stanford Binet’. Of course these tests include different questions, and while they should be generally ‘fair’ your score will likely vary depending on which IQ test you use.

Other Types of Intelligence

At the same time, criticism has been levelled at the whole institution of IQ tests, with the complaint being that they measure only a specific type of intelligence and ignore others. For instance, an IQ test has no way to measure practical skill, or emotional intelligence which many people describe as being just as important. There’s also no real way that these tests can measure things like creativity which may in fact be more important for coming up with the next theory of relativity when compared with pure mathematical skills. Indeed, Kant described genius an ‘originality’ and the ability to make connections that others miss.

Muddying the waters further, some people will even use the term genius to describe someone’s level of ability in a particular field – it’s not unusual for instance to hear a football commentator describe a player as being a ‘genius’ but they certainly don’t mean this in the same sense that some would use the term to describe Albert Einstein.

Another term might be more useful in some cases when it comes to describing outstanding mental ability, which is ‘polymath’. A polymath, or ‘homo-universalis’, is defined as someone who excels in multiple different disciplines and who has accomplished remarkable things in many of them. Leonardo Da Vinci is often considered the prime example of homo-universalis and the pre-eminent ‘renaissance’ man.

Genetics Versus Training

Another problem with defining the term genius, is the fact that you can actually improve your IQ score through practice and training which then calls into question its usefulness. If you can practice IQ tests and pass them better than the next guy, then does that make you more suited to a job in accounting? Or generally more intelligent?

The point here may well be moot if every single aspect of our cognitive ability could be improved through practice. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist and prominent thinker on this subject, proposed that in order to master any skill or subject you need only dedicate 10,000 hours to practice. Discoveries regarding ‘brain plasticity’ have seemingly backed this up by demonstrating how the brain can actually grow and change shape in response to continued use. Could you be born with a low IQ then but train yourself in thinking to become a genius?

Many other thinkers have suggested that the key to genius may simply be the will and drive to do the thinking necessary. Schopenhauer suggested for instance that geniuses have unusual ‘intellectual dominance over their will and behaviour’, while Galton described genius as a combination of natural ability and the ‘urge to achieve as much as you physically can’.

The Life of a Genius

If you could become a genius through training alone, the question would still remain as to whether or not you would want to. Many psychologists and philosophers have made the suggestion that the life of a genius is actually a very difficult one, particularly for young children who may feel isolated from their peers and be hot-housed by the adults in their lives.

Geniuses have also been shown to be particularly susceptible to a range of psychoses and psychological difficulties. This may connected to a difficult childhood, or maybe the thing that gives geniuses that ‘spark’ of originality can also leave them at risk of mental illness.

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