I recently watched a documentary about Kobe Bryant, the NBA legend. Kobe grew up in my hometown, so I was aware of his superstar status earlier than most people. At his high school games, he looked like a man playing with boys. No one was surprised when he was drafted by the NBA in the first round, at the age of 17.
We expect genius to always look like that. When we see someone of extreme accomplishment, it is almost inconceivable that their special gifts weren’t always apparent, but they usually aren’t. To take just one famous example, Albert Einstein wasn’t even made a full professor until 1911, six full years after his miracle year.
The problem is that true genius defies convention and it is by conventional standards that we ordinarily define achievement. When someone who comes along with a completely new paradigm, it usually looks like nonsense and tends to be ignored. Yet some people have the ability to recognize brilliance in an idiotic guise and that is itself a special kind of genius.
A Letter from Nowhere
Srinivasa Ramanujan was born to a traditional family in a remote region of India in 1887. From a young age, he showed an unusual aptitude with mathematics. When he was 16, he got his hands on an advanced text and quickly devoured it. He attended college for a while, but never graduated, mostly because of his poor performance in any subject unrelated to math.
So living in extreme poverty and mostly left to his own devices, he continued to work on theorems and proofs in a set of notebooks. He tried to gain the interest of mathematicians in India, but the truth was that no one knew what to make of his work. With the help of friends, Ramanujan, drafted letter to three prominent professors at Cambridge University.
The first two promptly returned the letter and their reaction to it is lost to history. The third, G.H. Hardy, opened it and, suspecting a prank, promptly threw it away. However, as the day went on, he found himself intrigued and fished it out for another look. Still not sure of what he had, he took it to his chief collaborator, J. E. Littlewood, for a second opinion.
By midnight, the two were convinced that one of history’s great mathematical talents had just fallen into their lap. They invited Ramanujan to Cambridge where over the next five years he broke new ground in pure mathematics. Even today, a century later, his notebooks continue to be widely studied by mathematicians looking to glean new insights.
Hardy, a genius by any measure, was considered one of the most important mathematicians of his time. But when asked to name his greatest discovery he replied, without hesitation, “Ramanujan.”
The Austrian Scion Who Became an Affliction
At about the same time that Hardy received his famous letter, his fellow Cambridge Apostle and colleague Bertrand Russell had his own visitor. Ludwig Wittgenstein, an aeronautics student and heir to a great fortune, burst into Russell’s chambers unannounced. He soon became a fixture in Russell’s life, following him home from lectures to argue obscure points.
At the time, Russell wrote:
My German friend threatens to be an affliction, he came back with me after the lecture & argued till dinner-time –obstinate and perverse, but I think not stupid
Convinced of his genius, Russell not only tolerated Wittgenstein, but mentored him. He saw that, despite his difficult personality, the young Austrian was perhaps better equipped to help close the immense hole that Russell had discovered in the fabric of logic than anyone else.
Alas fate, in the form of World War I, intervened and Wittgenstein entered the Austrian army. He continued to work on the problem in his spare time and in 1915 sent a note to Russell that he had a breakthrough. After that, Wittgenstein disappeared and Russell feared that Wittgenstein, along with his solution to the problem, had been lost to history.
A few years later, Russell received a card from an Italian prison camp. Wittgenstein, still holding the key to the future of mathematical logic, was alive but in captivity and unable to complete his work. John Maynard Keynes, a fellow Cambridge Apostle who was a delegate at the Versailles peace conference, arranged for special privileges and writing supplies.
The book conceived in the prison camp, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, could not find a publisher. Once again, Russell intervened on Wittgenstein’s behalf to get it printed. It soon became considered by many to be the greatest work of philosophy of the 20th century, inspired the Vienna Circle and changed the course of modern thinking.
The Architecture of Information
When Charles McColough took the helm of Xerox in 1968, he had a new vision for the business. Not content to merely rule the copier business, his ambition was to control the “architecture of information.” “It was a great phrase” someone would later say, “because no one knew exactly what it meant.”
To navigate the uncharted waters he set out to conquer, McColough created a new research division called PARC, which recruited the best computer scientists available in order to forge a new path. Their work led to many of the core elements of computers that we know today, such as the mouse, the ethernet, the graphical user interface and bitmapped screens.
In essence, Xerox created modern personal computing as we know it. However, it was still, at its core, a copier company and the newfangled technology was given short shrift by the firm’s senior executives. In 1979, however, a 24 year-old entrepreneur came to PARC for a visit and he was absolutely dazzled by it.
And in short order that entrepreneur, Steve Jobs, would incorporate those ideas into a completely new kind of computer, the Macintosh. Xerox, for its part, never did build a viable computer business.
The Usefulness of Useless Things
All of these stories have one thing in common: the identification of an unrecognized genius. Two eminent mathematicians looked at Ramanujan’s work and saw nothing. Many publishers passed over Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Legions of Xerox executives looked at PARC and saw not the future, but a bunch of eggheads tinkering around.
Yet there is also another, less obvious commonality. In each case, the impetus for recognition was a common problem. Ramanujan’s letter to Hardy included a proof that Hardy himself had been working on. Wittgenstein’s ravings were targeted at the issues Russell himself was trying to solve. Jobs, obsessed with design, found just what he was looking for at PARC.
All too often, we miss out on opportunities not through a lack of intelligence, but a lack of imagination. We are simply focused on doing other things and, when presented with an idea that doesn’t fit with the particular problem on our mind at the time, we fail to take note. The truth is, seemingly useless things can turn out to be useful indeed.
To see what I mean, consider the case of SuperPaint, the breakthrough graphics technology developed at PARC by Dick Shoup and Alvy Ray Smith. It too was rejected, but not by staid executives, but by the same computer science geeks who revolutionized computers. For them, it was too far afield from their work to justify any significant expenditure of resources.
After the work went unappreciated, Smith went to the New York Institute of Technology, where he met Ed Catmull. Eventually, the two would go to form a research group for George Lucas, who saw the opportunity to create a new paradigm for special effects. After Lucas’s divorce, the group was spun out as its own company and bought by the ever opportunistic Steve Jobs.
That company, Pixar, was sold to Disney in 2006 for $7.4 billion dollars.
image credit: latimes.com
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