James Gleick knows from geniuses, having written well-regarded biographies of Sir Isaac Newton, and theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. The two brilliant men were very different on a superficial level. Newton was argumentative and anti-social, Feynman was outgoing and charming. And apparently a great dancer.

Different as they were, though, upon reflection Glick came to the conclusion that in one critical way, the two men had one thing very much in common: a solitary immersion in their work that allowed those incredible minds to leave everyone else in the dust.

Gleick considered other geniuses from history and realized, ”They all had the ability to concentrate with a sort of intensity that is hard for mortals like me to grasp.”

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It seems obvious, really, that getting so intensely good at something means spending a lot of time alone. No one develops genius-level skills without having put a great deal of time honing those skills, whether you’re a Michelangelo, an Einstein or a Beethoven.

Music, in fact, is full of artists whose lives on the outside of Normal gave them the time alone they needed to pursue their passion, which, as Gleick notes, “doesn't lend itself to easy communication,” further reinforcing their isolation. Bach was a crank, Brian Wilson (of the Beach Boys) was an abused child hiding in Four Freshman harmonies, and Prince was a shy, quiet kid practicing endlessly on guitar. In fact, scenes in the video for his song “Musicology” depicts those early days.

Whatever the field, an intense interest and the joy of mastery seems to drive the genius away from normal life, and often from other people. Even when they’re social animals like Feynman, where a genius really takes flight is only in his or her own mind and imagination.

Headline image: AFP