adam barnhard

Genius Is A Thing That Happens

I recently finished Jordan Ellenberg’s book “How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking”. In general I thought it was a fascinating exploration of everyday statistics (e.g. polling numbers and economic reports) as well as things like how to analyze Pascal’s wager or asses the validity of scientific findings, all interwoven with the history of the field and it’s notable contributors. The section that struck me the most, though, was 4 pages tucked near the end (p. 412).

“Genius Is A Thing That Happens”

We tend to recognize the people that push an innovation over the finish line from a great idea to a useable tool, and not the myriad of people who paved the way for that success.

It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing—and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others
- Mark Twain

All great breakthroughs and revolutions sit atop other, perhaps less visible breakthroughs and revolutions. Robert Hooke’s discovery of cells was a breakthrough in biology, and it was only possible through advances in lense making and manufacturing that made commercially available microscopes possible.

Teams and Timing

The two primary factors that impact whether an innovation happens are teams and timing.


No great act was ever achieved alone. Innovation is always driven by groups, formal or informal, of people working together for a common goal. For the formal variety, Google’s research is the best I know of about what makes teams exceptional. The tl;dr; is it mostly boils down to trust.


There’s no way around timing. The mathematical concepts for deep learning algorithms have been around since 1967, but deep learning models didn’t begin impacting industry until the early 2000s. Hardware that was both powerful and cheep enough to be practical had to be invented; if you were a great mind working on the problem before then the best you could do was help set the stage for a future revolution.

If “genius” isn’t something we can be, and nothing trumps the problem of “right idea, wrong time”, what are we to do?

One answer is stop focusing on the result, and instead focus on things we can control. The first is developing “grit”, the ability to push through and keep at a problem, even when there are no signs of outward progress, and it’s not a trait but a skill that can be learned.

The cult of genius also tens to undervalue hard work

- Jordan Ellenberg

Second, we focus on teams and process. As Bill Walsh put it, “The exceptional assembly line comes before the quality car”. By focusing on creating an environment that enables genius to happen, we ensure that if we’re lucky enough that the time really is now, we’re prepared to recognize the opportunities and act on them.

When the quarterback coplete a dazzling touchdown pass to a streaking wide receiver, you are seeing the work of many people in concert: not only the quarterback and the receiver, but the offensive linement who prevent the defense from breaking through just long enough to allow the quarterback to set and throw, that prevention in turn enabled bby the running back who pretended to take a handoff … One doesn’t call those people geniuses. But they create the conditions under which genius can take place.

- Jordan Ellenberg

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