The Common Character Trait of Geniuses

Published on 10 Jan 2014

Geniuses like Isaac Newton and
Richard Feynman both had the ability to concentrate with a sort of
intensity that is hard for mortals to grasp.

Transcript -- I'm
tempted to say smart, creative people have no particularly different set
of character traits than the rest of us except for being smart and
creative, and those being character traits. Then, on the other hand, I
wrote a biography of Richard Feynman and a biography of Isaac Newton.
Now, there are two great scientific geniuses whose characters were in
some superficial ways completely different. Isaac Newton was solitary,
antisocial, I think unpleasant, bitter, fought with his friends as much
as with his enemies. Richard Feynman was gregarious, funny, a great
dancer, loved women. Isaac Newton, I believe, never had sex. Richard
Feynman, I believe, had plenty. So you can't generalize there.

the other hand, they were both, as I tried to get in their heads,
understand their minds, the nature of their genius, I sort of felt I was
seeing things that they had in common, and they were things that had to
do with aloneness. Newton was much more obviously alone than Feynman,
but Feynman didn't particularly work well with others. He was known as a
great teacher, but he wasn't a great teacher, I don't think, one on
one. I think he was a great lecturer. I think he was a great
communicator. But when it came time to make the great discoveries of
science, he was alone in his head. Now, when I say he, I mean both
Feynman and Newton, and this applies, also, I think, to the geniuses
that I write about in The Information, Charles Babbage, Alan Turing, Ada

They all had the ability to concentrate with a sort of
intensity that is hard for mortals like me to grasp, a kind of passion
for abstraction that doesn't lend itself to easy communication, I don't


Why Are Hundreds of Harvard Students Studying Ancient Chinese Philosophy? - Christine Gross-Loh - The Atlantic

Why Are Hundreds of Harvard Students Studying Ancient Chinese Philosophy? - Christine Gross-Loh - The Atlantic

The professor who teaches Classical Chinese Ethical and
Political Theory claims, "This course will change your life."

Eduardo Pelosi/Flickr
a world where human relationships are challenging, narcissism and
self-centeredness are on the rise, and there is disagreement on the best
way for people to live harmoniously together.

It sounds like 21st-century America. But the society that Michael
Puett, a tall, 48-year-old bespectacled professor of Chinese history at
Harvard University, is describing to more than 700 rapt undergraduates
is China, 2,500 years ago.

Puett's course Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory has
become the third most popular course at the university. The only classes
with higher enrollment are Intro to Economics and Intro to Computer
Science. The second time Puett offered it, in 2007, so many students
crowded into the assigned room that they were sitting on the stairs and
stage and spilling out into the hallway. Harvard moved the class to
Sanders Theater, the biggest venue on campus.

Why are so many undergraduates spending a semester poring over
abstruse Chinese philosophy by scholars who lived thousands of years
ago? For one thing, the class fulfills one of Harvard's more challenging
core requirements, Ethical Reasoning. It's clear, though, that students
are also lured in by Puett's bold promise: “This course will change
your life.”

His students tell me it is true: that Puett uses Chinese philosophy
as a way to give undergraduates concrete, counter-intuitive, and even
revolutionary ideas, which teach them how to live a better life. 
Elizabeth Malkin, a student in the course last year, says, “The class
absolutely changed my perspective of myself, my peers, and of the way I
view the world.” Puett puts a fresh spin on the questions that Chinese
scholars grappled with centuries ago. He requires his students to
closely read original texts (in translation) such as Confucius’s Analects,
the Mencius, and the Daodejing and then actively put the teachings into
practice in their daily lives. His lectures use Chinese thought in the
context of contemporary American life to help 18- and 19-year-olds who
are struggling to find their place in the world figure out how to be
good human beings; how to create a good society; how to have a
flourishing life.

Puett began offering his course to introduce his students not just to
a completely different cultural worldview but also to a different set
of tools. He told me he is seeing more students who are “feeling pushed
onto a very specific path towards very concrete career goals” than he
did when he began teaching nearly 20 years ago.  A recent report
shows a steep decline over the last decade in the number of Harvard
students who are choosing to major in the humanities, a trend roughly
seen across the nation’s liberal arts schools. Finance remains the most popular career
for Harvard graduates. Puett sees students who orient all their courses
and even their extracurricular activities towards practical,
predetermined career goals and plans.

Puett tells his students that being calculating and rationally
deciding on plans is precisely the wrong way to make any sort of
important life decision. The Chinese philosophers they are reading would
say that this strategy makes it harder to remain open to other
possibilities that don’t fit into that plan. Students who do this “are
not paying enough attention to the daily things that actually invigorate
and inspire them, out of which could come a really fulfilling, exciting
life,” he explains. If what excites a student is not the same as what
he has decided is best for him, he becomes trapped on a misguided path,
slated to begin an unfulfilling career. Puett aims to open his students’
eyes to a different way to approach everything from relationships to
career decisions. He teaches them that:

The smallest actions have the most profound ramifications. Confucius,
Mencius, and other Chinese philosophers taught that the most mundane
actions can have a ripple effect, and Puett urges his students to become
more self-aware, to notice how even the most quotidian acts—holding
open the door for someone, smiling at the grocery clerk—change the
course of the day by affecting how we feel.

That rush of good feeling that comes after a daily run, the inspiring
conversation with a good friend, or the momentary flash of anger that
arises when someone cuts in front of us in line—what could they have to
do with big life matters? Everything, actually. From a Chinese
philosophical point of view, these small daily experiences provide us
endless opportunities to understand ourselves. When we notice and
understand what makes us tick, react, feel joyful or angry, we develop a
better sense of who we are that helps us when approaching new
situations. Mencius, a late Confucian thinker (4th century B.C.E.),
taught that if you cultivate your better nature in these small ways, you
can become an extraordinary person with an incredible influence,
altering your own life as well as that of those around you, until
finally “you can turn the whole world in the palm of your hand.”

Decisions are made from the heart. Americans
tend to believe that humans are rational creatures who make decisions
logically, using our brains. But in Chinese, the word for “mind” and
“heart” are the same. Puett teaches that the heart and the mind are
inextricably linked, and that one does not exist without the other.
Whenever we make decisions, from the prosaic to the profound (what to
make for dinner; which courses to take next semester; what career path
to follow; whom to marry), we will make better ones when we intuit how
to integrate heart and mind and let our rational and emotional sides
blend into one.  Zhuangzi, a Daoist philosopher, taught that we should
train ourselves to become “spontaneous” through daily living, rather
than closing ourselves off through what we think of as rational
decision-making. In the same way that one deliberately practices the
piano in order to eventually play it effortlessly, through our everyday
activities we train ourselves to become more open to experiences and
phenomena so that eventually the right responses and decisions come
spontaneously, without angst, from the heart-mind.

Recent research into neuroscience is confirming that the Chinese
philosophers are correct: Brain scans reveal that our unconscious
awareness of emotions and phenomena around us are actually what drive
the decisions we believe we are making with such logical rationality.
According to Marianne LaFrance, a psychology professor at Yale, if we
see a happy face for just a fraction of a second (4 milliseconds to be
exact), that’s long enough to elicit a mini emotional high. In one study
viewers who were flashed a smile—even though it was shown too quickly
for them to even realize they had seen it—perceived the things around them more positively.

If the body leads, the mind will follow. Behaving
kindly (even when you are not feeling kindly), or smiling at someone
(even if you aren’t feeling particularly friendly at the moment) can
cause actual differences in how you end up feeling and behaving, even
ultimately changing the outcome of a situation.

While all this might sound like hooey-wooey self-help, much of what
Puett teaches is previously accepted cultural wisdom that has been lost
in the modern age. Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do,” a
view shared by thinkers such as Confucius, who taught that the
importance of rituals lies in how they inculcate a certain sensibility
in a person.  In research published in Psychological Science,
social psychologist Amy Cuddy and her colleagues found that when we take
a power stance (stand with our legs apart, arms thrust out, taking up
space), the pose does not only cause other people to view us as more
confident and powerful; it actually causes a hormonal surge that makes
us become more confident.

At the end of each class, Puett challenges his students to put the
Chinese philosophy they have been learning into tangible practice in
their everyday lives. “The Chinese philosophers we read taught that the
way to really change lives for the better is from a very mundane level,
changing the way people experience and respond to the world, so what I
try to do is to hit them at that level. I’m not trying to give my
students really big advice about what to do with their lives. I just
want to give them a sense of what they can do daily to transform how
they live.” Their assignments are small ones: to first observe how they
feel when they smile at a stranger, hold open a door for someone, engage
in a hobby. He asks them to take note of what happens next: how every
action, gesture, or word dramatically affects how others respond to
them. Then Puett asks them to pursue more of the activities that they
notice arouse positive, excited feelings. In their papers and discussion
sections students discuss what it means to live life according to the
teachings of these philosophers.

Once they’ve understood themselves better and discovered what they
love to do they can then work to become adept at those activities
through ample practice and self-cultivation. Self-cultivation is related
to another classical Chinese concept: that effort is what counts the
most, more than talent or aptitude. We aren’t limited to our innate
talents; we all have enormous potential to expand our abilities if we
cultivate them. You don’t have to be stuck doing what you happen to be
good at; merely pay attention to what you love and proceed from there.
Chinese philosophers taught that paying attention to small clues “can
literally change everything that we can become as human beings,” says

To be interconnected, focus on mundane, everyday practices, and
understand that great things begin with the very smallest of acts are
radical ideas for young people living in a society that pressures them
to think big and achieve individual excellence. This might be one reason
why, according to the Chronicle for Higher Education,
interest in Chinese philosophy is taking off around the nation—not just
at Harvard. And it’s a message that’s especially resonating with those
yearning for an alternative to the fast track they have been on all
their lives.

One of Puett’s former students, Adam Mitchell, was a math and science
whiz who went to Harvard intending to major in economics. At Harvard
specifically and in society in general, he told me, “we’re expected to
think of our future in this rational way: to add up the pros and cons
and then make a decision. That leads you down the road of ‘Stick with
what you’re good at’”—a road with little risk but little reward. But
after his introduction to Chinese philosophy during his sophomore year,
he realized this wasn’t the only way to think about the future. Instead,
he tried courses he was drawn to but wasn’t naturally adroit at because
he had learned how much value lies in working hard to become better at
what you love. He became more aware of the way he was affected by those
around him, and how they were affected by his own actions in turn.
Mitchell threw himself into foreign language learning, feels his
relationships have deepened, and is today working towards a master’s
degree in regional studies. He told me, “I can happily say that
Professor Puett lived up to his promise, that the course did in fact
change my life.”