The Threshold Theory
The Terman Study of the Gifted is one of the most legendary studies in psychology. In 1916, Lewis Terman developed America’s first IQ test. He used it and other evaluations to recruit 1,528 of the highest-IQ students he could find. The study began in 1921 and went on to become the longest-running longitudinal study—meaning Terman and his team evaluated the subjects at regular intervals throughout their lives. Terman published his data of “The Termites,” as the gifted students have come to be known, across five books. By the fourth, Terman concluded, “At any rate, we have seen that intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated.” The surprising results lead to what’s known as The Threshold Theory. The neuroscientist and creativity researcher Nancy Andreasen writes in The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius, “The Threshold Theory holds that above a certain threshold, intelligence and creativity are not closely related to one another. Most “creative geniuses” are pretty smart, but they aren’t that smart.
It got me thinking—if not intelligence, what does predict high levels of creative achievement?
Go To The Artists’ Colony
In 1936, the psychologist Kurt Lewin came up with a simple equation. It captures most of what we know about human behavior: B = ƒ(P, E). Behavior is a function of the person in their environment. Walt Disney moved to Hollywood in 1923 after almost a decade of trying and failing to make it as a cartoonist in Kansas City, Missouri. Bob Dylan moved to Greenwich Village. Hemingway moved to Paris. The comedian Jerrod Carmichael said of leaving his hometown in North Carolina and moving to Los Angeles, “LA has the best comedians and you want to be around the best…You kind of have to create or go to the artists’ colony for whatever you do.”
Robert Greene once told me that there’s a dividing line between success & failure: the ability to sit with boredom. To become great at anything, he said, you have to do that thing over and over and over and over. You have to be able to sit with boredom. Charles Sculz was the creator of the comic strip Peanuts and probably the two best-known cartoon characters in history, Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Over nearly 50 years, Schulz drew 17,897 published Peanuts strips. “I’m often asked where I get my ideas,” Schulz writes in My Life With Charlie Brown. “They come from sitting in a room alone and drawing seven days a week, as I’ve done for 40 years.”
Read The Library
One of history’s greatest inventors, Thomas Edison, was not a gifted child. “I remember I used to be able to get along at school,” he said, “and that my father thought I was stupid.” One day at school, Edison overheard the schoolmaster say that Edison’s mind was “addled” (which, I had to look up, is defined as 1) unable to think clearly; confused. And 2) (of an egg) rotten). Edison ran home and refused to return to school. From then on, his mother, Nancy Edison, homeschooled him. Mainly, Nancy read him the great works of literature and history. “He grew fascinated,” Matthew Josephson writes in Edison: A Biography, “and at nine was inspired to read such books himself…and soon became a very rapid reader.” Josephson adds, “Thus his mother had accomplished that which all truly great teachers do for their pupils: she brought him to the stage of learning things for himself, learning that which most amused and interested him, and she encouraged him to go on in that path.” At the age of 12, Edison got a job as a newsboy on the daily train. Every day, during the hours of layover in Detroit, Edison would go to the public library. “My refuge was the Detroit Public Library,” Edison said. “I started with the first book on the bottom shelf and went through the lot, one by one. I didn’t read a few books. I read the library.” I’ve written before that creativity is a function of the library in your head. Josephson’s version is, “Invention is not so much bred by old Mother Necessity as by a growing reservoir of knowledge of various arts and industries.”
The Unique Thing Is Really Wanting It
Kim Ung-Yong was a gifted child. By the age of 3, he could solve calculus problems. By 5, he could speak Korean, Japanese, French, German, and English. At the age of 7, he went on TV in Japan and shocked viewers with his ability to solve complicated math equations. He then got his elementary, middle, and high school degrees in two years. Around this time, Kim was measured as having an IQ of 210—at the time, the highest IQ ever. And at 15, he earned a Ph.D. in physics before accepting an invitation to do research at NASA. But after a few years, he quit his job at NASA, returned to South Korea, became a part-time teacher, and was branded a “failed genius.” “Some think,” Kim would say to the idea that he wasted his gifts, “people with a high IQ can be omnipotent, but that’s not true. Look at me…Society should not judge anyone with unilateral standards—everyone has different learning levels, hopes, talents, and dreams and we should respect that.” Maybe the most important thing is a true desire. As the world’s greatest free solo climber (rock climbing without ropes or safety gear) Alex Honnold says, “I think that the unique thing isn’t my ability to solo, I think the unique thing is really wanting to.”
The Secret Is There Is No Secret
When asked the secret to his success, Jerry Seinfeld quoted what Katie Ledecky said after winning 4 gold medals at the Rio Summer Olympics: “The secret is there is no secret.” “There’s nothing you have to know,” Seinfeld said. “You just have to work and grind it out.”