The Genius Fallacy (Jean)

천재에 관한 환상을 버리도록 권고하는 글 하나 더… (원문 링크) 참고로 글쓴이는 MIT 졸업한 양반이다. ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ 이런 글이 원래 다 이 모양일 수밖에 없다는 걸 잘 알고 있다. 상징자본을 갖고 있는 사람이 발언권을 갖는 법.

경제학과 교수가 했다는 말에 주목할 만하다.

“You have to be a super star to succeed in a department like ours, (..) I want undergraduate researchers who are stars.” 그리고 그는 글쓴이의 이메일에 답장을 보내지 않았다. 흔히 일어나는 일이다… 글쓴이는 컴퓨터과학과 교수에게서 더 나은 조언을 들을 수 있었다고 한다. ㅠㅠ 안 그래도 모교 교수님(UChicago 박사)이 하시던 말씀이 있다. “탑스쿨 교수들은 코호트에서 스타를 찾는 것이 목표다. 내가 대학원생이던 당시 1년 위에 Ivan Werning (MIT, 2014 JBC Medalist)이 있었다. 교수들은 그 이야기를 하면서 우리 코호트엔 스타가 없고, 망했다는 말을 서슴지 않고 했다.” 이 이야기를 5번 넘게 들은 것 같다. 이 글쓴이도 같은 에피소드를 얘기하고 있다. 평가란 본디 냉정한 것이나, 교육학적으로 저걸 바람직하다고 할 수 있을까.

…아무튼 나 같은 범재는 존버정신으로 가야지 뾰족한 방법이 없다.

The Genius Fallacy

During our department’s PhD Open House this past spring, a student asked what I thought made a PhD student successful. I realized that my answer now is different than it would have been a few years ago.

My friend Seth tells me I need to build more suspense in my writing*, so let me first tell my life story.

The whole time I was growing up, I was slightly disappointed that I wasn’t some kind of prodigy. It seemed that my parents were telling me every day about so-and-so’s toddler son who was playing Beethoven concertos from memory, so-and-so’s daughter who, as an infant, had already completed a course on special relativity. In order to give me the same opportunities to demonstrate my genius, my parents spent all their money on piano lessons, gymnastic classes, writing camps, art camps, tennis camps, and extracurricular math classes. Unfortunately, nobody ever said, “This is the best kid I have ever seen. I must take her away from her family to train her for greatness.”

“Child prodigies have hard lives,” my father would tell me, probably trying hiding his disappointment. “It can be difficult for them to make friends because others can’t relate to how gifted they are.”

“Just work hard, be a nice person, and try to be happy,” my mother would tell me. “You didn’t know how to cry when you were born. I’m glad you’re able to talk in full sentences.”

Despite the comforting words from my parents, there was always a part of me that held out hope of discovering a secret prodigious talent. But the angst of not being a prodigy was small compared to the existential angst of being newly alive and so I mostly tried to work hard, to be a nice person, and to be happy. This got me all the way to college, where I thought I could leave all this prodigy nonsense behind me.

In college, I discovered that the pressure to be immediately and wildly gifted came in another form. In my first two years of school, I attended many talks and panels by professors telling us what we should do with our lives. I attended a research panel in the economics department, where one of the professors kept repeating the word “star.”

“You have to be a super star to succeed in a department like ours,” he said about what it meant to be on the tenure track in the economics department. “I want undergraduate researchers who are stars.”

I didn’t know what a star was and I didn’t presume to be one, but I liked the professor’s research, so I emailed him my resume and said I would like to work with him.

He never wrote back.

I resigned myself to not being a star. I took hard classes with people who had medaled in math, informatics, and science olympiads, wondering how it would feel to do the problem sets if I had such a gifted, well-trained mind. I also became concerned about my future. What was my place in a world that worshipped instatalent?

It all began to change when I began to talk more with the professors in the Computer Science department. Despite my lack of apparent star quality, my professors seemed to like answering the questions I asked them. They pitched me projects I could do, and before I knew it I was applying to PhD programs and preparing to spend the next few years doing academic research. As I was graduating, I spoke with my one professor to get advice about my future in research.

“Research isn’t just about smarts,” my professor told me. At the time, I thought this was a white lie that professors told to their students who weren’t prodigies.

Then she told me something that turned my worldview upside down. “My biggest concern for you, Jean, is that you need to start finishing projects,” she told me. “You need to focus.”

It was then that I began to realize that maybe the myth of the instagenius was but a myth. I had gone from interest to interest, from project to project, waiting to find It, that easy fit, that continuous honeymoon. With some projects I had It for a while, long enough to demonstrate to myself and others that I could finish. Then I moved on, waiting to fall in love with a problem, waiting for a problem to choose me. What I had failed to see was that this relationship with a problem didn’t just happen: I had to do my share of the work.

Still, I clung to the dream of the easy problem. At Google, employees get to have a 20% project: a side project they spend the equivalent of one day a week working on that may or may not make its way into production eventually. In graduate school, my 20% project was looking for an easier project–a project with which I had more chemistry, a project with fewer days lost to dead ends and angst. One of my hobbies involved interviewing for internships in completely different research areas. Another one of my hobbies was fantasizing about becoming a classics PhD student, despite knowing no ancient languages. (I once took an upper-level literature seminar on Aristotle with the leading world scholar on Homeric poetry and I thought he had a pretty good life.)

But because I like to finish what I started, the PhD became a process of learning to persevere. Instead of indulging the temptation to switch projects, advisors, or even schools, I kept going. I endured something like five rounds of rejections on the first paper towards my PhD thesis, and multiple years of people telling me that maybe I should find another topic, because I didn’t seem in love. Eventually, I learned that every problem that looks like it might be easy has hard parts, every problem that looks like it might be fun has boring parts, and all problems worth solving are full of dead ends. I finally learned, in the words of my friend Seth, that “the grass is brown everywhere.”

And this shattering of my belief in instagenius has shaped my conception of what makes a student a star. There was a time when I, like many people, thought that the superstars were the ones who sounded the most impressive when they spoke, or who had the most raw brainpower. If you asked me what I thought made a good researcher, I may have said some other traits like creativity and good taste in problems. And while all these certainly help with being a good researcher, there are plenty of people with these traits who do not end up being successful.

What I have learned is that discipline and the ability to persevere are equally, if not more, important to success than being able to look like a smart person in meetings. All of the superstars I’ve known have worked harder–and often faced more obstacles, in part due to the high volume of work–than other people, despite how much it might look like they are flying from one brilliant result to another from the outside. Because of this, I now want students who accept that life is hard and that they are going to fail. I want students who accept that sometimes work is going to feel like it’s going to nowhere, to the point that they wish they were catastrophically failing instead because then at least something would be happening. While confidence might signal resilience and a formidable intellect might decrease the number of obstacles, the main differentiator between a star and simply a smart person is the ability to keep showing up when things do not go well.

It has become especially important for me to fight the idolization of the lone genius because it is not just distracting, but also harmful. Currently, people who “look smart” (which often translates into looking white, male, and/or socioeconomically privileged) have a significant advantage for two main reasons. The first reason has to do with self-perception. Committing to hard work and overcoming obstacles is easier if you think it will pay off. If someone already does not feel like they belong, it is easier for them to stop trying and self-select out of a pursuit when they hit a snag. The second reason has to do with perception by others. Research suggests that in fields that value innate talent, women and other minorities are often stereotyped to have less of it, leading to unfair treatment.

And so I’ve written this post not just to reveal my longstanding delusions of grandeur, but also to start a discussion how the myth of instagenius holds us back, as individual researchers and as a community. Would love to hear your thoughts about how we can move past the genius fallacy.

Related writing:
The Structured Procrastination Trap
The Angst Overhead
Five Things More Important About a Research Project than Being in Love
On Quora: How common is it for PhD students to do work in projects that they are not passionate in?

* Seth also tells me the main idea of this blog post is the same as Angela Duckworth’s book Grit. I guess I should tell you that you could read that instead of this. On the subject of the lack of originality of my ideas, you should also read what Cal Newport has to say about the “passion trap.”