Einstein: "What is Genius?"

In 1953, a student asked Albert Einstein "What is genius?" His response? Not what you may think.

In 1953, a student asked Albert Einstein "What is genius?" His response? Not what you may think.

Fast-forward 58 years to 2011. I was applying to colleges and reached out to alumni of different schools to learn about their experiences. I wanted to see what I could learn from them to help me get the most out of my college experience.

That fall, I had the opportunity to speak with Ben (not his actual name) who graduated in 1956 from Princeton University with a degree in chemical engineering. During his time at Princeton, the top fifteen rising sophomores in engineering were rewarded with a special 12-week seminar put together by the faculty. Ben made it to the top fifteen, and, therefore, earned a spot in the seminar in the fall semester of 1953.

In the summer, he found out who the instructor would be: Albert Einstein. Einstein would teach (see note 1) the class and it would have the following format: each student would prepare three questions, with no topics off-limit. Each of their class periods together would be dedicated to answering one of the students' questions. The first forty minutes of the class period would consist of Einstein mediating discussion between students and asking clarifying questions to help them pursue their varied lines of thinking. In the last ten minutes of the class period, Einstein would provide his own viewpoints, pulling from his own life experience.

Ben's question for one of the classes consisted of three simple words: "What is genius?"

The students were off and running. For forty minutes, they attempted to arrive at a collective definition of "genius," all the while mediated by the man whose name would become synonymous with the term. Their ideas centered genius around the following themes: "A genius is someone who can compute large sums in their head." "Genius is the ability to hold large amounts of information in their mind at once." "A genius is a human encyclopedia." "Geniuses have high intellectual horsepower."

For the first forty minutes, the discussion centered around these themes of intellectual might.

After the forty minutes were over, Einstein said simply, "That's really not it at all." Genius, he said, was reducing something complex into its fundamental components without sacrificing meaning.

As an example, he explained how Isaac Newton enabled calculus to be widely accepted. When Newton invented calculus, few understood it because of the new terminology and concepts he used. To gain widespread understanding, Newton spent the next three years proving calculus in an existing, widely understood mathematical framework: geometry. By translating his work into a common language, he was able to gain traction with the scientific community and give the world a dramatically more robust toolbox to solve math and engineering problems.

No matter our intellectual ability, our effectiveness is in large part based on our ability to translate what we know to a language our audience understands.

Put differently, effective translation is genius. When you're translating, you're not thinking about yourself. When you're translating, you're making accessible what could have once been out of reach. When you're translating, you're serving others.

Is genius, then, a life in service to others? In the end, that's a good way to think about it.

"I believe in one thing—that only a life lived for others is a life worth living" - Albert Einstein

Note 1: Einstein would go on to teach there until his death two years later in 1955.