How to be Brilliant: Developing the Genius Mindset

It is an age-old debate – nature versus nurture; talent versus practice; and of course, the ultimate question: are geniuses born or made? And if it is made, how do we nurture the genius mindset?

An article I read offered two arguments from two experts each arguing for the opposite side of the coin. The debate was between Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman (Cognitive psychologist, NYU; co-founder, The Creativity Post; Chief Science Officer, The Future Project) and Dr. Zach Hambrick (Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology, Michigan State University). Personally, when I read both arguments, I kind of thought they were making the same point. Both experts conceded that nature and nurture had a role to play and that neither factor stood alone – which is pretty much what John Medina wrote in Brain Rules for Baby – 50% is nature, 50% is nurture.

The Genius Mindset: Nature or Nurture?

However, if you read some books, like “Selfish Reasons to have More Kids” by Bryan Caplan, you would be convinced that nothing you do really matters (so long as you are in the middle class – please note the qualifier). Ognjen Amidzic, who examined “The Grandmaster Experiment” by Hungarian psychologist Laszlo Polgar (a father who raised three chess grandmaster daughters), concurred stating that the difference between a master and a highly trained amateur is that the masters are able to file their information into their long-term memory, while highly-trained amateurs only use short-term memories.

“Amidzic’s research suggests that chess whizzes are born with the tendency to process chess more through their frontal and parietal cortices, the areas thought to be responsible for long-term memory. Players whose medial temporal lobes are activated more will be consigned to mediocrity.”

The Genius Mindset and the Rage to Master

Another factor that cannot be nurtured is the “rage to master” – a term coined by Boston psychologist Ellen Winner. It refers to the motivation that drives an individual in their continuous pursuit of excellence and it is what separates the good from the best. Parents can force their children to work harder, but they will never get their children to that level of passion that is required for brilliance unless it is desired by the children. This is why I’ve always believed that the parent’s role is to help our children discover their passion and to provide them the opportunity to pursue that passion. What happens after that is in the hands of our children.

Does that mean geniuses are born? Not quite. Children are dependent upon their carers to provide for them. If we don’t give them the opportunity, how will they get there? Looking back at The Grandmaster Experiment, the Polgar sisters were chess grandmasters in their own right but only because their father provided them the opportunity to train and develop. Without their father’s persistent support, it is questionable whether the girls would have gotten there on their own.

Talent is Overrated

Secondly, the belief that “talent is nothing and that success is 99% hard work” was beneficial for the girls. The problem with individuals that demonstrate precocious abilities is that they often invite “smart” praise which can have damaging effects on their future development as we read in Nurture Shock. Because the girls believed that success was hard work, they were better equipped to deal with losses and defeat. An individual, believing that talent is everything, is discouraged by set-backs and defeat.

When children were praised for their “intelligence after they succeeded at a nonverbal IQ test, they subsequently didn’t want to take on a new challenge—they preferred to keep looking smart. When they were forced to complete a more difficult exercise, their performance plummeted. In contrast, some children were praised for “how” they did a task—for undergoing the process successfully. Most of the children in this group wanted to take on a tougher assignment afterward. Their performance improved for the most part, and when it didn’t, they still enjoyed the experience.”

The Problem with Talent

The third interesting point was that of the three daughters, the one believed to be the most talented in chess was the one who was motivated to practice the least. As a result, she was the weakest link among the three sisters.

“People don’t always derive the most enjoyment from the things they’re best at. Adults tag children who show promise and watch their progress with vested interest, causing some kids to falter under the weight of great expectations.”

When you know you aren’t as talented as your competitors, it forces you to work harder to keep up. Eventually, you will overtake the ones that rest on their laurels even if they were “born more gifted”. So even though 50% is genetic and there’s nothing you can do to change it, I like to look at the other 50% and think about what I can do to influence it.

Modelling the Genius Mindset

Anthony Robbins once said that if you want to be as successful as a particular individual then copy everything that they do. If you want to think like a genius, then you need to know how geniuses think. For starters, geniuses think creatively – they are productive as opposed to reproductive. Here’s an example:

When confronted with a problem, they ask “How many different ways can I look at it?”, “How can I rethink the way I see it?”, and “How many different ways can I solve it?” instead of “What have I been taught by someone else on how to solve this?” They tend to come up with many different responses, some of which are unconventional and possibly unique. A productive thinker would say that there are many different ways to express “thirteen” and many different ways to halve something. Following are some examples.
13 = 1 and 3
XIII = 11 and 2
XIII = 8

How can you teach your children to think like a genius?

Here are some strategies:

  • look at problems in different ways
  • make your thoughts visible through visual means
  • produce – come up with lots of ideas because it is through the numerous “bad” ideas that a good one will appear
  • make novel combinations
  • force relationships
  • think in opposites
  • think metaphorically
  • prepare for chance – in other words, you have to be prepared to fail
Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius

For more information about developing the genius mindset, check out the following resources by Michael Michalko:

For more information about mindset, check these out:

For more on creativity, check out these articles:

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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