Becoming A Genius: 3 Stages of Creative Expertise
How László Polgár and his wife Klara used László's theory of creative genius to turn his three daughters into world champions chess players
Hungarian psychologist László Polgár made quite a unique marriage proposal to his long-distance girlfriend Klara, a language teacher from Ukraine. During their early courtship, he wrote to Klara telling her that using his education and training methods, he could turn any child from any background into a genius in any domain of expertise. But there was only one problem… he had no children of his own to test it out. He needed someone willing enough to marry him, have children, and then dedicate their lives to proving his theory correct.
So he asked Klara to marry him and she agreed.
They married and moved to Hungary where they had three daughters and considered what domain of activity they could train their children. They discussed languages, mathematics, and several other fields but settled on chess–a male-dominated field—which perhaps made their task all the more challenging. Regardless, they immediately began to execute their plan to mould their children into world-class players.
Before he met Klara, László wrote a book titled Bring Up Genius (Nevelj Zsenit!)1, where he outlined his theories based on his study of hundreds of creative geniuses such as Einstien and Socrates. He says in the book, “Genius equals work and fortunate circumstances…geniuses are made, not born” and was convinced of the legitimacy of his hypothesis. So with their method, equipment, materials and subjects in place, László and Klara set out on their lifelong task.
“When I looked at the life stories of geniuses I found the same thing….they all started at a very young age and studied intensively”
— László Polgár
The Polgárs commenced their experiment in the late 1960s under the premise that any healthy child can become a genius in any field of sport, science or the arts, as long as their education begins around the age of three and they start to specialise at age six. But their work was seen as controversial, and they were met with resistance from neighbours and education authorities.
People said they were destroying their children and the Polgárs had to battle to win the right to homeschool their three girls. However, they persevered, and from their small Budapest apartment cluttered with chess-related material, Zsuzsa, Sofia and Judit underwent their tuition in spite of opposition. In fact, it may have been that very opposition which brought them closer together and reinforced the girls’ learning.
Men had dominated the world of chess for centuries, but the Polgár girls were about to change things. In 1973 at age four, Zsuzsa won her first competition and by age fifteen was ranked one of the top women chess players in the world. Later she became the first woman to be awarded the title of Grandmaster via the same path that all previous male awardees are required to take.
Third daughter Judit, became a Grandmaster at age fifteen making her the youngest person ever to be awarded the accolade. The middle girl, Sofia, although gaining enough points to secure the award, was never granted Grandmaster status which some suggested was for political reasons. However, her achievements were nonetheless impressive, having been ranked sixth best female chess player in the world.
László and Klara Polgár’s experiment was by all external measures a success. Although, it might be suggested at what cost to their three girls? Reports from the girls in subsequent years suggest that their learning and practice were fun. They say they were curious about chess and chose to play it — they were never forced. And they spoke of a “very special atmosphere” in their home.
The level of the girls’ immersion in the game was intense. Apparently, once late at night, László found his daughter Sophia in the bathroom with a chessboard on her knees. He told her to leave the pieces alone and go back to bed. She apparently replied, “Daddy, they won’t leave me alone”. She and her sisters had become committed and obsessed with the game.
“In the beginning, it was a game. Later, chess for me became a sport, an art, a science, everything together. I was very focused on chess and happy with that world. I was not the rebelling and going out type. I was happy that at home we were a closed circle and then we went out playing chess and saw the world.”
— Judit Polgár
The Three Stages of Creative Genius
In his 2017 book Peek; how all of us can achieve extraordinary things2 the late Anders Ericsson explains that Zsuzsa, Sofia and Judit took a path that all high performing creative geniuses appear to travel. He says that an expert’s development passes through three stages from the onset of curiosity to fully-fledged creative genius. Typically, he says, the process begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues for at least ten years until the child reaches elite-level expertise.
In a relentless pursuit of perfection and answers to burning questions, the expert keeps pushing the boundary of their abilities. Eventually, they break not only their personal limits but also the limits of the domain and bring to the world a unique and eminent contribution. This aligns with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow,3 and according to Ericsson, there are three stages of the creation of a genius.
Stage 1: Curiosity
In the early stages of human development, a child is driven by curiosity. Or perhaps drawn by curiosity, would be a better way to phrase it because curiosity feels like a vacuum into which we are being taken rather than being driven or pushed. The child wants to investigate everything. Their desire and motivation are intrinsic and objects in the world serve as a means of exploration. It was at this early stage that the Polgárs made a concerted effort to influence their children.
Zsuzsa Polgár explained in a magazine interview how she remembers her first interaction with chess. “Yes, he could have put us in any field, but it was I who chose chess as a four-year-old…. I liked the chessmen; they were toys for me. Later it was the logic that fascinated me, and the challenge”.
Ericsson says that at this stage, the parent plays a crucial role in the child’s development. By affording their child love, time, attention and encouragement, they steer the focus of the child’s interest. As time passes, the parent introduces the benefits of self-discipline, dedication and responsibility into the mix while maintaining the vital aspect of play.4 Reinforcement of the behaviour is then achieved through praise and reward. Reinforcement is also achieved through younger children’s observation of the older ones, a process known as vicarious learning.5
At some point in their progression, the child begins to form deeper connections with the game. For Zsuzsa, it was when the logical and strategic component took over from the broader play aspect. This is the point when the child moves on to stage two.
Stage 2: Becoming Serious
Ericsson says that in the years preceding adolescence, and after the child shows significant promise, they seek out a teacher or a coach and encounter deliberate practice6 for the first time. Play still forms part of the subjective experience, but deliberate execution and refinement of specific tasks become the focus.
The teachers don’t necessarily need to be expert performers themselves, according to Ericsson, they just need to be reasonably proficient. László Polgár wasn’t a brilliant chess player himself, and his daughters became much better than him very quickly. But he was, as Judit said once in an interview, “a great motivator and visionary”.
These attributes in the teacher are critical for the young student. Their teachers must possess the ability to actively coach and encourage their students to higher levels of skill development and performance. Ultimately though, the child’s motivation must be intrinsic. The study of human performance has shown that extrinsic motivation rarely endures, so to travel the long road to creative expertise, we must be self-motivated.
We know that any kind of extended practice, Ericsson says, alters the brain’s neurological systems which leads to increased abilities in the skills practised. He wonders then if there is a neurological basis for effects on motivation and enjoyment. At present, it’s unclear. What we do know is that experts gain great pleasure from their work — they love to do it and are in command of it.
When I consider this, it seems to me that the person and the work at some stage become one entity. They somehow blend with the work and vibrate quite literally at the same frequency as the activity. Regarding those in peak experience, Maslow states in Toward A Psychology of Being7;
“The person in the peak-experience feels more integrated, unified, whole, all-of-a-piece, than at other times. He also looks to the observer more integrated, less split or dissociated”.
— Abraham Maslow
Stage 3: Making A Commitment
It is generally in the early teenage years that future geniuses decide to go all-in. They make a conscious decision to dedicate their lives to becoming the best that they can be. They commit, and all other activities not lending themselves to their expert development are dropped. The prodigy seeks out the best schools and tutors, and if required, even leaves for another country to access them.
Money helps — a lot. Training can be expensive with costs often reaching tens of thousands per year. Ericsson cites a 2014 article by Money Magazine which suggested $30,000 per year for a child to access elite tennis training. However, the creation of a genius doesn’t always need deep pockets. Parents with little money and generous support like the Polgárs, can make up the difference. In fact, plenty of money and no support will often lead the student nowhere.
Another critical aspect of the development of expertise in children is the harnessing of the momentum of growth in the body. If specific skills are not developed in youth, they rarely can be in later life. For example, for ballet dancers to acquire the specific ranges of motion for their performance, they must do so as children. Bones mature and joints solidify with age and developing the necessary ballet skills becomes impossible. Shoulders, hips, knees etc. can be sculpted towards particular ends, but it must be done early.
The momentum of brain development too must be harnessed early. Studies have shown that certain areas of the brain are more developed in artists than in non-artists. Musicians too have enlarged areas of the brain not seen in non-musicians. This is particularly so for musicians who began in early childhood. The research appears conclusive; if you want your child to excel, start them early.
It’s a delicate and important learning period for the child, and where the ambition is primarily with the parents, the child can suffer. Nevertheless, if a young and talented teen commits to perfecting their skill for the right reasons, and enlists the coaching of an equally committed tutor, then they may reach the heights of their field.
Would you do what Polgár and his wife did so that your kids excel at a given discipline? Or was it that Polgár was utterly obsessed with chess and his theory and was prepared to go to extreme lengths to prove himself right?
I think what’s critical here is that the Polgár girls wanted to play chess — they weren’t dragged kicking and screaming to the chessboard. László and Klara created a playful and enjoyable atmosphere around the game. In the face of disagreeable external forces, they were even more unified in their purpose — it was them against the world.
Later, as the story goes, Polgár wanted to adopt three non-white children from a third world country to further prove his theory of genius accurate. He had financial backing from a billionaire businessman, but the plan never materialised. It seems that pressure from Klara and realising life was not only about chess, László decided not to proceed.
Reflecting on the Polgár story, I wonder about my intent for my kids. I consider my children’s future, how I might aid their happiness and success, and so on. I point them one way or the other, suggesting to them things that might interest them. I try to recognise where their interests lie and fuel that.
I cannot avoid influencing them, but ultimately, I want them to choose for themselves. They will have many elements vying for their attention and I want to help them focus. But it’s their life, and I want their curiosity to grow organically rather than through my design.
I can’t help but feel that Polgár pursued his own ambition through his children and that may be somewhat of a shadow on the whole affair. However, as noted above, the girls have said they chose chess and they seemed to have a good family life, so who am I to judge.
The Polgárs showed that given the range of variables that existed for them, their meagre surroundings and pressures to conform to normality, sculpting genius-level expertise in their children was possible. The ends justified the means.
Polgár, L., & Farkas, E. (1989). Nevelj zsenit!. Budapest: Interart.
Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak (1st ed.). London: 2017.
Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow theory and research. Handbook of positive psychology, 195, 206.
Brown, S. L. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. Penguin.
Bandura, A. (1965). Vicarious processes: A case of no-trial learning. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 1-55). Academic Press.
Ericsson, K., Krampe, R., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363–406. doi: 10.1037//0033–295x.100.3.363
Maslow, A. (2018). Toward A Psychology of Being (1st ed.). New York: Wilder Publications