The Truth About Creative Intelligence

Why there’s no universal model for the making of a creative genius and the route to success is closer than you think

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Why there’s no universal model for the making of a creative genius and the route to success is closer than you think

It’s been raging for centuries; is talent innate or is it cultivated? Are we born with the necessary creative intelligence for success or is our environment responsible for shaping us? Can we, in fact, shape our own genius?

Well, the answer is it’s complicated. Let’s take what we would commonly refer to as intelligence as an example.

In 1916, Professor Lewis M. Terman at Stanford University set out to answer these questions. He took a test of IQ created by French psychologists Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon in 1905 and formulated the Stanford-Binet Intelligence test. Terman used the test to examine intelligence levels in a large sample of US children and continued to track their journey into adulthood. He wanted to see if those who scored highly would develop into adult geniuses.

He selected the cream of the crop, which comprised 1528 children, both boys and girls around eleven years of age. According to the measure, they represented the brightest of those tested with an average IQ of 151. The brightest of the bright had IQs of 177 to 200 on the scale. As they grew into adolescence and adulthood, they were continually tested and tracked by Terman and his team and results published in the five-volume Genetic Studies of Genius.

And guess what?

None of them achieved eminence.

That’s right — of the 1528 children who were tested by Terman’s team from 1916 to 1959, none reached what we can refer to as the pinnacle of human achievement. Instead, they went on to occupy everyday roles in society, such as doctors, engineers, lawyers, and so on. Furthermore, many of the initial sample didn’t achieve what we would refer to as success in even a moderate capacity. However, two members of the study went on to become professors at Stanford, but as Dean Keith Simonton suggests in his book The Genius Checklist, they were hardly household names.

Contrastingly, some of the greatest contemporary scientific minds possessed IQs below what we would call genius level. Physicist Richard Feynman, co-discoverer of DNA James Watson and physicist William Shockley all had relatively low IQs (in the 120s). The latter two were tested by Terman’s team but didn’t make the cut, and ironically were two of the greatest minds of the 20th Century.

Granted, this example implies that the badge of creative genius is reserved for those who become well known. It also implies that creative geniuses don’t exist in ordinary everyday society. Personally, I don’t assign to that belief. As far as I am concerned, being well-known or worldly famous for your creative output is not a prerequisite for the title of genius. In fact, it’s more likely that creative output can be marred by worldly recognition than enhanced.

But that’s just my opinion.

“While we may continue to use the words smart and stupid, and while IQ tests may persist for certain purposes, the monopoly of those who believe in a single general intelligence has come to an end” — Howard Gardner

The correlation between IQ and creative genius is low to middling. High achievers can have lower than average IQs, and those with supremely high IQ can disappear into obscurity. So there must be something else at work.

Dean Keith Simonton says that personality and persistence matter a lot. A graduate on Terman’s team, Catherine Cox, took a different approach to the investigation of the relationship between IQ and creative success. Looking at historical figures, Cox found that motivational traits were critical with persistence proving to be a profoundly influencing factor.

Cox reported;

“High, but not the highest intelligence, combined with the greatest degree of persistence, will achieve greater eminence than the highest degree of intelligence with somewhat less persistence”

I have seen this so many times in business and sport; those who are less gifted technically, working harder than everyone else, tend to achieve higher. I am also inclined to give more credit in selection to those who work harder. It says to me that when the chips are down, this kid who works his ass off will help the team deliver a result.

Technically capable but unable to grind out a result? Sorry, you’re coming second.

Determination and persistence, or what would in today’s terms, be known as ‘grit’, matters so much more than skill. After all, skills can be developed with practice. As the psychologist and author Anders Ericsson says in his book Peek;

“So here we have purposeful practice in a nutshell: Get outside your comfort zone but do it in a focused way, with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals, and a way to monitor your progress. Oh, and figure out a way to maintain your motivation.”

“Trying to do things they can’t yet do, failing, and learning what they need to do differently is exactly the way that experts practice.”― Angela Duckworth

Now, all of the above should be taken into account. However, something else needs our consideration.

Perhaps we must realise that the height of creative expression, genius-level expertise, and so on, are the combination of innumerable factors. Genetic inheritance, environmental conditions, psychological state, personal history and self-application are but a few. It is not unreasonable to suggest that there are too many variables of which to be aware. And even if we could, we couldn’t possibly control them.

However, there is a particular rhetoric that suggests I can be whatever I want. Some commentators like to insist that I can close the gap between my current self and my ideal self, no matter how wide. But this is not necessarily true and often represents a shallow, idealistic notion of reality. It considers not the history and complexities influencing any given person’s psychophysical development, and it takes in nothing of their why.

It’s called “the hard sell”, it’s based on material gain and worldly status, and too many of us fall for it.

We see others hailed and celebrated by the masses, and we dream of being in their shoes. We see the glisten of bright shiny things, the glory of their success, and we are hypnotised. We cannot see the depths to which that person needed to go to achieve what they did. Nor do we offer merit to the challenges they had to overcome or the base material with which they had to work.

Maybe they succeeded as they did because they struggled the most. Maybe they channelled their creative energy into something positive to fill their personal void. Perhaps with a lifetime spent trying to find themselves, they are the ones who are prepared to go the necessary lengths to outrun their demons.

With that in mind, would we really want what they have?

The fact is that not everyone who dreams of becoming an astronaut gets to be one. And someone with short legs is doubtful to win gold for the 100 meters at the Olympics. Not everyone is built the same psychologically or physiologically, and where the domain is highly technically specialised, someone must come second.

Can I change these things or develop other attributes that counterbalance my deficiencies? Maybe, maybe not.

The most significant part of the challenge, therefore, is to find that to which we are best tuned. Try many things and “fail” as it were. Maybe we’ve got to quit looking outside ourselves for a template to creative success and instead look inside. Perhaps we need to ignore the noise and go where it’s quiet.

Maybe you don’t find it, instead, it finds you.


  1. Terman, L. (1918). The Measurement of Intelligence. The School Review, 26(2), 150–151. doi: 10.1086/436877

  2. Simonton, D. (2018). The genius checklist (1st ed.). London: MIT Press.

  3. Cox, C. M. (1926). Genetic studies of genius. II. The early mental traits of three hundred geniuses.

  4. Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak (1st ed.). London: 2017.

Thanks for taking the time to read my stuff. Every morning you’ll find me sharing a new thought on life, art, work, creativity, the self and the nature of reality on The Reflectionist. I also write on The Creative Mind. If you like what I’m creating, join my email list to receive the weekly Sunday Letters