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 Questions and Comments


I really like the way you are opening easy access to great material that gets us thinking about genius and all human endeavour that pushes us towards creative thinking.  May great discussions take place here!

Farrel C

Farrel, many thanks for this.. and your contribution re Darwin (on Your Greats page)… Bill D

To Bobbye C and Delta C:

Yes, I’m good. Sorry so long in responding.. was away. If either of you have any questions or comments re the book, or re greatness, particular greats, etc, send them in. I’ll get back to you if of any use.. Bill D

What exactly is difference between greatness & genius?? Is there any??

Niamh C

Niamh, Good question. Thanks for asking. Truth is there is little or no difference between these terms as used in the psychological research literature today (see pp115-119, esp pp118-9, in Greatness. (The reason I’m focussing on ‘greatness’ rather than ‘genius’ is explained on p 115+).

Either term refers to someone whose creations/achievements have sizably changed the nature of problem solving in a field (eg in classical music, literature, computing, physics, or for that matter – though some academics would disagree with me here – in basketball or boxing. Equally both may be applied to people whose discoveries are seen to have been crucial to the creation a new field (eg the Wright brothers and aviation).

Both terms are used much more loosely in daily life than they are in academia.

Lots of people think of a ‘genius’ as being an exceptional prodigy whose striking ability appears at very early age. Mozart is a classic example (eg pp46-7 in Greatness), but, fact is, most prodigies never become adult geniuses. Have a look at p24 in Grtnss re the 70 prodigies of San Francisco Cohort. As Ellen Winner puts it in her summary of the research (2014): “Child Prodigies and Adult Genius: A Weak Link” (p176 in Grtnss). The reasons why most prodigies never become geniuses will be obvious once you’ve read Greatness.

The term ‘genius’ is also commonly used to describe someone whose style of playing, speaking, singing, etc is seen to be uniquely, compellingly, creative – eg, Messi, Maradona, or Ronaldinho with a football on the toe (apologies to visiting yanks for whom football’s what’s played at the Super Bowl); LeBron James or Stephen Curry, B-Ball in hand eyeing the hoop; Lady Gaga living her whole life “as a theater piece”; Billy Connolly or Richard Pryor ad libbing; Charlie Parker or John Coltrane blowing sax; Zoe Conway or Martin Hayes putting bow to an Irish fiddle. Many such people would also fit into the academic definition of ‘genius’, in that they have transformed the way problems in their field are defined.

Curiously, what all of these uses of the terms ‘genius’ and ‘greatness’ have in common is that they either implicitly or explicitly attribute the cause of the field/life changing creations/achievements to the person, rather than the real cause, ie the person in context, or more to it, the person in many contexts over many years. Sounds a bit like the sort of nonsense I’m hoping to scuttle in Greatness.

Enjoy the book and give us a shout if other queries or thoughts come to mind.. Bill D

Hi Bill,

Thanks for answering my question. You’ve definitely created more.

Eg. is it that the naming of a person as being a great or a genius has to do with creating a new departure, changing the pathway of what has gone before, or is it that their work, their style of doing is fitting into a style that is being created under her feet as it where? Or both?

Yes, one thinks the ‘greats’ of the area of discovery and science as ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, and of how their works have caused new departures in the way of thinking about the physical world. And likewise in the process they have created new questions, and new methods of investigating the physical world. I take it that you are arguing that this is also the case in fields such as music and art.
I gather also that such greats are admired, even venerated, as a result of being in the right place, at the right time in terms of what crises or changes are happening in their field, and in the case of some, in their society and its culture as well. Also that this can happen posthumously, even decades, after someone has died.

Your description of Lady Gaga as a ‘theatre piece’ is revealing. The zeitgeist, the drive for self promotion, that permeates social media in the last number of years must seem very alien to those in their golden years in Ireland, where the ‘I’ was not encouraged.

I am looking forward to reading more.


Hi Niamh..

and Yes to all of above. Eg, see Note 2 in Greatness (p117).

A few elaborations:

1) ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ is a phrase often attributed to those who have become famous etc in terms of them thanking their predecessors in the field for creating the opportunity for them to take it to the next step. But ‘the shoulders’ every new great stands on throughout development, and ditto during the final critical problem solving for which ‘greatness’ is attributed…?

Well those ‘shoulders’ are a helluva lot closer to home. See the discussion of Organizations and Teams in Text (p32+) and more elaborately in Note 25 (p158). Ditto Robert Albert’s “eminence producing families” (p100).

2) to get a sense re how it can take a while.. as in many years and/or decades.. for an eventual great to get that essential match-up between s own creations and the required crisis in field / society / culture, take a look at Note 39 (bottom of p192) re eg, Monet, Lincoln, and Darwin.

3) Interesting point re Lady Gaga and Ireland. ditto interesting to compare Lady G’s acceleration to top of pop music with that of her predecessor, and in so many ways similar pop idol, Madonna.. ‘similar’ not to be confused with ‘good buddy’ .. as any decent Tweeter can tell you. What is it 30 years difference in age.. thus we have Madonna becoming the “Queen of Pop” when Lady G was barely Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. Madonna (see p198 in Note 39 for a bit of this) ever reposing, reinventing herself – the perfect image for her ‘80s (pre-internet) generation – and in the process letting the old codgers know where to get off (as in “Like a Prayer” not only rattling the Vatican, but costing her a Pepsi commercial to boot); and now Lady G – perfectly matched with the next generation, the first generation of Tweeters (Lady G – the most followed person on Twitter in 2011) – letting another old boy know who’s doing the business in those 16” heels. (I don’t think she was wearing Kermit the Frog dolls on the day).

I mean give us a break, here the lot of you are all missing out on the real action. You remember.. jumping up & down on Roney’s couch, just me, Ronn, and El, back there in ‘Tinez, shouting: “You ain’t nothin’ but a Hound Dog ! !.” I mean really, talk bout the real action… Get with it!

On the ZZzzzzz side of things, you probably noticed that both Madonna and Lady Gaga fit nicely into the same analysis re cultural change as do, eg, Elvis (p25), Leonardo (p26), Monet (p193), or for that matter Darwin (p201). Still the big question remains: Where can I get a pair of them 16 inchers??!!

Slán arís

Hi Bill,

I have a question. I came across a bit that puzzled me on p262. It was part of a whole bunch of examples showing how chance determines who becomes great. The bit that puzzled me said: “Is there any chance Lincoln or FDR would have ever become President if they hadn’t been only sons?”. Thing is, I seem to remember hearing somewhere that Lincoln had a brother. So I checked online. Sure enough. It turns out he had a younger brother named Thomas. Then I checked FDR online, and he had a step-brother. What gives?

Sean T

Thanks, Sean. Glad you asked, especially as these sorts of apparent discrepancies are likely to show up in other places in Greatness. I say ‘apparent’ because that’s what they are. In writing the book, even with the extensive Notes, there just wasn’t time or space to spell out every detail of the background research. In this case that’s Louis H. Stewart’s 1992 book Changemakers, which is referenced in the Note that puzzled you on p262. The backstory is that Stewart’s definition of ‘only son’ means that the person in question – in this case Lincoln or FDR – did not have a brother living in the same immediate family with him throughout the first five years of his life (see p51 in Stewart’s Changemakers). Lincoln and FDR clearly fit into this definition – Lincoln’s younger brother, Thomas, died at the age of three days; and FDR’s step-brother had a son who was 3 years older than FDR!!

Why does such ‘only son’ status make Lincoln and FDR ideal candidates for President of the USA during first the Civil War and then the Great Depression…?? Well I’ll leave this to Stewart. (Hint: check his pp48-9 re the “four basic styles of leadership” corresponding to the ‘four (basic) sibling experiences”, and ask yourself: What sort of child would be best suited to lead a society threatened with the “breakdown of social institutions” and a “collapse of vital social functions”? How bout an ‘only child’.. or in case of USA Presidents.. even today.. an ‘only son’.)

Hope this of some use. Any more ??, give us a shout.

Bill D


Many thanks for your piece re Tennis Greats (on “Your Greats” page).
Very impressive.





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