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Sorta Random Sunday: Is Genius Born or Made?

I love listening to the “Stuff You Should Know” podcast. If you haven’t listened to it, I really recommend it. It’s one of the more established podcasts out there. The two hosts, Josh and Chuck, basically talk about a random topic that they have researched for 30-60 minutes. The other day on a drive to work I listened to one episode about William James Sides…a genius.

I had never heard of William James Sidis before. But his story is super interesting.

Basically it goes like this…


He was born in 1898 in America to Russian immigrant parents. Both parents were super smart. His dad advanced some pretty high level scientific theories. His mom was the first woman admitted to Boston Medical College, even though she didn’t end up attending.

They also had some interesting parenting theories. In short, they believed that basically any kid could be a genius if they were placed in the right environment and raised the right way. And they immersed their son in education from the very beginning.

By report, he was reading the New York Times by age 2. He spoke multiple languages by age 7. He was admitted to Harvard at age 11. Graduated at age 15. Became a professor at Rice University at age 17, when he was younger than most of his students.

But there were problems…

He had a very contentious relationship with media. From the beginning, the media was obviously fascinated by him. As a child he was often accosted for stories and photographs.

The media also apparently tried to break him down a lot. His immigrant parents implied that Americans were lazy in raising their “non-genius” kids. So either the Americans were right or the immigrant parents were. And the media for sure wanted to find reasons that the immigrants were wrong…so this meant breaking down this kid.

But that’s not the question

There are obviously issues with the way in which William James Sidis was raised. Notably the lack of emotional intelligence that was nurtured. He parents also eschewed play. And we know that play is very important to development.

But the question is whether genius is born or made?

I don’t know the answer. I guess if I had to give an opinion I think that we are all born with a range a native capabilities. Maybe this range is skewed more in one direction than another for certain skills in certain people. But where we achieve within that range? I say that depends on the environment.

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Either way, a really interesting story and thought experiment!

There’s more though…

I came across this idea while recently reading a book called, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.

It’s a really interesting book although I have to admit that some parts get a bit more dry than necessary. You can tell that it’s written by someone more used to writing scientific papers. But still, overall it’s still very good.

Anyway, Dr. Ericsson is basically an expert at how people become experts. And his years of research and study have led him to the conclusion that experts become experts not so much due to innate talent but due to hard work and focus. The actual practice that this focus and hard work manifests is something he terms, deliberate practice.

I won’t get into the details of deliberate practice here. But if you want to learn, this book is the place to go.

But one big revelation that comes from this book and the research it shares is the illusion of the born genius

In the end, this book concludes that, rather than limits placed by nature, we all have the ability to become experts. The caveat is obviously that starting as young as possible helps the most. But even adults have been shown capable of achieving expert status, learning perfect pitch and other skills associated with prodigies later in life.

The keys is on our hands, or better put in our brains!

A financial corollary

In fact, I believe that this can be extended to personal finance! It is never too late to start. You have the ability to become financially well and free, an expert in money, at any point. The key is to practice and build the right skills and habits.

Here are some resources to help you on that journey!

What do you think? Is genius born or made? Had you heard of William James Sidis before? Any other good podcast recommendations? Let me know in the comments below!

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    Jordan Frey MD, a plastic surgeon in Buffalo, NY, is one of the fastest-growing physician finance bloggers in the world. See how he went from financially clueless to increasing his net worth by $1M in 1 year and how you can do the same! Feel free to send Jordan a message at [email protected].

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