What are the essential elements of genius needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world?

In 2016, inventor Martine Rothblatt’s phone rang. The voice on the other end was her friend, Rebecca Hoffberger. “Are you some kind of da Vinci?” Hoffberger asked. “I’ve just read that you created the world’s first all-electric helicopter.”

“Yes,” said Rothblatt. “I’m inspired by what Elon Musk did with cars and decided to borrow some batteries and build a helicopter,” she said nonchalantly. Despite Hoffberger’s surprise, she wondered at the potential of this new invention. 

“Can you imagine being able to ride to the next city in three minutes? To your next vacation? To Africa?” That’s the power of genius — it starts with a single wild idea.

Hoffberger is  a renowned creative genius and founder of one of the world’s most unusual museums. In 1989 she became focused on developing her idea of a visionary museum — a facility that would specialize in showcasing the work of self-taught, “visionary” artists, and serve as an education center that emphasized intuitive and creative invention. 

“If Leonardo da Vinci had just stuck to painting, he’d still be revered as one of the greatest artists of all time,” says Hoffberger. “But he didn’t.” One of the traits of genius is a never-ending curiosity that  keeps asking why. In the corner of one of da Vinci’s 400-year-old notebooks is scribbled a reminder to himself: “Describe why a woodpecker has a long tongue.” Da Vinci understood that the needed inspiration to solve problems was often found in unexpected places (a woodpeckers tongue rolls up to cushion the brain when pecking at 1,500 g-force; a rollercoaster generates 5 g-force).

Da Vinci was an inventor, sculptor, architect, scientist, musician, mathematician, writer, astronomer, and historian who was fascinated by anatomy, geology, and botany and is credited by some with envisioning human flight and machinery. Following the trajectory of Rothblatt’s career, you see similar evidence that she is a polymath — an individual whose knowledge spans a significant number of subjects. A genius draws on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.

Like many geniuses, Rothblatt has an incredible range of talents. She began as the world’s youngest lawyer in the field of space telecommunications — formulating laws for space around technology that didn’t yet exist. 

For Rothblatt, realizing that she could break the rules was the first step to thinking like a genius. Rothblatt devoured biographies of people she admired when she was young and learned that the surest way to fail is to believe that something is impossible. Intelligence sometimes has nothing to do with it. “It’s not that I’m particularly intelligent,” said Albert Einstein. “It’s just that I’m passionately curious.” Rothblatt was also intrigued with the biography of Jim Thorpe, a Native American gold medal winner at the 1912 Olympics who tried, competed, and excelled in sports in which he had no training or experience. “He questioned authority and accomplished what people thought he couldn’t do,” said Rothblatt. “I’m inspired by the story of Thorpe to this day.”

“Faith is believing in something that you don’t have empirical data to prove — it’s one of the greatest strengths of the human mind.” — Martine Rothblatt

Find places of significance

History is littered with geniuses who find symbolic places and rituals in which to find their inspiration — tapping into big-picture thinking, fantasy, and the unconscious, which sometimes borders on the surreal. For Rothblatt, it was a trip to the Easter Islands in the 1980s that changed her from a lawyer to a scientist. Sent to the island to examine a transmitter, she gazed up and dreamed about the untapped potential of satellite communication. This dream turned into Sirius satellite radio that she founded in 1990.

Easter Island was the perfect setting for Rothblatt’s epiphany — a place also known as the source of the drug rapamycin, discovered in 1964 by Indian-born biologist Dr. Surendra Nath Sehgal. In a dream, Sehgal was guided to a rare fungal bacteria found in the soil under the 12th century, giant stone heads dotted around the island. His discovery has led to rapamycin being used in hospitals around the world, suppressing immune systems in transplant patients and even extending the life of mice in trials. More than 2,000 clinical trials are currently underway around the world, exploring the human life-extending properties of rapamycin.

“Martine has always been good at perceiving things,” says Hoffberger. “One of the traits of being a genius is that you see relationship and possibility in anything, when others don’t.” 

Symbolic names can also inspire and create a sense of higher purpose. Consider how Elon Musk has revived the name of early 20th-century inventor Nikola Tesla to inspire him in building an innovative brand that is currently changing our future.  

Rothblatt’s latest quest is to preserve human memory artificially. Bina48, a robot modeled after her wife Bina, is an early attempt at this. Rothblatt, who is transgender, dismisses traditional gender roles. “The being is mightier than the gene,” she says.

See a crisis as an opportunity for something new

When one of Rothblatt’s four children, Jenesis, was diagnosed with life-threatening pulmonary hypertension in 1994, she didn’t search for a cure — she invented one. Immediately selling her telecom stock, she invested $3 million into developing a cure and founding the PPH Cure Foundation. Knowing nothing about biology at the time, Rothblatt took a six-month crash-course at Oxford and emerged with the insight to chart the way forward. 

“The doctors said, ‘There are no medicines approved for it; she’s got maybe three months to live,’” Rothblatt told a gathering at the Smithsonian Future Is Here Festival many years later. “I felt like my only purpose in life was not to help move to the stars with satellites and stuff like that. It was to save Jenesis. So I just stopped everything I was doing.”

She didn’t stop for long. Eight years later, she founded another company, United Therapeutics; its product Remodulin, a life-saving drug that treats pulmonary hypertension, has pushed the value to $3.5 billion (Rothblatt’s current net worth is $320 million, according to Forbes). Her daughter, now 33 years old, is alive and well. 

Innovating out of necessity to save your daughter’s life is a strong incentive to start thinking like a genius, but Rothblatt’s latest work has gone beyond the living. “She’s a transhumanist,” explains Hoffberger. “She wants to go beyond the limitations of the human body.” Part of Rothblatt’s current research goes into the realm of science fiction: Can our personalities, thoughts and memories be downloaded and stored to cheat death? Co-founded by Rothblatt and her wife Bina in 2004, Terasem Movement Foundation works from the hypothesis that conscious analogs of people can be brought to life based on detailed mindfile data, and that this would have the ability to relieve human suffering and extend human life. Rothblatt believes that access to this cyber consciousness must be developed with “full respect for diversity and unity” so that the opportunity is not merely available to the elite who could afford it.

“Geniuses live in a realm of what’s possible, inspired by the potential of something new that can arise from all the seemingly unconnected disciplines in which they are immersed.” — Rebecca Hoffberger

Add emotion and intuition to your work

“Most famous innovators never finished college. They’re only there to get information, and once they perceive all the societal bullshit around it, they drop out and seek a better way,” says Hoffberger. “Someone like Steve Jobs went to college to get knowledge, not a piece of paper,” she adds.

Clifford Pickover, in his book Strange Brains and Genius, noted the bizarre link between genius and nyctophilia — a love of the dark. “Many ancient civilizations acknowledged the insights that could be gained by spending time in the dark — that helped alter their consciousness,” continues Hoffberger. “Many geniuses prefer to work in the dark, too, for similar reasons.” 

Yet the lone, struggling inventor label can’t be applied to Rothblatt. Two of her strengths are compassion and being a good listener. “I’ve seen her moved to tears listening to  American R&B and blues musician Daryl Davis tell how he convinced more than 200 KKK members to renounce their membership,” recalls Hoffberger. “She’s a dedicated partner and mother to four kids, who finds time to engage fully in their lives. She’s even bought tickets to Hamilton for her staff, in the hope that they, too, will be moved. You need brilliance, but with the sweetness of spirit.” 

When you have such a rich interior life, travel becomes a less important criteria for innovation. New places, sights, and sounds stimulate many geniuses, but others are happy to explore the micro-universe within. 

American writer and artist Edward Gorey was fond of saying, “My favorite voyage is looking out the window.” Hoffberger recently curated an exhibition at The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, titled: The Visionary Experience: St Francis to Finster, that explored why some people from humble backgrounds are hardwired for genius, beyond many brilliant, more privileged minds. Her research uncovered a groundbreaking idea — that intuition may have a role to play. Similarly, the Max Planck Institute, headquartered in Germany, has identified eight distinct forms of human intelligence. They concluded that the highest-scoring was intuitive intelligence. Interestingly enough, the standardized IQ test only considers two of these intelligence forms, neither of which are intuition. 

Originality wins

Many business leaders shy away from “crazy” ideas that can make them look foolish, thinking that peers and the media expect them to deliver only stable, predictable results. Hoffberger feels that we need visionary geniuses to address this problem. “The people who are willing to advance knowledge, that none of us yet have are evolutionaries — willing to be thought of as wrong or fools in the pursuit of great ideas. Once it becomes mainstream, other leaders can comfortably adopt these ideas without looking foolish.”

No great invention ever came about through trying to be like something else, and leaders today can apply the same thinking when developing new business models focused on solving world problems. “Unfortunately, too many great inventions throughout history have been redirected toward our No. 1 industry: war,” says Hoffberger. “It’s time for the innovation being stockpiled by governments for defense to be applied toward our wellbeing on this planet. That’s real defense.” 

“The people that really create the things that change this industry are both the thinker and doer in one person.” — Steve Jobs

Find genius and stay close to it

Kelli Richards, an entrepreneur, based in Silicon Valley, has developed a unique perspective on what it means to think like a genius. She was the first executive to launch the focus on music and entertainment at Apple and later advised Steve Jobs on the launch of iTunes. At age eight, Richards pointed to George Martin on TV, the producer for The Beatles, and said to her parents, “I don’t know what that man does, but I want to do what he’s doing.” As a teenager, she foresaw the convergence of music and technology and was convinced she was going to become a record producer. The male-dominated music production industry seemed an insurmountable challenge, but her stroke of genius was hanging out with other geniuses. 

In the 1970s, while attending Cupertino High School, Richards approached Steve Jobs to become her mentor. He agreed, and the relationship blossomed into a 30-year mentorship that ended with Jobs’ untimely death in 2011. With advice from Jobs and with other industry innovators such as Todd Rundgren, Prince, and Peter Gabriel, she determined that CDs were outdated and she found herself perfectly positioned to take advantage of digital music. Sometimes opportunities arise in areas that don’t yet exist, but staying close to brilliant minds, who are ahead of the curve, can be the best investment you’ll ever make. Richards was one of a select group of individuals  to experience the famous ‘walking meetings’ of Jobs, a thinking technique adopted by many geniuses throughout history, including Aristotle and Charles Darwin. Eureka moments often come about when we’re thinking casually about something else, not when we’re intensely focused on a problem.

“There are certainly similarities that run through all innovative geniuses,” says Richards. “But there are plenty of unique idiosyncrasies among them, too.” Many innovators throughout history have been Renaissance people — individuals who excel in the arts, science, social sciences, politics, music and literature. “These multi-faceted people look at the world through multiple lenses,” she explains. “Geniuses live in a realm of what’s possible, inspired by the potential of something new that can arise from all the seemingly unconnected disciplines in which they are immersed.” 

School is not always cool

A common thread among many geniuses is a dislike and frustration with school. Steve Wozniak, the cofounder of Apple, in a speech to CEOs in Singapore, recalls Steve Jobs hating school. It was less about childhood rebellion and more to do with the frustration of wanting to think creatively and create something new. He felt constrained by an education system designed for the mass cloning of individuals for a future workforce. 

“The definition of intelligence in school, where you supposedly learn what it means to be intelligent, is usually having all the right answers on your desk, having all the answers that are the same as everyone else,” says Wozniak. “These are answers that aren’t your own but given or read to you. If you’re trying to be like everyone else with your answers, then you’re a follower. You’re looking for the leaders, and you’re going to follow them to get the right answers. Well, that’s not true intelligence.” 

Mark Twain probably sums this up best with his quote: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Suspending belief, intuition, and surrendering to the unique opportunity of a specific place and time is not a skill taught at school. 

The list of talented individuals who dropped out of school is long, including Prince, Michael Jackson, Erin Brockovich, Henry Ford, Nicole Kidman, Bill Gates, Ralph Lauren, Walt Disney, Richard Branson, and Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. Mark Zuckerberg felt the need to attend Harvard University for a formal education, yet created the beginnings of Facebook as a hobby in his dorm room — an experience that flourished into something bigger than anything a college degree might have offered. “When you hear the muse and have a calling in life, and you’re bright enough to follow it, you don’t look over your shoulder — you just keep going,” says Richards.

“Many geniuses are not validated by parents or teachers for what they are,” she continues. “They push through and become rebels in society as a way of proving something to those that tried to thwart them. Then, they spend their whole lives in ‘striving and proving mode’ — particularly true of Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison of Oracle. These are people who never listened to their parents’ pleas of:  “How will you pay the bills?” For someone like Elon Musk, it’s all or nothing, and he’s ok with taking big risks. He might fail, but he’s already succeeded in changing humanity for the better. 

“Consider, too, the countless number of unknown geniuses in developing countries, who may never have an opportunity to develop a world-changing idea due to a lack of resources, or are born into a class system that views them as inferior,” says Richards. “Has business ever considered fanning a spark of genius found in a kid in Africa or Asia, believing in their abilities and nurturing that idea to market? That approach may prove more successful than a highly polished executive resume that reads the same as millions of others.”

“When I meet other people, I want to know what excites them, what they want to create in the world, what they care about.” — Kelli Richards

Thinking differently involves unwinding many things that the education system  has forced you to learn so that you can realize who you truly are. A genius mentality asks: “How can I make my life matter and make a difference in the world?” Unfortunately, these questions are usually asked at the end of one’s life, not at the beginning. 

Attitude seems to be everything. Many geniuses walk around from a traditional education with a chip on their shoulder, wanting to prove they were right and the world was wrong for not believing in them. These personalities can sometimes come across as arrogant but are more about proving others wrong at any cost. Persistence seems to be key — they don’t give up. “Never give up, never give in, and keep looking to your North Star,” Jobs used to tell Richards. “Steve had a desire to empower other people to unlock their creativity. This was an altruistic vision he cherished from a young age. It wasn’t all about getting rich; it was about following his inner inspiration.” Jobs was good at giving talent room to move. When he purchased Pixar, he didn’t micromanage the expertise he saw around him. “He saw they had magic, and he didn’t want to interfere,” Richards recalls. 

A common fear in some companies is that a highly talented individual may rise above the brand message. Company culture can become so rigid and powerful that true genius can’t fit in. Grooming internal leadership and creating non-negotiable corporate rules can kill real talent that may otherwise lift a company to the next level of success. “Choose A-list people,” suggests Richards. “Get the best people you possibly can and then give them the freedom to be a genius. You don’t always have to understand it, but the results are yours.”

Recognizing talent can sometimes be a challenge. In 1988, Richards met with Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, to discuss working for him. “I was like: ‘Are you kidding me? I’ve just launched music at Apple, and you’re returning rented office furniture and worrying about how to pay the bills,” recalls Richards, who was alarmed at the financial state of the company. Four years after that conversation, Intuit launched its IPO, and today has a net worth of $71 billion. “Part of Scott’s genius and humility was to know his strengths and weaknesses and bring in talent when needed. It didn’t always need to be about him,” says Richards. Steve Jobs, despite being a brilliant creative himself, recognized the design genius of Jony Ive as chief design officer and created an environment that allowed Ive the freedom to create legendary Apple products. 

The genius-like leaders that people love to work for, Richards says, share similar traits such as vision, kindness, authenticity, and humility. They acknowledge that most people are vulnerable, imperfect human beings who are doing the best they can. “Women also lead with a different stance to men,” says Richards. “They lead from the heart and want to make a connection and know someone first, before doing business.” Thinking she had to approach business from her “male side” to gain acceptance was an early career mistake that Richards made. “Women leaders are most effective when they lead from their feminine side — and I don’t mean crying in meetings,” she adds. “I’m talking about empathy, fostering inclusiveness versus unhealthy competitiveness. Dismissing historical gender roles in business, and embracing both male and female leadership strengths, is yet another way of developing a Renaissance, genius mindset. Diversity within leadership teams has already shown its effectiveness at problem-solving. Imagine replicating this same diversity in the way you think — a mini advisory board in your head that tackles business problems from different angles.” 

It takes mental rewiring for most people to start thinking differently — lots of unpacking and unlearning. A genius considers their place in history and absorbs the best thinking across all ages, beyond the lessons from college or business school. Cultural norms, where each side clings to what they think is right, can also get in the way. Sometimes, the other party may have a better way — a genius will explore all options.

 “I really dislike the question: What do you do?” says Richards. “When I meet other people, I want to know what excites them, what they want to create in the world, what they care about.” 

A well-known axiom is that the sign of a pioneering genius is that they’re always on the brink of failure. World-changing ideas are not about developing a safe-bet mentality. Musk has even brushed off traditional investor wisdom by saying: “It’s ok to have all your eggs in one basket, as long as you look after that basket.” Geniuses are willing to risk everything for the sake of a bigger  idea — one that transcends their own lifetime.

What great idea, experience or person helped inspire your success? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.