culture education Reflections

The Conversation: Feeding your Genius and Putting it to Good Work

How do we cultivate our passionate interests to grow genius to do good things?

So there was this email thread a week or so ago with a friend. I keep coming back to it as a non-trivial exchange that could lead off in all sorts of interesting directions to dig deeper into the prompts within. Pertinent bits extracted below, plus some of the backgrounding for the morbidly curious.


Going back to your Bus Ticket article (ff: see annotations and link below) again today. I think this year is … this year. Sounds like fun. Thanks for instilling Bus Ticket values in me — not that they’ve immediately stuck, what with my high lonesome restless vocational heart.

I’ve always liked * Hamming’s famous double-barrelled question: what are the most important problems in your field, and why aren’t you working on one of them? It’s a great way to shake yourself up. But it may be overfitting a bit. It might be at least as useful to ask yourself: if you could take a year off to work on something that probably wouldn’t be important but would be really interesting, what would it be?” * ff: See links below.

What you’re working on — this is me again — is obviously actually important stuff. If you were just pursuing idle curiosity (I’m not actually convinced that’s a thing), what would you spend a year studying? What if you had to pick something that, sure, is important to the grant web of existence somehow, but you’d have to do some fancy work to explain how?

I think I’ll ask me too.


Re the big question: that is fraught with all sorts of real-world constraints. Being 71 and living in the Outback are just two of them. Another is how likely would it be– my reaching master status in any one domain of thought — to make one butterfly flap its wings harder to ripple across the actual world of ideas and things, principalities and powers? I guess I see myself in a rarified bubble, doing my own study for my own AHA moments. Sometimes I share. Often when I do I hear yawns and farts. Intentional farts. True!

So the most important problem in my world (since I don’t have a field other than our pasture) might include grappling (successfully, not likely) with these Gordion Knots.

How do we balance the scales so that those who understand how the world works (biological and economic and human worlds) and those who also really have the common good as their focus are the people in power?

which is to say: how do we overcome evil with good?

How do we shine light into the dark places—the willful arrogant lustful fearful angry dark places? What light is powerful enough to penetrate such depravity and how to reach those hearts and minds in time. We have so little time. I have even less.

It is human agency at root cause of global harm. A change of heart must precede a change of mind and then of values and actions.

What stories can we tell to make people of good will and evil lean forward and listen?

The power of language. The pen vs the sword. Write as if your life depended on it. And your children’s. And theirs.

Of course my “cultivated interest” has long been to know my place in The Web of Life, and our place as a species, and the so-what.

I would become wise after The Year at Task–at least for some one thing, and I would tell that story by way of every digital, civic and literary pulpit I could. Becoming smart is easier.

So that’s my short answer.

The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius : Paul Graham (annotations, emphasis mine fbf)

If I had to put the recipe for genius into one sentence, that might be it: to have a disinterested obsession with something that matters.

An obsessive interest in a topic is both a proxy for ability and a substitute for determination.

An obsessive interest will even bring you luck, to the extent anything can. Chance, as Pasteur said, favors the prepared mind, and if there’s one thing an obsessed mind is, it’s prepared.

The bus ticket theory is similar to Carlyle’s famous definition of genius as an infinite capacity for taking pains. But there are two differences. The bus ticket theory makes it clear that the source of this infinite capacity for taking pains is not infinite diligence, as Carlyle seems to have meant, but the sort of infinite interest that collectors have. It also adds an important qualification: an infinite capacity for taking pains about something that matters.

It’s not merely that the returns from following a path are hard to predict. They change dramatically over time. 1830 was a really good time to be obsessively interested in natural history. If Darwin had been born in 1709 instead of 1809, we might never have heard of him.

The other solution is to let yourself be interested in lots of different things. You don’t decrease your upside if you switch between equally genuine interests based on which seems to be working so far. But there is a danger here too: if you work on too many different projects, you might not get deeply enough into any of them.

One interesting thing about the bus ticket theory is that it may help explain why different types of people excel at different kinds of work. Interest is much more unevenly distributed than ability. If natural ability is all you need to do great work, and natural ability is evenly distributed, you have to invent elaborate theories to explain the skewed distributions we see among those who actually do great work in various fields. But it may be that much of the skew has a simpler explanation: different people are interested in different things.

If the recipe for genius is simply natural ability plus hard work, all we can do is hope we have a lot of ability, and work as hard as we can. But if interest is a critical ingredient in genius, we may be able, by cultivating interest, to cultivate genius.

Hamming’s Question

[The Hamming Question – LessWrong 2.0] ( more of a summary

Richard Hamming: You and Your Research the original long “speech” by Hamming

By fred

Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

One reply on “The Conversation: Feeding your Genius and Putting it to Good Work”

Glad to see you are still challenging yourself, and knowing that the human capacity to use words is an extremely powerful tool.

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