Our guest blogger this week is Andrew Robinson, the author of over twenty books on both the arts and sciences. They include biographies of Albert Einstein, A Hundred Years of Relativity, and of the polymath Thomas Young, The Last Man Who Knew Everything. He recently published a biographical study, Sudden Genius? The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs.
Gradual preparation with sudden illumination, dogged work with a “eureka” experience, perspiration with inspiration—whichever pair of contrasts one prefers—are defining features of creative breakthroughs in any domain of science or art. In Thomas Edison’s much-quoted remark, from around 1903, “Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration.”
I first became interested in genius while writing a biography of the great Indian film director Satyajit Ray in the 1980s. I followed this book with four more biographies in the arts and sciences, including studies of Albert Einstein and the polymath Thomas Young. Eventually, in 2007, I decided to look generally at the relationship between genius and creative breakthroughs, to see if it follows any rule.
There can be no doubt that geniuses have worked habitually and continually. Long years of relevant labour have often preceded a scientific breakthrough. In medicine, Alexander Fleming had been working in the bacteriology department of a hospital for some two decades when he discovered penicillin by accident in 1928. Alec Jeffreys’s discovery of genetic fingerprinting in 1984 was similar. Having left an experiment running over the weekend, he returned to his laboratory to find a peculiar array of blobs and lines on his developed film. His first reaction was: “God, what a mess.” But when he stared at the data a bit longer, “The penny dropped.” Yet, the penny would not have dropped without his more than a decade of prior research in genetics.
Both discoveries are fine examples of Louis Pasteur’s 1854 dictum: “Where observation is concerned, chance favours only the prepared mind.” Can we today be more specific than Pasteur? Perhaps. Although genius does not follow laws, it seems to follow the so-called 10-year rule. First identified by the psychologist John Hayes in 1989 and soon endorsed by other psychologists, the rule states that a person must persevere with learning and practising a craft or discipline for about 10 years before he or she can make a breakthrough. Remarkably few breakthroughs have been achieved in less than this time.
In the sciences, Einstein is a good example. His first insight into special relativity occurred around 1895, 10 years before the creation and publication of the theory in 1905. August Kekulé’s theory of the benzene ring was published in 1865, 10 years after his first day-dream
of his structural theory on a London omnibus. Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1990, 10 years after his first web- like computer program, known as Enquire. It is not difficult to multiply examples.
The arts frequently show the rule in operation, too—if “breakthrough” is defined as the production of an artist’s first generally accepted masterwork. In literature, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s creative explosion of 1819-20 occurred 10 years after he wrote and published his first poetry and fiction in 1809-10. In painting, Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was created in 1907, a decade after he began training as an artist in Barcelona in 1896. In music, Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was composed in 1912, a decade after he began his apprenticeship to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1902. In cinema, Satyajit Ray created his first film, Pather Panchali in 1955, a decade after drawing illustrations for the novel on which the film was based.
In my view, the 10-year rule is best considered in three versions: weak, medium, and strong. The weak version is that a breakthrough requires a minimum of 10 years’ hard work and practice in a relevant domain—and it may take much longer. The medium version is more restrictive: a breakthrough requires a minimum of 10 years’ hard work and practice focused on the particular problem solved by the breakthrough. The strong version is more restrictive still: a breakthrough requires about 10 years—no less and no more—of hard work and practice focused on the particular problem solved by the breakthrough. Of course, there are many exceptions to the strong version, such as Fleming and penicillin. However, exceptions to the weak version of the rule are rare. Not even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart fits this last bill, since his first masterwork, his piano concerto No. 9 (K271), was written in 1777, which is 12 years after his first published composition.
Hayes discovered only three exceptions among classical composers: Erik Satie composed a masterwork in year 8 of his career, while Niccolò Paganini and Dmitry Shostakovich composed one masterwork each in year 9 of their careers. In the sciences, exceptions are extremely rare. Werner Heisenberg created matrix mechanics in 1925, aged 24 years, only about 5 years after beginning his university study of physics. On the other hand, Heisenberg had two leading physicists, Max Born and Niels Bohr, as close mentors during this period. Paul Dirac may provide a further exception: in 1928, he formulated the relativistic theory of the electron from which he predicted the existence of the positron, aged 25 years, about 6 years after beginning his university training in applied mathematics. However, Dirac had previously taken a 3-year degree in electrical engineering. Perhaps only Isaac Newton fairly and squarely beats the 10-year rule in science: his annus mirabilis, 1665-66, occurred after less than 5 years of solitary study at Cambridge, at the age of only 22 years.
The predominance of theoretical physics among the handful of exceptions may be a small clue to the explanation of the 10-year rule in exceptional creativity. In theoretical physics, years of laboratory grind are not required, nor is any of the corpus of facts about nature that has to be memorised and assimilated in other sciences, such as medicine and biology. So perhaps the theoretical physicist needs to expend less time in perspiration than other scientists before he or she can reach the frontier of the subject and make a breakthrough. Indeed, the 10-year rule seems to me to be an empirical truth about perspiration and inspiration equivalent to that of Edison’s personal guess—not only in its underlying rationale but also approximately in its ratio. Instead of Edison’s 99% versus 1% estimate, for every 10 years (120 months) of hard work, an individual may be granted, so to speak, a month or two’s worth (1%) of “sudden inspiration”. Discouraging as this may be in one sense, it also means that hardly any genius in history—not even Leonardo da Vinci —seems to have short-cut the long and gradual path to creative breakthroughs.