How to Become a Genius

how to become a genius

One of the highlights of my career was meeting Walter Isaacson. Walter has had a remarkable career as an academic, civic leader, and publisher, but he’s best known for authoring bestselling books on geniuses like Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, and Leonardo DaVinci. There’s no better person who would know what it takes to become a genius.

So … I asked him.

His answer was surprisingly simple.

How to become a genius

Walter explained to me that there are two common characteristics to the geniuses he studied for decades:

  1. They have an insatiable curiosity
  2. They see patterns and “connect the dots” in a new way

See, I told you it was simple! The Isaacson Genius Formula. But can anybody learn to become a genius? I love questions like that, so today, I’ll connect my own dots and help you think through that puzzle.

Let’s start with step one: Curiosity …

Can you learn to be curious?

“The important thing is not to stop questioning … Never lose a holy curiosity.”

Albert Einstein

Curiosity is more than an element of genius. I regard it as one of the best marketing skills you can have! Curiosity leads to competitive advantage.

100 percent human contentI am a naturally curious person. For example, I drive my wife crazy on hikes. I’m always stopping to take photos and look up names of rocks, trees, and plants. If you drive people crazy with your curiosity, you’re good to go. Skip to the next section!

But what if you’re not curious? Can you train yourself to become more curious? When I researched this subject, I came across a great surprise: there is almost no research on this subject! Could be an idea for you. No need to thank me.

The best resource I could find was a Psychology Today article called “Cultivating Curiosity” from way back in 2006. Here’s what the author Elizabeth Svoboda recommended:

1. Reframe “boring” situations.

If you’ve got an inquiring mind, it’s possible to turn even mundane events, like waiting in line at the DMV, into something meaningful. Look for details others might miss, and seek to learn more about them. For instance, try turning to another customer in line and saying, “I noticed the Purple Heart pinned to your jacket. What war did you serve in?”

I practice this all the time. I might be in a meeting room, and I’ll look carefully for clues about a person or a company based on what is in the room.

2. Don’t let fear stop you from trying something new.

If you’re curious about something, it acts as a positive counterweight to anxiety and fear. Exercising your curiosity won’t wipe out doubt, but it may help you focus on the likely positive consequences of a new venture (learning to execute a perfect swan dive) rather than the negative ones (doing a belly flop and surfacing to the sound of laughter).

3. Let your true passions shine.

A key component of curiosity is what Boston College psychologist Ellen Winner calls a “rage to master”—whether that involves accumulating rejection slips from The New Yorker or spending hours in the basement learning banjo fingerings. An intense focus on specific interests or goals invites the state of mental immersion called “flow,” which in turn elicits feelings of accomplishment and well-being.

I’ll add a tip of my own:

4. Ask “why” continuously

Explore the “why” behind things: Rather than accepting things at face value, delve into the underlying reasons and explanations behind phenomena, events, or decisions. This analytical approach encourages curiosity and the search for deeper understanding.

When I was in the corporate world, I was trained in the Toyota Production System. There was a technique called the “seven why’s.” It’s not hard. You just ask “why” seven times in a row to get to the root of a problem. Somebody probably made a million bucks off that. But it really does work.

I think these are good tips. Anybody could focus on these ideas and probably make curiosity more of a habit.

Let’s explore the second part of the Isaacson Genious Formula. To become a genius, you also need to see patterns and connect dots in a new way.

Patterns and Dots

“I became a genius because I see patterns in new ways.” Steve Jobs

I totally made that quote up.

Here’s another word to describe making sense of patterns / connecting dots — insight. That is a key to genius — providing insight instead of information. This is one of my favorite things to write about. Insight is the key to professional career success these days, and I know of three ways to do that.

1. Connect the past.

One of my favorite ways of creating insights is to apply an experience from the past to a situation in the present.

Here is a universal truth. If you’re reading this post, you have a past and you have a present … so you should be able to do this!

An example of how to do this comes from my Marketing Rebellion book. I wanted to make a point in the book that cultural change in a company has to come from the top of the organization — there’s no such thing as a grassroots cultural change.

I thought back to points in my career and remembered a very dramatic cultural change that occurred through the visionary CEO of our company. I explained how he made a change in the safety culture through his entire company presence and led by example in dramatic ways.

Instead of merely stating, “culture change comes from the top,” I illustrated this point through a personal example, connecting the dots to my past. This is among the most popular stories in the book.

Statements are boring. Stories deliver insights.

2. Connect the people

I firmly believe you can’t “think out of the box.” By the time we’re 15 years old, we’re wired with a mental framework that essentially persists throughout our life.

Creating insights comes through combining boxes — mashing together mental frameworks. Simply put, go talk to people and build on ideas together.

A person who can create insight consistently this way is Andy Crestodina. If you don’t follow Andy, you should. He is a thought leader because he’s constantly looking at things in a new way.

Every time I see Andy, he’ll start a conversation like this: “Mark, have you ever thought about how content marketing is like a pyramid …” and then we’ll riff on whatever crazy idea he has that day until we have plenty of new ideas (that eventually show up in his blog posts!).

My go-to person for insight-building is Keith Reynold Jennings, one of my co-hosts of The Marketing Companion podcast. Keith will call me up and say, “I have a wild idea for you …” And an hour later, my head will be stuffed with possibilities and new dots that have been connected.

Creativity and insight come through connection, not thinking by yourself in an office.

3. Connect the experiences

My friend Liz Fessenden reminded me of the Japanese kaizen principle of “going to gemba.”

Gemba (also less commonly as genba) is a Japanese term meaning “the real place.” In business, gemba refers to the place where value is created. The most common use of the term is in manufacturing, where the gemba is the factory floor, but gemba can really be anywhere you can achieve customer insight.

This is probably my number one source of insight — seeing the world. For example, I never miss the annual SXSW conference in Austin because it is a festival of ideas and thought leadership. My brain is tossed around and shaken like a James Bond martini. I’ll have a whole year of dots to connect from the people I meet there.

How to become a genius? One more thing …

I hope you’re happy now and ready to become a genius any moment now.


I think something is missing from the Isaacson Genius Formula. If you want to become a genius, there’s one more thing to master, and it’s not easy.

I’ve known several true geniuses in my life, and the greatest of these was Peter Drucker, considered the father of modern management and marketing. He was my teacher and mentor in graduate school for three years.

Dr. Drucker had a magical capability: He could distill complexity to its essence. When something seemed overwhelming, he could filter it down into easy-to-understand components. His lessons were so profound they inform my life today, decades later.

Look at DaVinci’s drawings — they distill complexity into simplicity. Jobs, Einstein, and Franklin did this too. That’s what makes them all so quotable! They look at an insanely complex world and provide a pearl of insight that inspires our minds and hearts.

I don’t think this is easy. Perhaps this is the true gift that makes it rare to become a genius.

Mark SchaeferMark Schaefer is the executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions. He is the author of some of the world’s bestselling marketing books and is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant. The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak at your company event or conference soon.

Follow Mark on TwitterLinkedInYouTube, and Instagram.

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