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Bobby Fischer
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montedavis
Edward Rothstein in the NY Times: "...as Bobby Fischer's death on Thursday might remind us, even abstract gifts can exact a terrible price."

Many of the commentaries assert or presume that there must have been a connection between Fischer's genius and his eccentricities (or paranoid schizophrenia, take your pick). Why should the combination be more than coincidence? Substantial research suggests that high-functioning people in all domains experience less mental illness than average. So was there ever any logic to Dryden's

Great wits are sure to madness near allied
And thin partitions do their bounds divide


beyond a visceral (envious?) insistence on balance or payback? Surely some of it is no more than an upscale, cognitive version of the tabloids' barely suppressed satisfaction that Michael Jackson or Britney Spears is, y'know, really weird and unhappy.

I wonder if it's tied to the early Romantic notion that to be a true Artist you need to be so overwhelmed with passion in everything you do that you can't be bothered to respect normal social decorum. Once you have that stereotype for genius, then it starts looking like you aren't really being a top-notch ($profession) unless you've got a massive personality disorder to match.


Yeah, the Marlowe-Mozart-Jim Morrison model. Shakespeare, Bach and Goethe let us down by being middling or prosperous bourgeois, living full lives and dying in the bosom of the family.

Scientists get a milder version. "Mad" is preferred in comix, of course, but they don't really have to have major demons as long as they're absent-minded, socially awkward and poorly groomed.

In a book I read once about productivity in the sciences, "socio-emotional adjustment" and "stable upbringing" were two of some half-dozen or so important factors in making for a stellar scientific career. Intelligence was an ambiguous factor, however: it didn't correlate with scientific productivity at any level beyond what seemed the minimum IQ for entry into a given field. E.g., soil scientists might get by at around 120, cosmologists might require something more like 150 just to wrap their heads around their upper-division courses; the point is, it didn't matter how much *smarter* than that threshold you were, at least in an IQ sense of "smarter". Being "smarter" in a more pedestrian sense of the word -- now, that *does* seem to matter.

In competitive brain games like chess, however, social smarts matter a lot less than in the sciences, or even in geekier subjects like higher mathematics. You show up for the tournament, you win, and you move up in that world. It's pretty much that simple. Your knuckles can drag all the way from the entrance to the board, and back; what matters is what you do at the board. (As Fischer got weirder and weirder, he had ever more trouble even making it to the board.) You don't have to learn how to collaborate, much less make shrewd choices of whom to collaborate with, or what to collaborate on. You don't need the social skills required to manage lab underlings and graduate students later on in your career. You don't even need to know how to write; if you win enough games, your publisher can get you a ghostwriter. And he will: you're a winning brand, and that's all you need to be.

-michael turner

Yes, bound to be some filtering in the degree of collaboration, or at least cooperation, required for a given occupation or art. There's more scope for the spectacular maladjustment we crave in a painter or a blackboard theoretician than in a director who has to scrape along with producers, cast and crew.

I've been skimming more of the Fischer coverage, and it looks like you could tease apart two themes: one the mythologized inherent link between genius and madness, and one that offers at least some causal logic by emphasizing how much time a Fischer puts into study (and therefore how little is available for social experience).

Edited at 2008-01-20 12:02 pm (UTC)

Hoisted from the literature references you provide:

"Initial findings and case studies of a 30-year follow-up of gifted students and adults suggest that characteristics such as love of one's work, persistence, purpose in life, love of challenge, high energy level, and a sense of mission may be more important in the long run than creative ability, intelligence, and high school achievement ...."

This makes sense to me. Quite a few scientific discoveries are accidents -- and the more time you spend in the lab, the more likely it is you'll notice some odd phenomenon that doesn't square with prevailing theory. A good many useful inventions have come out of a long string of failures to invent something or other; if you just keep moving, you'll more likely hit on something others have failed to get. A lot of brilliant careers seem to built on capitalizing on someone *else's* insight. Motivation plus basic good sense seem to trump all else.

-michael turner

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