The Genius Factor

  • Jerry Pattengale
  • Sep 2, 2011
  • News
  • Civic Education and Welfare
The Genius Factor

Address to Sagamore Interns, Levey Mansion (July 13, 2011)

Working in the shadow of geniuses is the optimum experience for internships, one that trumps an organization’s profile or personal prestige. Such an arrangement is an awesome privilege, but with an awesome privilege comes an awesome responsibility.

Genius is traditionally defined as having an IQ of at least 175, but this falls woefully short of capturing its complexity and various manifestations. Malcolm Gladwell reminds us in Outliers that premier performers need to be “smart enough,” and beyond that other factors seem to take precedence, such as logging 10,000 hours on-task. In essence, he’s saying that not all of those we call “genius” have extremely high IQ intelligence, and many with such natural intelligence have failed to hone their skills for optimum benefit or have lived lives of little consequence.[1]

Francis Galton, the pioneer of genius studies, emphasizes creativity, actual achievement, originality, and seminal approaches to questions and solutions that add value to the human story. We can deduce that “genius” in any positive sense involves thoughts or actions that matter. The questions are important, and the answers prompt actions that leverage positive change. Galton’s notions carry weight—himself a genius by about any definition. He produced various inventions, and created statistical and correlation studies, including “the regression to the mean.”

And by understanding the mean, we better recognize those extraordinary events and performers. Perhaps the average internship doesn’t involve a genius of Galton’s notoriety (who was also Charles Darwin’s half-cousin), but many of these experiences provide a glimpse of such attributes. Squandering interactions with genius in any of its many manifestations is a barometer of lost potential. Conversely, chronicling and reflecting on such experiences during an internship’s tenure is a testimony to an observant mind with long-term leadership promise.

An intern is by definition “a resident within” (from French interne); a position that allows one to have an “internal” perspective (from Latin internus). For a dedicated season interns are allowed that close-up perspective from the other side of the door—but it’s as much about being in the same room with key people as it is programs. In a sense, we’ve all been interns and remain so in some arena of our life.

While not all formal internships intentionally or accidentally involve geniuses, those at think tanks like Sagamore Institute, American Enterprise Institute and Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion regularly promote these exchanges. They reflect other noteworthy think tanks by featuring a litany of guest speakers, remarkable board members, and special friends and patrons. The influx of genius is so overwhelming that interns find the experience surrealistic at times.

Though internships involve structured learning activities, it’s often the proximity to genius that affords the most value added. Institute directors realize that genius manifests itself in many ways. There are those with social and networking genius. There are creative geniuses that cross all of our paths, and financial geniuses—though these are usually gifted in one of the other areas and the tangible manifestation becomes monetary. The types of genius are many, but all have unusually high requisite intellectual capacity.

I’ve seen genius up close, as a “resident” within various spheres. In the financial arena, I’ve had two patrons, both financial geniuses and among America’s wealthiest businessmen. The late Robert Van Kampen continued to amass wealth until the very end of his storied life journey. As the director of his personal foundation, I found myself often on the other side of the door, and in various conversations about his management and wealth strategies. His visceral decisions reflected his rigid notions of human behavior. His mantra was “the right of a second decision.” During a rather heated meeting in his five-story house atop a sand dune on Lake Michigan, he blurted out, “Jerry, I can make ten decisions before you academics can make one, and then you don’t know if it’s right.” He swore that his regular windfalls were because of this very principle.

My current patron is Steve Green, the president of the Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.—one of the nation’s most successful retail businesses he owns with his family. They have amassed billions while staying closed on Sundays. Overriding principles are to keep decisions simple and sincere, a trait engrained from the company’s founder, his father, David. Simple in that it’s a clear “Yes” or “No.” Sincere in that you’ll give it 100% and so will they, and always honestly. And, treat people right because it’s the right thing to do—including your own employees (their minimum wage for over 20,000 employees is $4.00 above the federal requirement). But the key dynamic in their success is that all decisions should lead to a greater good that resonates with their personal principles of goodness. For their family, the source of this is a vibrant Christian faith. Regardless of whether people agree with their religious stance, observers have a pretty clear understanding of where they stand.

This clarity is a major lacuna among the doublespeak riddling the political arena. We need the same type of clear principled messages which accompany genius accomplishments. Jay Hein, former Deputy Assistant to President George W. Bush and the current Sagamore president, helped me with a decision in this arena. A preeminent public figure asked for my input on whether he should assist a (now former) presidential candidate. Jay’s advice was simple—“Always let your principles drive your politics.” In this case, it was obvious that the candidate trying to recruit my friend had this principle backwards. Jay is one of those networking geniuses, and much of his success is remaining principled. People know where he stands and his irenic nature is ensconced with democratic ideals and family values.

Seminal geniuses are those that create new knowledge—that rare ability to find meaning via their strong requisite intellectual capacity to do so. My academic mentor is such a person. Dr. Edwin Yamauchi mastered 26 research languages, using them in his long list of publications during his tenure at Miami University (OH). He not only has a penchant for languages but the deductive and inductive sense to form powerful arguments with these tools.[2] The essence of genius surfaces with his work—it matters. It’s cited by diverse groups. It’s a standard statement in weighty considerations. It can be applied to various subsequent questions.

And that overlaps with the brilliance of Jamie Escalante, a motivational genius whose thoughts mattered in the lives of many disenfranchised students in Los Angeles. He’s the hero in the true story behind the Stand and Deliver movie. We chatted over his barbecue a couple of times at his Pasadena home the year of the filming. His tenacity for associating activities directly with students’ extrinsic and intrinsic motivational hot buttons was uncanny. His students’ miraculous pass-rate of the AP Calculus test at Garfield High was so above the mean (actually, off the charts) that the State officials rejected the results as unbelievable, prompting a retake by his students. During the next decade, hundreds of his students from an otherwise abysmal school not only passed the exam, but went to college. He had tendered unasked questions and introduced new techniques and philosophy. He raised important questions and delivered weighty answers.

Jaime indirectly helped me to frame a mantra that I wouldn’t articulate for another decade, but rubbing shoulders with his genius ignited the notion, “The dream needs to be stronger than the struggle.” This maxim prompted two decades of researching, several books, and a challenge to the higher education’s paradigm of student success. Purpose-guided education was born.[3]

As often is the case around geniuses, an internal perspective can prompt external application. These are lessons that often start during an internship—and later applications come from borrowing, rearticulating and/or repackaging. What was learned at the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy assisted me in various settings at the higher end.[4] I was asked to share today from my own journey, and my hope is that my reflections on the notion of genius and lessons from those I’ve met provide some principles with some staying power. Many of these will be in my forthcoming book, Borrowed Intelligence: Key Lessons from Working in the Shadow of Geniuses. The following are a few of the observations gleaned through my journey, and repackaged as guiding principles.

1.  The dream needs to be stronger than the struggle. Unfortunately, most twenty-somethings today are either not dreaming, or fail to recognize mature dreams.[5]

2.  If the Why is big enough, the How will show up. It’s baffling to listen to streams of professional and educational strategies that fail to ask the simplest questions, and yet propose complex solutions to motivate students to finish college.[6]

3.  Philosophy before Logistics. Principles should drive your politics (and policies), otherwise vacuous policies may one day masquerade as your philosophy.[7]

4.  We answer important questions by design or default. Leaders are intentional, and rarely linger where default decisions reside.

5.  In order for people to embrace an idea they need to be able to get their mind around it. Throughout my tenure I’ve met hundreds of gifted thinkers who fail to communicate the essence or applicability of brilliant ideas.

6.  What we ought to do is tied to a common moral oughtness within all humans. This notion is argued by C. S. Lewis, with implications in every facet of our personal, professional and civic lives.[8]

7.  Expend first-rate energies and resources on first-rate causes. The difficulty in today’s educational arena is that rating causes requires values clarification and personal judgment. However, the fulcrum of the educational curriculum depends on this and the debate continues to recover the place for addressing life’s ultimate questions in the curriculum continues.[9]

8.  Strong requisite intellectual capacity is not a commodity but a birthright gift.[10] While we can increase our thinking and creative skills, for many of us they are just that, skills but not our main strengths (above the ordinary).

9.  The greater the mind, the chance for the greater good and the greater error. Although Plato graced us with many helpful revolutionary notions, many of his primary thoughts proved catastrophic, such as his educational scheme for philosopher kings, and his belief in eugenics. The latter, which became a full-blown bio-social movement under the Nazis, aimed to improve the genetic composition of a people group. Although we introduced Francis Galton above as a genius, his radical work in systematizing eugenics proved troublesome for many, and understandably so. The very “regression to the mean” notion which became his legacy in statistical studies became his undoing in social application, trying to prevent what he thought was a regression to mediocrity among people. It’s not too far from Friedrich Nietzsche’s suspect criticism of Christianity’s rise as being too passive, like sheep.[11]

10.  As Americans, we find our leaders parroting British socialistic ideals and political exchange at an alarming level. However, we need to remind ourselves that unlike the House of Commons, a strong voice is not assigned to the volume of the messenger but the veracity of the message.

11.  Value added is not synonymous with knowledge gained but wisdom sustained. In an age of digital natives, knowledge access is less of an issue, but the humanities aspect of learning, of finding its value and application to noble ends, is wanton.[12]

12.  The measure of people is what they do when they’re alone, and often manifest when they’re in public. I first summarized this thought following the readings of Gene Getz, especially The Measure of a Man.

13.  Calculated oral reflections warrant articulated written responses. While the merit of such articulation will be proffered by peers, officially or otherwise, provocation of thought benefits from clarity, detail, and dissemination. Tim Sanders, noted for his brilliant marketing ideas at Yahoo, shared with me his practice of cliffing books—writing inside the covers the salient points from the authors.[13] On the academic side, Ernest Boyer offered a revision to the way we consider scholarship. In his landmark study, he reminded educators that all work benefited from peer review.[14]

In the context of Sagamore Institute, for whom this discussion was intended, it is imperative to think of the various forms of genius along with the overlapping spheres of knowledge needed to navigate successfully the political landscape. While there are innumerable possibilities for these spheres, in the final analysis there are relatively few main areas. Let me suggest three: Civic, Personal, and Professional.

In nearly every aspect of gaining a voice in the political world and having influence, it’s not enough to excel in one of these categories without developing the others. Like Jay Hein, you might develop genius status in the personal arena, such as networking, but need high competence in the others. Observing geniuses in all these areas helps with this process. Begin your own list in each of these areas. You may end up with dozens of key principles in each one, but keep the prominent ones at the top.

The professional sphere includes established career tracks, official performance standards within that vocational field, and engagement in the international guild. My professional area is higher education, which would be the career track. And in the higher education profession, professors are expected to be scholars with research areas; mine are both ancient history and student motivation (not as far apart as they might appear prima facie). The obvious performance standards are levels of teaching effectiveness, regular peer-reviewed scholarship (books, articles, speeches, grants, etc.), and contribution to the campus where one serves.

In my personal area, the dominant components comprising my profile are religious practices, philosophical views, family values, and humanitarian engagement. These areas are key to all of our personal profiles, whether we answer these important questions by design or default.

And the civic area, where we often begin educating students in political tracts like most Sagamore interns, is inextricably linked to the professional and personal areas. The civic sphere implies common experiences, both locally and in our greater shared space—such as federal governance and programs. These common experiences are often a convergence of our collective heritage, which includes our response to common crises and our approach to current and impending ones.

The fulcrum of all of this is our sense of life purpose, an overriding sense of passion and calling. We can sustain our energies and persist in doing good by identifying intersections of that overriding sense of passion and fulfillment in all three spheres. Our core values developed in our personal sphere certainly intersect with questions about the human condition, and addressing these on the massive scale in the civic arena (i.e., common experiences). Our professional skills and gifts can assist with the civic crises, and our personal values can bring contentment in the career track itself (which the purpose-guided approach refers to as a vocation).

And so we try to orchestrate seats in the shadows of geniuses, whether in person or through their writings and recorded actions. These shadows are not ephemeral, as we still remain in the cool of their wisdom long after their parting. From Solomon, Socrates and Pericles to G. K. Chesterton, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ronald Reagan, we still sit in the cool of their thoughts. And many years hence you’ll likely smile upon realizing, like me, that the shadow you enjoy is being cast in part not only from one of these giants, but from the intern next door.[15]

Jerry Pattengale is a senior fellow at Sagamore, assistant provost at Indiana Wesleyan University, distinguished senior fellow at Baylor University’s ISR, and author of several books: Why I Teach and The Purpose-Guided Student (McGraw-Hill, 2009, 2010), Helping Sophomores Succeed (Jossey-Bass, 2010), What Faculty Members Need To Know about Retention (Magna Publications, 2011), Taking Every Thought Captive (ACU Press, 2011), Biblical Evidence: A Logical Approach to Objectivity (Triangle, 2011), and The Passages Film Series (12 vols., Green Scholars Initiative, 2011).


[1] Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown and Company, 2008).

[2] Examples of his logic are found in Jerry Pattengale, A Brief Guide to Objective Inquiry (Marion, IN: Triangle Publishing, 2007).

[3] The key assessment of this work, and chronicling the 20% gain in student retention at Indiana Wesleyan University around 2000, is treated in various works. See the work on “purpose” by Edward St. John, Algo D. Henderson Collegiate Professor, Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, University of Michigan.

[4] Benjamin S. Bloom, M. D. Engelhart, E. J. Furst, W. H. Hill, & D. R. Krathwohl (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals; Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. (New York, Longmans, Green, 1956).

[5] This maxim is developed in practical ways in Jerry Pattengale, Why I Teach (McGraw-Hill, 2009) and The Purpose-Guided Student (McGraw-Hill, 2010).

[6] Variations of this notion can be traced to numerous ancient and modern others, including Friedrich Nietzsche and the late Edward “Chip” Anderson (professor at UCLA and Azusa Pacific University).

[7] The first part of this is attributed directly to Dr. Jay Hein, President of The Sagamore Institute, Indianapolis, Ind.

[8] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: McMillan, 1952).

[9] See Anthony T. Kronman, Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007). And for a review essay of this book, Jerry Pattengale, “The Big Questions,” Books and Culture (October 29, 2009).

[10] See the works of Parker Palmer, e.g., The Courage to Teach (New York: Jossey Bass, 1997).

[11] One could also make the case for authors like Ayn Rand, when looking at the influence of their personal lives which only have currency because of their professional lives. Or those like Truman Capote whose engaging prose and introduction of the victim’s vantage point in historical novels also helped foster the suspect victimization movement in America. Conversely, works by authors like Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin [1852]), Ernest L. Boyer (cf. fn. 13 below) and Samuel P. Huntington have helped us to reconsider major developments in the civic arena. Huntington’s famous article “The Clash of Civilizations” came from his address at the noted think tank, The American Enterprise Institute, which complements the observations in this present essay on interns and geniuses. See “The Clash of Civilizations?,” in Foreign Affairs, vol. 72 (no. 3, Summer 1993): pp. 22–49; see also Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996).

[12] Marc Prensky, Teaching Digital Learners: Partnering for Real Learning (Corwin, 2010); Don’t Bother Me Mom, I’m Learning! (Paragon House, 2006). On the liberal arts issue, see Michael D. Beaty and Douglas V. Henry, editors, The Schooled Heart: Moral Formation in American Higher Education (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007). Also cf. Elizabeth Kiss and J. Peter Euben, editors, Debating Moral Education: Rethinking the Role of the Modern University (Duke University, 2010).

[13] Tim Sanders, Love is the Killer App: How to Win Business and Influence Friends (Crown Business, 2003).

[14] Ernest L. Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities for the Professoriate (Jossey-Bass, 2007).

[15] During my graduate years at Miami University (OH), I worked alongside Scott T. Carroll under the tutelage of Edwin Yamauchi. Through various language classes, teaching assignments and conference travels it became obvious that he had that seminal genius—likely with an IQ much above 175. But it’s his application of these languages in global programs that have proven the importance of his efforts, including the founding of the Green Collection in 2010. He’s now a Research Professor at Baylor University’s ISR, and has keynoted at The Sagamore Institute—case-in-point for the role of think tanks in facilitating the interaction with genius. This year alone, over 100 million people have read about or viewed announcements or reports on his work (analytics supplied by the DeMoss Group, Atlanta, Georgia; cf. ). For three wonderful but intense years, he was the intern (teaching fellow) next door.

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