After all, was Beethoven pondering synergy when he composed some of the most beautiful classic music ever created? DaVinci was a terrible procrastinator, yet what he did finish changed the art world forever. I researched the lives of famous geniuses, hoping their daily actions would help me produce something great instead of simply producing more. But after reading about some of their oddball antics, it’s obvious that genius doesn’t come without a price—namely, mean streaks, cross-dressing, and mind-boggling weirdness.
1. Leonardo DaVinci
DaVinci and I have a couple of things in common: vegetarianism and the misfortune of being both perfectionists and terrible procrastinators. However, he did manage to complete masterpieces like Mona Lisa and The Last Supper and I … didn’t. Some say DaVinci preferred taking small naps throughout the day instead of sleeping for eight hours at night. Maybe that erratic sleep cycle is why he had such trouble paying attention to projects long enough to finish them—in fact, he may be one of the earliest sufferers of attention deficit disorder.
2. Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven was famous among his contemporaries for more than just his hauntingly beautiful compositions. He also had a nasty temper and often alienated his household staff. (Bear in mind he was a musician going deaf—that’s enough to make anyone grumpy.) He fought with everybody, including landlords, relatives, and friends. As a result of his temper tantrums, he had trouble keeping maids and servants because he’d often throw things at them or accuse them of stealing. Supposedly, he also wore dirty clothes and left food out to rot, which perhaps also explains why he never married.
3. Thomas Edison
What is it about genius and a disdain for sleep? Edison was another proponent of the power nap, believing that most people sleep far too much and are unproductive as a result. (Looks like we took his advice, since most of us are in need of more sleep.) He took pleasure in people seeing him as the hardworking inventor who didn’t need something pedestrian like sleep to be exceptional. He felt similarly about eating, exercising, and spending time with his family—all of which he eschewed for working hours on end. Edison demanded that his employees generate a set amount of ideas for inventions (which he reportedly wasn’t above taking credit for) and according to the book The Creative Habit, he refused to hire research assistants if they seasoned soup before tasting it. Having them over for soup was part of his interview process.
4. George Sand
Though Sand is considered one of the most famous French female novelists, her name doesn’t often come up when discussing famous geniuses—however, one source lists her IQ at 143. George Sand was the pen name for Aurore Dupin, a female French writer who scandalized her contemporaries with her public antics. She frequently wore men’s clothes, publically smoked tobacco, and separated from her husband and engaged in illicit affairs. Basically, she made it clear that she didn’t care about social convention and the way women were expected to act. She had no problem shocking people with her sensational lifestyle and bawdy personality.
5. Nikola Tesla
Like DaVinci, Tesla was a vegetarian who rarely slept. Early on in his career, his work started mid-morning and continued with few to no breaks until 5 a.m. the next day. The inventor and engineer also had strange aversions to pearls (earrings in particular were said to repulse him), overweight women, certain clothes, and human hair. What he did love were numbers divisible by three, to the point that he wouldn’t stay in a hotel room with a number that didn’t fit that guideline. He was strictly celibate and felt himself a better inventor for it, preferring the company of pigeons—he actually likened his love for one pigeon in particular (a pigeon he claimed came to his hotel room every day) to the love he’d have for another person. When she died, he felt that his ability to work died with her.
6. Bobby Fischer
A child prodigy, Fischer took the chess world by storm at a young age and became grand master of the game at fifteen. He went on to win the world championship in 1972, but complained the whole time and was increasingly erratic and argumentative. Though he was well beyond his child years, Fischer still acted like a spoiled brat. He followed his win by living in seclusion and when he finally emerged twenty years later, his defiance of U.S. law (he went against Bush’s sanctions against Yugoslavia by playing another game there) and gross anti-Semitic remarks drew much contempt from the public. I think it’s safe to cross him off my list of geniuses to emulate.
So what can we learn from these strange figures, other than how to lose sleep, avoid touching human hair, and throw things at hired help? These geniuses have more than just eccentricities and high IQs that set them apart—they’re also fiercely dedicated, tireless workers eager to explore new ideas and ways of thinking, and they’re willing to take risks if it means achieving something worthwhile. Those are the kinds of characteristics I look for in mentors, not productivity levels. What’s the point of being highly effective if what you’re putting out isn’t extraordinary? Although maybe that’s the same thing DaVinci said when creditors were hassling him for a completed painting. And Tesla died in debt, too. Maybe I’d better look into that book after all …