The Great, the Bad, and the Ugly

By Jeffrey Kluger|Thursday, December 01, 1994
If Dean Simonton could vote for anyone he wanted for president, he'd probably pick John Adams. If Adams wasn't running, he'd settle for James Madison. If Madison wasn't running, he'd go with Thomas Jefferson or John Quincy Adams. As far as Simonton is concerned, Adams, Adams, Madison, and Jefferson are among the few truly great presidents the United States has ever elected. Compared with them, everyone else is Millard Fillmore.

Simonton knows what he's talking about. For the better part of the last three decades, the University of California at Davis psychologist has been studying the concept of greatness, trying to determine what it is, how it's pursued, and just who is likeliest to achieve it. He's recently published what he's learned in a book called Greatness: Who Makes History and Why, in which he explains for the first time the precise characteristics that lead to history-making success in every field from politics to science to art to sports to popular music. Simonton doesn't claim to fathom everything that separates the Charlemagnes from the charlatans, the Pretenders from the pretenders, the Richard the Lionhearteds from the Richard the Unindicted Coconspirators. He does, however, understand much of it, and he would like to use his findings to predict which of us will be elevated from the "Who's that?" status we all start out with to the Who's Who status reserved for just a few.

Greatness has always been elusive. At some point every Dane, Scot, and Gatsby has earned the label "Great," but for others the distinction has proved unattainable. Ivan the Terrible might have had a chance, but his mom married into a family with an extremely unfortunate surname. Philip III, the fifteenth-century duke of Burgundy, also aspired to the Great designation, but the best his subjects were willing to grant him was Philip the Good (later downgraded to Philip the Ordinary, and finally to Philip the Barely-Adequate-but-He'll-Do-in-a-Pinch).

"Greatness is a complicated thing," Simonton says. "Most ambitious people have aspired to it at one time or another, but the vast majority of us never achieve it."

The first step in studying greatness, Simonton explains, is determining just what it is. And the first step in determining what it is, is understanding that greatness is more than mere fame. As even a casual reading of history reveals, it's possible to be a household name and still not be welcome in most households. There's Joseph McCarthy and Benedict Arnold, Joseph Stalin and Genghis Khan, Rush Limbaugh and yeast infections.

"People acquire fame or infamy any time they have an impact on society," Simonton explains. "But the people who earn the designation of greatness are the ones who make a contribution that only they could make. There are a million famous radio hosts out there, but there was only one Edward R. Murrow. It doesn't matter whether the contribution the great person makes is good or bad--and indeed, you could argue that there are great criminals and dictators. All that matters is that the contribution is unique."

But what is it that determines which of us will become Murrows and which of us minnows? To answer this question, Simonton amassed a data base of high-profile figures in two dozen fields to determine what, if anything, they all had in common. Over the years, he's profiled more than 35,000 achievers, including 2,026 scientists; 2,012 philosophers; 479 musicians; 342 kings, queens, and sultans; 696 composers; 420 writers; and, of course, 39 U.S. presidents. (George Bush and Bill Clinton, the forty- first and forty-second presidents, came along too late to be part of the survey, though there was some talk of including them in a special Great- Men-Who-Look-a-Lot-Less-Great-in-Gym-Shorts category. Grover Cleveland, technically the twenty-second and twenty-fourth president, was counted only once, as were Nancy and Ronald Reagan, technically the fortieth president and her husband.)

Eligibility for Simonton's survey varied according to field. For composers, for example, he looked at how frequently an individual's work is performed publicly; for scientists, he looked at frequency of publication and citation. As he suspected, when his research was done, it turned out that most people in his data base had a remarkable amount in common.

"The biggest indicator of whether someone is going to attain greatness is the age at which he or she begins to show interest and aptitude in a particular field," Simonton says. Bobby Fischer learned the rudiments of chess when he was 6, a time when most of his peers still needed crib notes and a referee to get through an afternoon of Chutes and Ladders. Blaise Pascal had written an original work on conic sections by the time he was 16. Mozart composed his first keyboard pieces when he was 5.

Says Simonton, "Owen Meredith, an English poet, put it best when he wrote, 'Genius does what it must, and talent does what it can.' People who are truly great are consumed by the need to perfect their gift from the moment they recognize that they have it."

Once people destined for greatness begin to produce, they tend to keep producing. "Truly great people are very prolific very quickly," Simonton says. "Starting young, they usually reach a peak of productivity in their late thirties or early forties. After middle age, some burn out, but others keep producing right up to their death."

There are achievers, however, who generally defy the overall rules on greatness and age, and these are the scientists. In fields like geology, biology, and medicine, the true breakthroughs belong to researchers in late middle age or beyond. Charles Darwin had evolved into his fifties before completing the Origin of Species. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was an even later bloomer, writing his imaginative--if later partially discredited--Natural History of Invertebrates between the ages of 71 and 78.

In abstract specialties like math and physics, things happen a lot faster, with most landmark accomplishments occurring well before the middle-age peak. Isaac Newton had his enormously productive "annus mirabilis" (loose translation: "my favorite year"; looser translation: "my favorite annus"), at the just-post-college age of 24 without having to spend so much as a single summer working menswear at The Gap. English theoretical physicist Paul Dirac shared a Nobel Prize in 1933 when he was only 31. So dominated by youngsters did the field of quantum physics become at the turn of the century that the Germans took to calling it Knabenphysik (loose translation: "kids' physics"; looser translation: "a light potato dumpling with a tasty meat filling"). Dirac himself penned a poetic lament expressing the pressure he felt at having to compete in a field in which success or failure comes so early:

Age is, of course, a fever chill

that every physicist must fear.

He's better dead than living still

when once he's passed his thirtieth year.

Though it would provide little solace to Dirac, the different speed at which greatness is achieved in different fields has little to do with skill. Rather, Simonton believes, it is mostly a result of the different ways knowledge is acquired from specialty to specialty. Biologists must master centuries' worth of preexisting wisdom before having any hope of synthesizing it into something new. Mathematicians and physicists, by contrast, need master only a limited number of physical or arithmetical essentials; anything they accomplish after that is largely a result of inspiration and interpretation.

But what causes these high achievers to start achieving in the first place? Is it IQ that initially sets the great apart? Inherited talent? A great contact at William Morris? Simonton says the answer to the first two questions is a qualified yes.

The idea of IQ, the Intelligence Quotient, was introduced to the scientific community in 1905. Before that, intelligence was measured only approximately, with most people falling into one of three highly technical categories: smart as a whip, sharp as a tack, and dumb as a boot. These terms were not always easy to define, and in 1902 alone, a cat-o'-nine- tails and a handful of multicolored pushpins were awarded close to a million dollars in Oxford fellowships. Clearly, reform was in order.

It was French psychologist Alfred Binet who came up with the idea of calculating intelligence by dividing mental age--as measured by performance on a standardized test--by chronological age and coming up with a single figure representing a person's IQ. By definition, an IQ of 1 would be average, an IQ of greater than 1 would be above average, and an IQ below 1 would indicate a promising future in professional wrestling. Anyone scoring above 1.4 would be considered a genius. Eventually all these figures were multiplied by 100 in order to avoid the use of confusing decimals--though you would think the Messrs. Smartypants who finished above 1.4 could handle the fractions.

In recent decades the IQ test has become the object of some controversy, as critics have claimed that its questions are often culturally biased, favoring people from white upper- or middle-class backgrounds.

(SAMPLE QUESTION: You're summering in Kennebunkport when you suddenly discover that nearly everyone you know has moved to Hyannis. Do you go into a) a dither, b) a lather, or c) a tizzy? BONUS QUESTION: Do you believe in caning for people who say "summering"?)

Nevertheless, for the better part of this century the IQ score has been the closest thing we have to an empirical measure of intelligence- -which leaves the intellectual firepower of historical figures born before 1900 open to some question. Was George Washington really the military and political genius we're led to believe, or were his wooden teeth just part of a larger wooden head? Was Ben Franklin's decision to fly a kite in the rain actually just a result of his not being smart enough to come in out of it? Simonton says there may be a way to tell.

In the 1920s, Stanford graduate student Catherine Cox developed a method of measuring the intelligence of long-dead achievers by assessing their academic, artistic, and other accomplishments from childhood on. Comparing these achievements with those of other people in their age group, she was able to come up with a rough measure of their IQ. Since then, Simonton and others have used similar techniques to determine the probable intelligence of a variety of achievers, and the results of the studies have been illuminating. Of the hundreds of achievers whose scores were calculated, nineteenth-century British economist John Stuart Mill finished first, tipping the scales with an IQ of 190. Composers Handel, Mozart, and Mendelssohn were not far behind, weighing in at 160.

But fame and brains do not necessarily go hand in hand--and nowhere is this more evident than in the field of politics. Simonton has discovered that in order to succeed at the ballot box, political figures have to come across as just intelligent enough to win the respect of their constituency, but not so intelligent that they seem aloof or incomprehensible. As the electorate grows smarter, the leaders it chooses do, too. While this theory seems to make sense, on closer examination it does have a few holes. Judging by some of history's giants--Winston Churchill or Anwar Sadat, for example--you would have to conclude that England and Egypt were once populated exclusively by magna cum laudes. Judging by some of the dwarfs--say, David Duke or Jesse Helms--you would have to conclude that the local electorate is composed largely of mollusks, mosses, and several species of blue-green algae.

Simonton, however, insists that his theory is sound, and in the United States at least, the numbers bear him out. Thomas Jefferson, who with an inferred IQ of 160 was the second smartest of all presidents (John Quincy Adams was first, at 170), barely squeezed by Aaron Burr in the election of 1800. Woodrow Wilson, the only Ph.D. ever elected president, polled just over 40 percent of the popular vote in the four-way race of 1912. By contrast, Adlai Stevenson, arguably the smartest candidate never to reach the White House, was twice trounced by the comparatively low-watt Eisenhower; Ronald Reagan, an extremely lifelike inflatable president, defeated Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale in successive landslides in 1980 and 1984.

"When you survey the inferred IQs of the men who have been president, you begin to approach that of the general population," Simonton says. "The optimum IQ for American leaders appears to be about 119."

IQ, of course, is not all there is to achieving greatness. Just as important can be inborn aptitude. As a study of achievers in countless fields will tell you, highly successful people often appear to pass on their knack for achieving to their linear and even nonlinear descendants. There was Judy Garland and daughter Liza Minnelli; Teddy Roosevelt and cousin Franklin Roosevelt; former Korean leader Kim Il Sung and his numerous heirs, including Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Novak, and Kim Jong Basinger. Do genes alone account for such dynasties, or is all this inherited achievement just the greatness equivalent of the boss getting his nephew a job in the family business? Simonton thinks it's a little of both.

"There seems to be good evidence that some talents are inherited," he says. "No one's ever isolated a gene for, say, writing poetry or playing piano, but studies of twins separated at birth do reveal that they share aptitudes even though they were raised in entirely different environments."

If genes were entirely responsible, however, families with one great member would all be great, and this is clearly not the case. Frank Sinatra's legacy to the world is not another generation of successful crooners with incredibly bad haircuts, but daughter and noted boot promoter Nancy. The Kennedys and Smiths gave us not another president, but noted beverage consumers Teddy and Willie.

"Just as important as genetics is a person's willingness to learn from the previous generation," explains Simonton. "If you inherit talent, you still have to do what it takes to maximize what nature has given you."

If a person with the potential for greatness indeed sets off on the path toward achievement, there is by no means a guarantee of success. A price must be paid for greatness, and that price is often considerably higher than simply having to talk to Larry King for an hour. ("Charles Lindbergh, you've just flown the Atlantic solo, so the question becomes: Is this good for Ross Perot?") Typically, people who achieve greatness suffer a disproportionately high incidence of drug and alcohol abuse, as well as depression and other emotional disorders. "In order to be creative, it seems you have to be slightly crazy," Simonton says, "at least enough so that you see the world differently from the way other people see it, but not so much that you're institutionalized."

Despite these drawbacks, it's hard to imagine a world without its most remarkable people. Suppose Christopher Columbus had forgotten all about India and gone looking merely for a shorter route to the dry cleaner? Suppose the only giant leap Neil Armstrong ever took was onto the deck of a Princess cruise ship? Suppose Ella Fitzgerald had gone into accounting? Great people may make outrageous amounts of money and spend way too much time in Aspen, but as Simonton points out, their lives are different from yours and mine because they themselves are different from you and me. And in a way that's good. After all, would you want Barbara Walters to have your home phone number?
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