My Brilliant Brain – Make Me a Genius

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Articles in this series:

Make Me a Genius

Part 3 of My Brilliant Brain is about Hungarian-born Chess Grandmaster Susan Polgár. She was the first woman to break the gender barrier in a male-dominated game. This was the part that interested me the most because, at the age of 4, Susan was an ordinary child with no remarkable genius abilities. It was the educational journey she embarked upon with her father, László Polgár, that would ultimately shape her brilliant brain.

László Polgár believed that any child, given the right environment from young, could grow up to become a genius. Citing Mozart as his example, Polgár noted that it was the rich musical environment that Mozart received from an early age that produced his musical genius. To prove his theory, Polgár decided to carry out his experiment with his own children. He would raise a genius through early intensive specialisation in a specific subject.

The Mozart Myth

Many of us view Mozart as a born genius. We have been mislead into believing that he composed entire musical masterpieces in his head through flashes of inspiration. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Mozart was very talented, but even he had to work on his pieces like an ordinary human being. He got stuck, he had to revised parts of his music, and he needed to work with a piano to create the musical masterpieces we hear today. He became what he was because of the practice and effort that he put in. Genius is not magic, there is a lot of work involved.

Debunking the Myth About the Creative Process

When Susan was 4, she stumbled upon a chess board while looking for toys to play with. Not knowing the rules of chess, her mother directed her to her father and promised that he would teach her how to play when he got back from work. From that day, Polgár used chess as the subject for Susan’s early intensive specialisation. After 6 months of training, Polgár took Susan to the local chess club where she played against grown men and beat them hands-down. She went on to dominate the girls’ under 11 chess tournament.

Polgár had two other girls after Susan. When they were old enough, Polgár allowed them into the room where Susan received her intensive chess training. The condition was that they must also learn how to play. Having watched their older sister devote hours, day after day, to the game of chess, they were eager and willing participants.

Chess has been male-dominated game for a long time. The rationale for this is that the game favours the male brain’s visual-spatial processing advantage. By beginning their chess lessons early, the Polgár sisters were able to bridge the gap between the male and female brain by developing their visual-spatial processing centers.

The conclusion of this documentary is similar to what Malcolm Gladwell highlighted in his book “The Outliers“. What you need to become great is practice – lots and lots of it, like 10000 hours or so. Eventually, the many hours of practice will even out the differences in “talent”. 

To illustrate the point, they performed an experiment on Susan. A truck is arranged to drive past Susan as she is seated at a cafe. On the side of the truck is chess board of a game in progress. Susan has a 3-second view of the board before she is asked to reconstruct the chess board that she saw on the truck. She places the chess pieces on a board in the positions that they were shown on the truck – perfectly.


The human brain can only remember about 7 pieces of information at a time. So how is Susan able to remember where all the chess pieces were after glancing at the picture for 3 seconds? Because of the many hours Susan spent practicing, studying and playing chess, she has memorised tens of thousands of chess configurations. Instead of seeing a board with individual chess pieces placed randomly, she sees patterns. She could break the board up into chunks so that all she had to remember were 5 chunks of information.

To prove this point, Susan is shown a second picture of a chess board. This time, the chess pieces are placed randomly on the board by a non-chess player. Because the chess pieces are now in positions they would never really appear in a chess game, Susan has trouble remembering where each piece should be. She could no longer rely on her vast collection of chess board configurations to help her remember the placements of the pieces. Her amazing achievements in chess are the result of years and years of deliberate practice.

How to Raise a Genius

So how do you raise a genius? This is what you need to do:

  • Focus on a specific subject
  • Early exposure
  • *Practice – lots of it

* On the point of practice, we need to distinguish between “blind practice” and “deliberate practice”. By “blind practice” I am referring to the kind of practice that is pure repetition with no direction. You can spend hours on “blind practice” without much improvement. For example, if you sing off-key and you keep practicing the same off-key, you won’t get better at singing. You just get better at singing the wrong note. “Deliberate practice” is focused on improvement; there is increasing challenge with time and the goal is overall mastery of the skill. Getting feedback from an experienced mentor, teacher, or coach is an important part of “deliberate practice”.

Deliberate practice refers to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.

James Clear

The other point that is important is “personal interest”. Just as Polgár let Susan choose the subject of her intense study, you must let your child choose. Without personal interest in the subject, it is difficult for a child to be the driver for their own practice. You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. Without your child’s willingness to practice, it is impossible to achieve such success.

Further Reading:

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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