Friday, October 17, 2008

Acts of Genius

What does this phrase describe: "...complete freedom and a relentless pressure to produce?"

The dreams of Milton Friedman? Friedrich Hayek? The nightmares of Naomi Klein?

No. This actually describes the Princeton University math department in 1948 under its chairman, Solomon Lefschetz. In her bestselling biography of the Nobel laureate and Princeton graduate John Nash, A Beautiful Mind, Sylvia Nasar says that Lefschetz's goal was to get his graduate students producing original research as quickly as possible. Anything else was a waste of time.

In complete defiance of the traditional rules of university administration, the department "subjected its students to a maximum of pressure but a wonderful minimum of bureaucracy." The department had no course requirements. When a student took a course, he always received a passing grade, whether he attended class or not. Transcripts were "works of fiction" prepared "to satisfy the Philistines." Students could earn a passing grade in a foreign language competency exam simply by promising they would learn the text later.

In return for providing such freedom, Lefschetz expected a graduate mathematician to either brilliantly succeed or pack off to a lesser institution. At Princeton, the only thing that mattered was honestly achieved results. It was a pure meritocracy.

At its best, business is also a meritocracy. Unfortunately, there are many places where the creative spirit of business falls prey to the mindless and stultifying adherence to pointless rules. Creativity that changes the world cannot be planned, but it can be smothered.

We should always remember that a set of policies and procedures is not real genius. At best, it can create and sustain the conditions that encourage genius, the "freedom and the relentless pressure to produce." These are the essential conditions that have, can, and will open up the full range of human genius, in every kind of work and in every human endeavor. We are surrounded by acts of genius everyday; we just don't recognize them because they are not our kind of genius.

Beautiful minds don't all come from Princeton, but they do come from places that share the atmosphere of the Princeton math department in 1948.

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