This week I spent a lot of time appreciating the work of two Spanish geniuses of the twentieth century: Antoni Gaudí and Salvador Dalí. Gaudí, an architect whose work is mostly concentrated in and around Barcelona, is probably most famous for his design and early supervision of the Sagrada Familia, a monumental cathedral still under construction in the heart of the city. And even though it’s become polluted by tourists, it is still a breathtaking experience to walk into what will probably be one of the most iconic buildings in the world when construction finishes in 2026, a century after Gaudí died tragically in a tram accident.
To the north of Barcelona is the town of Figueres which is most famous for the Salvador Dalí museum. While it is true that Dalí was a brilliant marketer of his own work, sporting a curly moustache and often acting bizarrely, he was an artistic genius whose surrealist paintings have remained incisive into the present. I was struck by his Review of Poetry of America which portrayed, at least to my mind, the legacies of slavery and colonialism (pictured). What struck me too when visiting Dalí’s museum was his incredible productivity and the scope of his art: he not only painted, but created film sets, jewelry, sculpted, wrote and designed and built several homes including his own.
Experiencing the legacies of Gaudí and Dalí made me wonder about genius. Why is it that some men and women can create something intellectually or artistically breathtaking that can inspire for generations? Ability matters, of course, but that certainly ain’t all of it: there were and are many more intelligent people than Gaudí, but I don’t see them building the world’s greatest cathedral. So if we’re not born with genius, how do we achieve it? Or, to paraphrase Shakespeare, is genius simply thrust upon us?
It turns out that your age matters. Gaudí began designing the world’s greatest cathedral at the ripe age of 31. (Which makes you wonder about the things you’ve done at 31…) A recent NBER Working Paper investigates the relationship between age and scientific brilliance: it finds that the average age at which conceptual economists did their best work (and which later won them the Nobel Prize) was 32, while for empirical economists this is much later at 51. In the natural sciences, as the image shows, Nobel Prizes are awarded in general for path-breaking work during one’s early career.
But, as Helanya observed while we exited the Sagrada Familia, there was another driver of Gaudí and Dalí’s achievements: it was that their passion became their life. Gaudí is the classic example: he dedicated his life to his work. He worked constantly, had few friends and no family life (he never married). When he was hit by a tram, no one recognised him and because of his shabby clothing, he was transported to a hospitable for the poor where he died the following day.
While there are obviously many environmental factors that influence genius, the golden rule, it seems, is complete dedication to one thing. That is a trade-off most of us are not prepared to make.