As a professor, has there been a student you instantly recognized as a genius in the first week of knowing them?
Answered by: Shane Greenstein,works at Harvard Business School
Genius is what genius does. Professors spend the better part of their waking days interacting with intelligence at the upper tail of the distribution, so an unusually adroit bit of intelligence will catch any professor’s eye. Alas, anybody with experience also has seen many a charlatan, so skepticism always comes first. I may recognize genius quickly, but I will test it many times before I conclude it is truly there.
Here is an illustration.
A few years back I had an MBA student, born in the Caribbean, who had considerable world-travel experience under his belt. Quietly confident, and charming and affable, he had natural leadership abilities. Over time his stories of travels came with the additional details that he was facile with languages, and that helped him pick up work as he travelled.
I was intrigued, and learned about his travels throughout Asia, and tested him a bit with details (I have some experience in that part of the world, but, of course, I also had many more years to accumulate it). He seemed to be telling the honest truth. He knew things about Myanmar (and similar places) that would be hard to learn unless you visited.
Here is the genius part. He said that, for a while, he settled in China doing translation and other work. How was that possible? He had simply picked up Chinese, he said. I have an old acquaintance who was native English speaker who knew several European languages and learned Japanese after spending many years there, and he told me about all the challenges. So I was just a little skeptical. A few words, sure, but fluent with no formal training?
I had asked a few of the native-Chinese speakers whether the student could speak well, and they said yes, but none had a lengthy conversation.
One day we were visited by a Chinese delegation of businessmen. And my student was introduced to them. Off they went in conversation, laughing and conversing. He was fluent, and just as charming and affable in that language.
I never doubted him again. Genius is what genius does.