Genius or Savant

I’ve been thinking about Boris Johnson, Elon Musk, and Donald Trump a lot recently. This is mostly because it’s nearly impossible to follow the news and not hear about them on pretty much a daily basis.1 Often times, commentators talk about the supposed “genius” of these people. But I think this is a fundamental mis-understanding of their talents.

They are not geniuses, but instead savants, using the second definition of savant; someone who has exceptional skills in one area, despite a deficit in another. I don’t think there would be much argument that all three of these people have exceptional skills in some areas; both Boris and Trump are very skilled in campaigning, and Elon seems to be a relatively competent engineering manager.

However, these skills are not necessarily enough to create a well-rounded, likeable person. Nor are they enough to do a good job at senior leadership positions in most organizations. Looking at Trump and Johnson, both of them are very good campaigners, but don’t have nearly the same level of skill at governing. Similarly, for Elon, he seems decent at managing an engineering organization, and thinking through the trade-offs in building complex engineering systems. But he seems to have a lot more trouble understanding socio-political systems, and recently, has been making a lot of obvious mistakes.

I can go in more depth in the failings of these people, but it’s just going to be a rehashing of the news from the past six years. Probably all but the most rabid fan-boy would be willing to grant that they have made mistakes and have failings. This is where I think the “savant” filter is useful.

They all have significant failings, mostly around a deep emotional intelligence. Where it gets interesting is that it’s not that they are entirely without emotional intelligence, but for both Johnson and Trump, the scope of their emotional intelligence is very narrow. It’s hard for them to exercise compassion or empathy for individuals. This can be seen in Trump’s mocking of disabled individuals, or Johnson’s lock-down parties.

More broadly, this is probably a variant of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where low-skill individuals overestimate their ability. Here, it’s that experts in one field believe that their expertise is transferable; Elon’s engineering experience leads him to believe he also has a lot of experience in policy development. Needless to say, there is little parallel between the two fields; Elon is learning nearly every day how engineering doesn’t really help in policy.

Anyway, the point of this is that many of the people we call “geniuses” are not actually “broad-spectrum” geniuses, but rather, have a fairly narrow area of expertise. Let’s give them labels that better reflect their expertise, and “savant” is at the very least, a good start.

  1. Mericifully, Boris is becoming a lot less frequent on the news. But he is still trying to keep his name out there. Like his favorite Cincinnatus, he is now working a small farm, hoping that the British citizenry will call on him to serve the country once more.