Friday, November 25, 2011

Bibliotherapy and Beyond: A Tribute to Genius

The latest business advice for psychologists encourages us to cultivate a niche of expertise.  A niche will allow your practice to stand out amidst the clutter of treatment options and help potential clients decide whether you are likely to be the psychotherapist best suited for their needs.  My practice niche is helping gifted people cope and thrive in the face of their uniquely rarified universe of talents, challenges and stressors. To further this aim, I love to read biographies of exceptional people who have achieved the outstanding kind of greatness and impact on society that can come from being driven, creative, and intellectually gifted.

Steve Jobs, who passed away October 10, is one such genius. If you would like to better understand what makes people like Steve Jobs tick, you should read Walter Isaacson’s new book “Steve Jobs”.  It can be difficult for most people to fathom the way brilliant, opinionated, persistent, irreverent, visionary people actually think.  You can enjoy a front row seat to the mystery and wonder of an amazing mind when you read this biography.  A compelling biography about the “other” Steve, at Apple, Steve Wozniak, is called “iWoz: How I Invented the Personal Computer and Had Fun Along the Way” by Patrick Lawlor.  While Jobs was moody, charismatic, grandiose and ambitious, Woz, is a sweet, shy, solitary dreamer with an admittedly high level of social awkwardness.  While I don’t diagnose people I’ve never met, he comes across as a classic presentation of high functioning Asperger’s Syndrome.  His autobiography is both touching and inspiring.  Both Apple creator biographies stand well on their own but they convey an interesting synergy when read in tandem.  They chronicle an exciting time in the history of technology and provide an answer to the age-old question, “If things are the way they are because they got that way, how DID they get that way?”…At least with regard to Apple computers, anyway!

The author who wrote “Steve Jobs” also wrote a biography of Albert Einstein (entitled Einstein: His Life and Universe) published in 2007.  Isaacson is particularly skilled at making the minute details of life lyrical and informative.  He integrates great chunks of history into his books and strives to help the reader understand the “theory of mind” of his famous subjects.  He debunks many of the popular myths about Einstein, such as the absurd idea that Einstein failed math in elementary school, which he did not.  As a psychologist, it is especially interesting to understand how visionary men like Einstein, Wozniak and Jobs integrate their exceptional giftedness with the other relatively mundane but meaningful priorities in their lives such as family, relationships, home-life, travel, values and inspirations. 

“A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines”, by Janna Levin, is about Kurt Godel and Alan Turing.  Godel was a mathematician / philosopher who gloried in the café culture of 1930’s Vienna.  Turing was a mathematician / logician / computer scientist who is best known for mechanical decision theory and the Turing Test, which is still the standard by which the quality of artificial intelligence is gauged.  The book is an intriguing foray into the lives of two brilliant but troubled men whose lives had striking similarities and common influences, although they never actually met.  The author’s deft use of alternating chapters about each of her subjects makes for some very engrossing reading.

“End Game: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge Of Madness”, by Frank Brady, chronicles the troubled life of chess champion Bobby Fisher, another genius with qualities characteristic of Asperger’s syndrome.  Fischer’s IQ was measured at 181 and his odd, demanding and difficult nature was legendary.  He died in 2008, consumed by feelings of bitterness and alienation.

In my opinion, the most heart-rending biography of genius is “A Beautiful Mind” by Sylvia Nasar about the eccentric Nobel-prize winning Princeton economist John Nash.  While the eponymous movie is fascinating, the book is even better.  It explores the details of Nash’s descent into paranoia and psychosis with a gentleness and wisdom that provides thoughtful insight into the inner experience of schizophrenia.  This remarkable book is a particularly engaging read for mental health professionals wishing to develop a deeper understanding of this terrible illness. 

The poignant struggle that comes with compelling genius seems to separate a person from the rest of his world.  Ultimately, what we call genius appears to be the natural ability to comprehend universal truths and see things in a way that no one else generally does.  This can make for a very turbulent and lonely existence. The isolation, frustration and compulsive drive that characterize the subjects of these biographies shows how giftedness can be a double-edged sword.  Sadly, their greatest challenge may be growing old without becoming paranoid, alienated, delusional or embittered.  It’s always illuminating to really know the actual person behind a legend.  These biographies bring these legendary scientists and inventers alive in a way that will forever change how you perceive the costs and benefits of genius.  Hopefully, reading about their lives will make you further appreciate the price they paid to make the unique contributions that have so enriched our lives.  The insights gleaned can also compassionately inform our work with individuals on the gifted spectrum.

Until next time, happy reading!


  1. I would also add James Gleick's wonderful GENIUS: THE LIFE AND SCIENCE OF RICHARD FEYNMAN to that list. Thanks for a very interesting piece. You made me decide to read the Jobs book.

  2. Enjoyed your piece! Another great character study is the biography of Oppenheimer, the "father of the atom bomb".

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  4. Thank you Jill, for an excellent insight into not only a few great biographies to read, but for a dose of inspiring motivation to learn more about the common threads that exist between the geniuses you referenced.

    Your write so well!!!

  5. ‎"Cultivate a niche of expertise" resonates for me. You mention Steve Jobs first, and I've explained how I knew the founders of Apple before they started Apple.
    Then you mention Albert Einstein. As I’ve explained at length, my great-uncle took a famous photo-portrait of Einstein, whom my mother almost hit with her car one night in Princeton, and who was a mentor of a mentor of a mentor of mine. Then you give third-hand mention of Alan Turing and Kurt Godel, both of whom I’ve written about a dozen time each in fiction and in nonfiction. This blog thread of yours is one of the best of yours that I’ve ever seen. Great work!

  6. Also, I’ve detailed on my Facebook Wall about my two meetings with Bobby Fischer, who is the center of the longest chapter of one of my Facebook-serialized novels, and I’ve had two meals with John Forbes Nash, Jr., his wife Alice, and their son John Forbes Nash III, as I’ve explained on facebook. So your bibliotherapy overlaps my normal life!

  7. Amazingly, those with whom I have interacted with in my life who are considered 'Genius' in some area ... have been dysfunctional, or at least awkward, in most every other area of their life. I wonder if it is the unusual focus they have for their 'Genius' area that leaves everything else wanting ...

  8. An excellent post, Jill. You've certainly added some items to my must-read list.

    At the moment, I'm in the middle of the Jobs bio. You've convinced me to read the book on Wozniak next.

    (Footnote: typing this on my iPad, I've just discovered that if you input w, o, and z, the auto-completion feature immediately suggests "Wozniak." But then, what else should an Apple product do?)

  9. Jill, thanks for this thorough and fascinating reading list. These inspirational books about true achievers also make a great gift list! Thanks for sharing these.