Genius Checklist

This article by Dr Piotr Wozniak is part of SuperMemo Guru series on memory, learning, creativity, and problem solving.

Compiled on the basis of the original list presented here: Roots of genius and creativity, Piotr Wozniak (2001)

How to become a genius

A majority of people carry the potential to become a genius. There are factors that are far more important than genes and IQ. I have compiled a checklist that I believe should work, when followed. All you need to begin with is to be free and reasonably healthy. I try to list the factors that prevent many people from accomplishing their greatest potential. The list begins with the stumbling blocks that are most likely to occur on one’s road to genius. Some factors need to be balanced against each other, and some factors overlap. For example, the first three preconditions of genius are strongly related: freedom from stress, good sleep, and self-discipline. They may provide the key to answering why we are not (yet) a planet of geniuses. I listed individual points separately on the basis of their ability to motivate and inspire. Before you start reading, however, remember what Herbert Simon said about genius: it takes about ten years to develop it. Not only will you have to meet all the criteria listed below, but lots of hard work and patience will be required before you climb that summit!

If you follow these rules religiously, you will be amazed by how much progress you can make in a decade

If I scare you with a decade-long time-frame, remember that chances are good that you will love your self-transformation in weeks. The younger you are, the ‘messier’ your life, the less you know about your future, the more powerful the effect.

Eliminate stress

Stress is understood here as rapid change resulting in an increase in stress hormones (catecholamines, ACTH, cortisol, etc.). Stressful change can come from conflict, illness, the death of a relative, or unemployment. Stress can also result from seemingly happy events such as a wedding or a hasty vacation. A simple test here is to make sure that creative problems circulate in your mind while you are brushing your teeth. You will fail the test if, instead of creative thinking, you are preoccupied with problems at work or in the family. Stress will dramatically cut down your creative efficiency. Most of all, it will affect your self-discipline: another cornerstone of genius. In addition, chronic stress will result in excess cortisol, increased activity in the sympathetic system, and a resulting inhibition of neurogenesis, memory consolidation, creativity, and more. See: Stress resilience


Make sure to always get as much quality sleep as your brain requires. The simplest first step is: throw away your alarm clock! Lack of sleep delivers a quadruple whammy: (1) it suppresses memory consolidation, (2) it prevents memory optimization, (3) it makes you unwilling to exert mental effort, and (4) it undermines your self-discipline. Submit to the natural creativity cycle. For more see: Science of sleep


Lack of self-discipline aggravated by stress and a lack of sleep is the number one cause of low productivity. The trick to achieving good self-discipline is to make incremental progress, and convert discipline into a habit and then into the pleasure of productivity (for more see: Self-discipline).
If you develop healthy self-discipline habits early, your life is likely to take an entirely different course. If you believe you are lacking in this field, try the following exercise: as soon as a valuable activity comes to your mind that you are really unwilling to do, do it. Within the scope and in agreement with human biology, your rational brain must be the master of your decision making. Stand over a pool of cold water. Do you hate jumping in? The more you hate it, the sooner you should jump. And in the end you will love it. A cold shower is a minor inconvenience once you experience the volitional power of the brain. You need to master the skill of perfect execution of your own plans. The more precise your plan, the harder it is to execute, yet the more tangible the results. Learn to delay gratification. If you focus on your long-term goals, your daily inconveniences will be more bearable or even pleasurable. A strenuous quest towards the goal is the best reward for a genius mind. Minor awards of laziness do not befit a true genius. Think of self-discipline daily. Even the strongest minds can relax it all too easily. Remember about stress and sleep. Stress and sleepiness are chief factors that undermine self-discipline. Self-discipline cannot quarrel with biology. In extreme cases, it can actually undermine your genius. If you are sick, stop working. If you are sleepy, go to sleep. For comfort, you should know, that with each passing year, self-discipline will gradually transform into a pleasure. Not only will you execute your plans instinctively, you will also reap the benefits of your earlier efforts to steer your life in a good direction. In later years, you will not need much self-discipline to employ your genius mind to do good things.

Learn day and night

Knowledge is the substance you convert to great ideas. Although it is possible to learn in stress or in a sleep deficit, learning is listed here behind stress, sleep and self-discipline. This is because humans exhibit inborn curiosity that makes them crave learning. TV, tabloid press, and social media thrive on this need for learning. Most people understand the importance of learning but are prevented from executing their plans due to stress, lack of sleep or lack of self-discipline. To breed genius, your whole life should revolve around learning. You should use every single little opportunity to learn important things. This could be reading Einstein’s biography or talking with a homeless person. Read, talk, watch, surf, and keep on thinking. Do not avoid hard subjects (e.g. mathematics). Mold your learning strictly to your creative needs, but do not fail to explore a wide range of topics. Touch all the bases and avoid tunnel vision! Remember that your success in learning will require appropriate knowledge representation and timing of review (as in SuperMemo). Are you lacking a university education? Never mind. Look at Edison, Lincoln, or Leibnitz to see the power of self-instruction. All the seemingly contradictory requirements listed above can be reconciled if you structure your learning with incremental reading. See: Advantages of incremental reading

Abstract knowledge

Except for a great deal of learning, you will need to pay attention to the quality of knowledge and its general applicability. You cannot just memorize thousands of facts. You have to consciously explore areas such as logic, probability, statistics, game theory, decision theory, computing sciences, optimization, as well as other branches of mathematics and sciences. You have to develop a love for logical thinking, the scientific method, and skepticism. Even if you are a movie critic, you will still need quality logic to frame your judgment. Remember that all knowledge is volatile and may be subject to falsification at any time. Keep your mind open to new truths even if they seem to turn your present vision of the world upside down

Knowledge representation

The main thing that makes a genius brain stand out is its ability to store quality knowledge in a way that is easy to remember and easy to use. A genius mind can see complex things in a simple form. It looks at the same text or picture and sees a dozen times more than an average individual. An average reader will say: “I understand, so what?”. A genius reader will say: “Eureka!”, and list several applications of the just acquired piece of knowledge. Geniuses simplify while learning. They generalize. They build abstract models. They develop abstract languages for representing knowledge. Those representation skills can also be developed by training. Have you ever tried to learn Kanji (Japanese language symbols)? If you see Kanji as a tangle of confused sticks, you are a typical beginner. Over time, however, Kanji symbols should begin to sing to you and talk to you in their own language. Once you pass the first few hundred, the next thousand should go smoothly. The same happens if you learn the 20×20 multiplication table. With time you learn simple tricks for running simple and repetitive calculations. Instead of memorizing 20×20 combinations, you limit yourself to a standard 10×10 table (just 25% of all combinations) and add to this a few rules for manipulating numbers in your working memory. The best way to develop good representations is to (1) understand the way the memory works (see: 20 rules of formulating knowledge), (2) consciously modify representations in the learning process (e.g. incremental reading supports this process naturally) (3) work on abstract knowledge (the more you learn the easier it becomes), and (4) get good sleep to employ neural optimization in sleep. If you encounter a difficult problem in incremental reading, postpone it. With luck, some other information source will present to you a better representation that is easier to assimilate.


Take obsessive care of your health! Keep your blood pressure down (high blood pressure damages your brain), do not abuse alcohol (any dose that visibly affects your mental performance may be poisonous to your brain), use medication only when absolutely necessary, exercise, stay away from smoking or illicit drugs, learn medical sciences!!! Your brain is a highly sensitive organ that needs a healthy environment to operate in. Health and understanding of the biological needs of your brain may dramatically affect your performance in the long run. Don’t waste time on colds and flu

Negative emotion

Learn to control and eliminate negative emotions that blur your mind and long-term vision. The only acceptable feelings towards others should be positive, in particular love, compassion, admiration, and inspiration. Intellectual passion is ok too. If other negative feelings tend to creep in, emigrate into your creative world. Don’t get swayed or discouraged by the nasty things in life. Ride on regardless.

Optimism and patience

Drive your life into an optimistic track! Do what you love and develop a strong sense of purpose. Optimism and patience rooted in stoic philosophy are critical for your brain to peacefully engage in a creative effort. Optimism has a hormonal basis and as such can be manipulated and enhanced. It is also based on memory (see: Learning and depression). Things that you love doing should find a place in your schedule. Due to its intimate and direct impact on the reward system, efficient learning belongs to the best sources of a positive experience. However, to many it can also be drudgery. For counterbalance you need to find time for highly enjoyable activities that widen your enthusiasm for living in general, be it music, art, movies, sports, religion, love, or other.

The Goal

Even the smartest, most knowledgeable brain does not deserve the status of genius if it lives in a vacuum. If you switch your focus and interests indefinitely, you may end up with little creative output to show for your talents. Establishing a clear goal for your life should be your first priority. If you are very young and still do not understand yourself or the surrounding world, you can safely commit yourself to enhanced learning. Until your goals crystallize, learning itself may be your temporary goal. However, you cannot continue learning for learning sake indefinitely. At some point you need to focus on a big goal and your learning should be focused on achieving that goal. Choose your goal by a combination of your own talents and its utilitarian impact. What do you think is the best thing you could do to make the world a better place? If you know it, make it your obsession. The greatest minds in history tended to focus intensely on a single problem and neglect all minor things in life. Young Bill Gates would sleep under his desk because he did not want to waste time on coming back home. David Boise, Al Gore’s star lawyer, would live in a dirty house and run in worn-out suits to economize more time on getting prepared for his cases. Lincoln would dress nicely only to please his wife. Einstein became entirely irresponsive to the outside world once he focused on his relativistic ideas. Edison would work for days nearly without sleep. Andy Grove of Intel stated justly: “Only paranoid survive!”. You need a clear goal and you need to pursue it obsessively. As for Gates and Edison, remember that quality sleep was listed second on this checklist. A passionate genius may sleep less, but this will only be harmless if it comes naturally on demand in the heat of creation. See: Setting goals

Balance learning and productivity

On the one hand, this checklist asks you to work hard to achieve your goals. On the other, it asks you to spend your whole life on learning. Naturally, you need to find an optimum balance between learning and productive creativity. This is what Steven Covey calls P/PC ratio (i.e. the ratio of effort put into production as opposed to developing the production capacity). A simple rule of thumb is: start with allocating your time fifty-fifty to learning and creativity. Gradually, you will see where the bottlenecks develop and you can change your allocation (in SuperMemo, you can use Tools : Plan to find your perfect proportion). Each time you swing away from the optimum balance, your productive output will be diminished. Your genius cannot be like a pink Cadillac in a glass showcase. Neither can you neglect developing genius while pursuing your goals. These two go hand in hand.


Passion, ambition, motivation, energy, and persistence are all interconnected. The inner drive and the rage to master are preconditions of true genius. The bad news is that those factors are strongly interwoven with your personality and some have a genetic background. The good news is that you are probably already sufficiently endowed. After all, you found this text and you have enough patience to work through it. Even better news is that passion involves memory, and as such it is trainable. For some hints see how the learn drive can be suppressed or enhanced in: Schools suppress the learn drive. If your drive to learn thrives, your knowledge explodes. This in turn adds strength to passion, then motivation, then energy, and persistence. Passion dies from inaction. On the other hand, health permitting, passion grows with productive efforts combined with unceasing self-development.

Specialization vs. versatility

On the one hand, this checklist asks you to specialize in a narrow area in which you can become number one in the world. On the other, it asks you to never neglect wide multi-disciplinary learning. Naturally you need to balance the two. There is no better way to balance your learning priorities than incremental reading where knowledge grows dendritically and spreads in all directions that bring value. Each time you discover painful gaps in your knowledge, you can add in more material to incremental reading. Incremental reading puts no limit on how much material you can import into the learning process and it makes it possible to spend only as much time on learning as you can afford. You cannot overload incremental reading. If you add more biology, all other subjects will proportionally be compressed in priority. This also makes sure that you do not break down under a load of a temporary fad. Subjects that decline in priority can be rescheduled and re- / deprioritized. Reprioritization occurs continually during the learning process. In incremental reading, you nearly do not need to allocate time for planning the learning process. Your prioritization can go concurrently. You will not belong to those people who lose their chance for success by spreading everything too thin. Neither will you develop tunnel vision. With rationally controlled learning, you will easily find an optimum balance between specialization and the big picture and all that falls in-between.

Measure the day

Measure your progress by your daily effort and not the distance remaining to the ultimate goal. Only with this paradoxical approach will you be able to follow the optimum trajectory. For one, today’s effort is more tangible than the tiny difference a day often makes on your road. Productivity is the most satisfying feeling that will drive you to your greatest heights. Sensing productivity may be the most important positive emotion of a creative mind. As long as you derive your primary satisfaction from the perfect execution of your plans that lead to the big goal, your motivation will remain high and your trajectory correct. Occasionally, your genius may end up unfulfilled as it was with Charles Babbage’s differential machine or Ted Nelson’s Xanadu. But this is no excuse for not trying. This wiki site uses transclusion that has been based on Nelson’s genius thinking. It is also being written on a computer inspired by Babbage’s pioneering designs. See also: Planning a perfect productive day without stress

Forget money

Money distorts goals. If you follow the money trail, you will optimize against creativity! Money-oriented optimization, at least in today’s world, will prevent you from developing a clear creative focus. Very few true geniuses were motivated by money. Most were motivated by utilitarian goals, curiosity, or the quest to be the best in their field. You need to bend your creativity down to earth only as much as to ensure this checklist is left untouched (esp. in points related to health, stress, sleep, and time for creative effort). For comfort you should keep in mind that the Bill Gates’es of the future will be recruited from the creative elite. All nations work in concert to develop planetary mechanisms for rewarding geniuses for their invaluable effort. Genius’s sole job and responsibility is to create and contribute value.

Write down ideas

Never trust your memory to keep your new ideas. Once you come up with an idea, write it down instantly. Write it down even when it is only a hint as to how to solve a problem. Write it down even if you are not sure if it is correct. You cannot predict how your hint or a shadow of an idea will affect your future thinking. If the idea seems weak, so is its memory trace. Charles Babbage said: Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable. Graham Bell kept meticulous notes of his ideas that collectively could help Bell break Edison’s patent record. Botvinnik kept meticulous notes of his chess game ideas and encouraged his students to follow the same practice. Bohr’s office had a wall with a narrow drawer in which he would keep multiple manuscripts in various stages of preparation for publication. He would not hurry the creative process, but always wanted to preserve the current state of thinking. Today, the best way to follow Bell and Bohr is to write down nuggets of ideas straight into the incremental reading process. Once you write down an idea, describe all the associations of the moment. Gradually, in the incremental review process, you will reanalyze individual pieces, build upon them, consolidate, enhance with new knowledge, etc. In the process of incremental reading, add new ideas to topics that sparked them. This will also help you understand the impact of associational thinking and incremental reading on creativity. See: incremental writing


There is a magic power in interaction with other brains. No reading and no Google can replace another human being as a source of inspiration. Discuss great ideas with your colleagues in relaxed one-to-one encounters. Do it in a park or by the lakeside. Avoid distracting or stressful surroundings such as offices, crowded places, etc. If your inspirational brains are far away, use incremental brainstorming via e-mail.


Time-management techniques help one maximize the efficient use of time. If you double the time spent on creative activities, you can increase your lifetime output manifold. Your efficiency may not double due to the fatigue factor, but the results of creative output tend to cumulate, consolidate, and self-amplify over time. Creativity is a great investment that carries a huge compound interest that will produce a snowballing effect throughout your life. Learn to use e-mail instead of a phone or a car. This saves boatloads of time. Regular and repetitive schedule works best for creativity. This is explained in natural creativity cycle. If you are flexible enough to plan to perfection, use Plan in SuperMemo. Plan will be of great help in optimizing the realistic allocations of time to individual activities in proportion to their priority. To enhance your time-management skills, Plan will help you make an exact record of your work. You will see how much time goes to waste or to low-priority activities. If you have never done such an exercise before, you are bound to be surprised with the amount of hidden potential. Time management will release that potential. See: Planning a perfect productive day.

Study great people

Few things are as inspiring as the lives of the greatest individuals that have walked the planet. Look for strategies that could be helpful in your own efforts. Biographies of great people should make up a solid portion of your incremental reading material

Study yourself

Try to document how you got your best ideas in the past, and what serves your brain best. You should focus on your optimum working environment, mental state, and the methodology. Self-study is great for maintaining health. If you use incremental writing for note taking and creative elaboration, you will realize that the incremental learning process transforms your notes into a fountain of knowledge about yourself.

Do not neglect skills needed to interact with other people! Teamwork and cooperation can produce miracles. By alienating people you may block your ideas from surfacing. Make friends, and avoid bad lot. Listen to advice but politely refuse to follow it if you disagree. Never let other people dominate your path in any other way than through a superior advice. Good people often make little progress because they let others abuse their politeness. The best way to learn to say No is to practice that on a regular basis. Paradoxically, a month of isolation can help you improve your efficient interaction with others. If you discover how much can be done when you are the boss of your time, saying no will become much easier.

Slug it out

If you need to solve a hard problem, allocate many hours to the goal. For a period of time, try to forget about the whole world. Toss lots of new inspirational knowledge into incremental reading. Slug it out as much as you can, and then sleep over it. Learn, think, create, sleep, learn, think, create, sleep until the problem is solved. Remember that your memories are reorganized in sleep. This is why you will need plenty of sleep at the time of high creative effort. Most likely, on one beautiful day, you will wake up with an idea ready for consumption in your half-awoken mind. It is only the matter of choosing the right problem to match your skills. The greatest scientists and inventors had a good nose for spotting solvable problems. If the problem is solvable with your means, slugging it out in a smart way will produce a satisfactory outcome. See: How to solve any problem?

Remember also that some things are not worth the fight: The grind is the glory

Warm family

To perpetuate genius, provide the best and most inspiring environment to your own kids. Parental attention is highly correlated with a young man’s future achievements. History of the greatest minds shows that loving, caring, inspiring, and warm family was the key to developing brains that change the world. Remember that attention does not imply limits on freedom. To maximize human potential, learning and development must be self-directed. See also: Coercion in learning

Why do people fail my prescription?

It has been two decades since I formulated the checklist above (2001). I am proud to see many young lives thrive on my prescription. However, I also see a great deal of failure. The checklist for failure is much shorter. It basically boils down to two factors: stress and sleep. With stress and bad sleep, self-discipline collapses, and then … nothing happens. There is no progress towards greatness.

It is amazing how many people are enslaved by social pressure, behavioral systems, and lack of self-confidence. I strongly blame the education system for those human weaknesses. See: Schools violate the Genius Checklist and 50 bad habits learned at school.

When kids are deprived of freedom to make decisions in their most formative years, they can be left scarred for life

If you believe I missed anything on my list, or you disagree with some point, please let me know.

For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru

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