My little brother was always fascinated by space. When he was small, he would want to discuss the universe and asked Mum to read the books mankind had written to make sense of it.
Barely a teen, his curiosity turned to computers. Our whole family watched as he built one from scratch – for fun. He ordered the parts from around the world and piece by piece they arrived in his room – from China, the US, Taiwan – before one day he emerged with an entire, functioning, computer. We were gobsmacked.
Today, he works between his keyboard and the moon. Designing hardware for tiny satellites that he plans to place among the stars. Constantly and quietly in awe, I’ve always wondered if he’s secretly a genius.
Listen: Speaking of genius, Monz has a clever productivity tip. Post continues…
We all think we know one, don’t we? A friend, a sibling, a child – that kid in the playground with seemingly extraordinary abilities. The idea of genius has fascinated all of us since the time we stepped foot in this world.
Looking for it feels like some eternal quest. The legends of those before us – Da Vinci, Einstein, Beethoven – linger in our collective memory while those still living dominate our TV screens. Estimated to be just 1% of the population, their minds and ability inspire intrigue and hope. We look to them for proof of our species’ brilliance and perhaps, in today’s age, as our possible future saviours.
But how can you ever really know one for sure? What are the signs your brother, friend, or child –- may be a genius?
Kishore Asthana is one of the few people who know the answer to this question.
“Every mother thinks that their child is a genius,” says Kishore. “I get calls from mothers of 4 year-olds saying, "My child is a genius, you must test her, or him and so on. But rarely it’s the case.”
Kishore is the president of Mensa India. Mensa is the largest and oldest high-IQ society in the world. Made up of those rare individuals who score 98% or above in standardised intelligence tests – it’s an international society for masterminds. Kishore himself has a whopping IQ of 165. (The average Aussie? They’re lucky to sit around 100.)
I’m speaking with Kishore while on assignment halfway around the world for Dateline SBS in the rural city of Gurugram just south of Delhi. As a Mensa scholar, he’s leading a unique search for genius kids in the impoverished corners of India. He looks for the tiniest glimpses of giftedness in the most unlikely places, testing the IQs of children in slum schools. So he’s developed a good nose, so to speak, for untapped brilliance.
“There are many such clues which you can look for in a child or in an adult and say he or she is a genius,” says Kishore.
“The main sign of a genius is a healthy curiosity. You want to learn about everything. Whatever you see, you ask questions.
“The second is understanding. You look at something, and you understand it, how it works. You’re able to connect the dots quickly without much explanation. If you are given some data and some data is missing, you are able to connect it in your mind. And if you don't understand, you ask and then you understand. Even that is a sign of genius.”
Genius isn’t something that can be learnt. While it can be trained, it’s not book smart. It’s an innate ability – fuelled first and foremost by something akin to instinct.
I learn this quickly watching Kishore at work – testing some of the brightest minds put forward by a handful of Gurugram’s makeshift roadside schools. Kishore’s designed a unique exam to sniff out raw giftedness. It’s based on the same principals of a standardised IQ test, but has one key difference. It uses pictures, rather than words. Overcoming language and literacy barriers, its purpose-built to find an intellectual flair even among those who cannot yet read or write.
To pass, a child must identify patterns and series – like predicting a chess player’s next move. The questions start from the very simple, getting more complicated and abstract with each turn of the page. And every question has a time limit. Emphasis is on speed and intuition – rather than simply getting the answer right. It’s looking for an innate mastery.
To date, Kishore’s test has identified 100 impoverished kids with IQs of 135 or above – meaning they’re exceptionally gifted. He sees two traits in particular that are common to the kids who make it through.
“A genius won’t repeat themselves too much,” explains Kishore. “If you find somebody is trying to explain something, and saying the same thing again and again, I would not consider them a suitable candidate for Mensa.”
“And the very, very high IQ people, they tend to be loners by and large. Firstly, because they think others don't understand them and secondly, since their mind works so much faster than others, they get bored easily.”
They’re both qualities I see in 14-year-old Varsha Kumari – one of Mensa’s child geniuses. But like all the genius kids Kishore finds, she has another quality too. A determination to succeed.
“There are many such children who think I know everything and that is a very big hole in which a genius can fall - being overconfident,” says Kishore.
“Being intelligent is one thing, but it cannot replace hard work. You have to work very, very hard.”
Perhaps more than any other quality, this is the one I notice the most filming with Kishore’s child geniuses. For Varsha - her house is no more than one small room, for seven people - hidden amongst Gurugram’s urban slums.
Most of the children in her street will never finish school, either married off young or working instead just to help feed the family. For Varsha it takes enormous courage and conviction just to stay in school – let alone realise the potential of her intellectual gift.
But like my brother, Varsha dreams of visiting the stars. At night, she traces the moon through the city’s smoggy skies and in her quiet, determined way, slowly discovers the powers of her 135 IQ.
A curiosity and uncanny ability to interpret the world are in her genes. But its perseverance and drive – despite all odds - that determines a genius.
“Genius is a quality, it's a resource basically,” explains Kishore after all. “What you do with it is different for different people.”
You can catch more of this story watching Dateline on Tuesdays 9.30pm on SBS.