what makes a genius

The Nature Of Genius

The other day, when I went to use the soap, it looked weird. It was in one of those little hand-pump containers and it looked like two substances mixed together.

It turns out, my 7 year old had dumped some of my hair conditioner into my hand soap as an experiment. It brought to mind the law of requisite variety and the qualities of genius.

What Is Genius?

One of the definitions of genius is someone who connects up things that people don’t usually connect. Many useful inventions are inspired by taking something out of its usual context and putting it in another.

I’m thinking of George de Mestral who found some burrs stuck in the fabric of his pants after a walk outside. When he looked closely, he saw little hooks from the burrs caught in loops in the fabric. He used that concept to create Velcro® fasteners for clothing–and in the process, make life easier for those who have trouble with buttons.

That’s “thinking outside the box.” What about acting outside the box?

The Law Of Requisite Variety

The law of requisite variety is a principle borrowed from cybernetics. Basically, it says that, all other things being equal in a system, the element of that system that has the most states will be the controlling element in the system.

What does that mean?

It means flexibility rules.

When applied to behavior is means, if you want to get responses out of people (and that’s what we do with NLP & hypnosis), you’d better have a wide range of states and behaviors you can produce. It’s a presupposition, a basic concept in NLP. In other words, as a therapist, if you think you have to act, look or talk a certain way in order to be “therapist-like,” you might be in trouble. There are some times you might have to act outside of your normal range in order to reach people.

Dr. Pepper & Lemonade

So, I was thinking about all this when I was trying to decide what to drink today. Although I don’t usually drink pop, I was vacillating between Dr. Pepper and Lemonade. “What the heck,” I thought. I mixed them both together. It was better than I thought it would be! Next time, I’ll change the ratio–I think I’ll like it with more lemonade.

My boy’s soap/conditioner experiment worked out OK too.

It cleans–and conditions.


About The Author:

Keith Livingston is the main instructor for Hypnosis 101. Keith has been studying hypnosis since he was a boy and doing hypnosis & NLP training since 1997.

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  1. This is exactly what provocative therapy does! Taking things out of context, exagerating to the extreme, making jokes, all within rapport, and you can get away with some serieus business! Flexibility teaches our clients also how fun and creative they too can be in their own lives, with their own problems. Most problems have become a problem, because we have become rigid with them and don’t know anymore how to be flexible, creative, out of the box! A therapist who shows in his or her behavior flexibility, already shows the solution…..

  2. I do agree with the takeaway point that the more options you have the better off you are. The thing I’m not too sure about is the connection between the law of requisite variety and the kind of variety displayed by someone who is “thinking outside the box”.

    For a start, without reading more deeply into it, the law sounds like a tautology – when the situation demands flexibility, you have to be flexible, except presumably when you need to be consistent and stick to your principles.

    More fundamentally, the cybernetic principle seems to be all about control, whereas the kind of playful, exploratory learning displayed by a seven year old involves giving up a bit of control, and indeed in complex human situations like bringing up a child are characterised by a tension between being in control and letting things emerge.

    My understanding of the law of requisite variety, based on half an hour reading Wikipedia, is that it’s a metaphor drawn from automated machinery and applied to wider biological and human situations, and that having requisite variety means that whatever the world throws at a machine or a person, the machine or person has to be able to respond in a matching but opposite way in order to stay on course – in a car, if you’re going a fraction too far to the right you have to be able to steer a little bit to the left, if you’re going too fast you have to hit the brakes, etc. A car without a working, responsive accelerator, brake, or steering wheel lacks the requisite variety to be able to get from A to B safely. But it’s a narrow definition of control to say that it’s being able to cancel out whatever change occurs – it applies to machines, but by itself it doesn’t seem to apply to complex human situations.

    Even when the law of requisite variety brings some insight into human skills, it doesn’t seem to mean the same thing as thinking outside the box. Skilful drivers can be said to display more variety in their behaviour than less skilful drivers, but that doesn’t mean that they steer randomly between lanes and have a creative disregard for traffic laws, it means that they have appropriate and finely tuned responses to a wider range of situations that can occur on the road, so they’re able to stay in control when the weather turns bad, when the car ahead swerves unexpectedly, when their children are arguing in the back seat, when these things happen in combination, etc, etc.

    Maybe driving is a bad analogy, because being playful, surprising, and provocative is almost always the wrong thing on the road, whereas it is appropriate if you’re trying to get yourself out of a rut, or if you’re seven years old.

    But even to take an analogy from a more creative domain – all other things being equal in a film, the actor who has the widest emotional range will compel audience attention and drive the plot forward. Good acting is surprising, not because the emotion put across is extreme or random, but because it’s appropriate, precisely expressed, and not at all obvious or predictable when you’re not as finely tuned emotionally as the actor is.

    As part of their preparation, the actor may have performed exercises where they were shouting and jumping up and down, giving up control and letting randomness, whimsy, and unconscious instincts take over. Those kinds of exercises are an injection of a kind of variety in order to expand the actor’s range and force them to discard cliched responses, but what you see on the screen is distilled down into a different kind of variety – it’s a variety of exquisite distinctions rather than a variety of chaos.

    1. DL,
      Good points–well thought out. Rather than go through what you said point-by-point, I’ll say this…

      1) In my experience (and in my opinion) watching students and therapists work, lack of flexibility is a greater problem than lack of consistency. It’s not always the case, of course. One of my goals for this post was to get people thinking and leaning more to the flexible side.

      2) Naturally, knowing when to be flexible as well as what to do differently (rather than random, flexible behavior) is key. It’s also too big of a subject for me to cover here and now.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. I find them valuable.

      1. Dear Keith!
        Reading this message and your reaction on the reply above, I was thinking this: You are telling about your experience by watching your students and terapists, and seeing the lack of flexibility.
        Ithink that is a good point, but isn’t this a much bigger problem?

        A problem of fast the entire mankind?

        In my opinion I see this point by very much people, almost by all the people around me.
        A sort of looking for safety. When stuck in the same things…. always doing the same …. you are sure of the outcome!
        One is creating some base of safety.
        It may be good for the self-confidence, when allready knowing the outcome, you don’t have to bother about it. You also cannot blame yourself when it goes wrong.
        A sort of safety-base for people.

        Allthough I myself like it to do sometimes do things another way. It makes the world more interesting (in my opinion). You also have to accept it when sometimes it goes wrong.
        But it also can make you more creative in doing things, and it can bring more fun in your life.

        I think it is good people can fall back on old experiences, or on what you have learned. Otherwise one have to design the wheele everytime again and again.
        But when you have the guts to do something in onother way, it can make your world much bigger, doesn’t it?

        Another thing I was thinking of is the “Herd-instict” of mankind. People very much like it to do things the same way as the other people around them. So it is a big step having the guts doing something different. Is this Herd-instinct not also an explanation for the lack of flexiblility much people have?

        This is what I was thinking. Please tell it when you have another point of view, or if you think I miss a point. I will like that
        Greatings, Ivar

  3. Thanks Keith

    As a person who, by necessity, expends a considerable amount of energy to remain INSIDE the box – I have a unique view of the fishbowl…

    To me, the NLP presupposition; Law Of Requisite Variety – is a social interaction heuristic or algorithm, or a rule of thumb, to plagiarize from Wikipedia : “Heuristic … is an adjective for experience-based techniques that help in problem solving, learning and discovery. A heuristic method is used to rapidly come to a solution that is hoped to be close to the best possible answer, or ‘optimal solution’. A heuristic as a noun is a “rule of thumb”, an educated guess, an intuitive judgment or simply common sense. A heuristic is a general way of solving a problem. Heuristics as a noun is another name for heuristic methods.”

    One example of a social heuristic we all experience is; “Social proof, also known as informational social influence, is a psychological phenomenon that occurs in ambiguous social situations when people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior. Making the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation, they will deem the behavior of others as appropriate or better informed. … formal analysis shows that it can cause people to converge too quickly upon a single choice, so that decisions of even large groups of individuals may reflect very little information (see information cascades).”

    From a more cybernetic perspective, the Law Of Requisite Variety functions much like an attractor: “An attractor is a set to whiceh a dynamical system evolves after a long enough time. That is, points that get close enough to the attractor remain close even if slightly disturbed. Geometrically, an attractor can be a point, a curve, a manifold, or even a complicated set with a fractal structure known as a strange attractor. Describing the attractors of chaotic dynamical systems has been one of the achievements of chaos theory.” And more specifically a Limit cycle: “A limit cycle is a periodic orbit of the system that is isolated. Examples include the swings of a pendulum clock, the tuning circuit of a radio, and the heartbeat while resting. The ideal pendulum is not an example because its orbits are not isolated. In phase space of the ideal pendulum, near any point of a periodic orbit there is another point that belongs to a different periodic orbit.”

    So, I think my SiGung said it most artfully: “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless – like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

    Bruce Lee, American Actor and martial arts expert. Born in San Francisco, California, USA 1940-1973)


  4. It’s all about getting people to look at things another way (being flexible). In its simplest terms it is like seeing a glass half empty and being retaught to think of it half full!

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