Terrence Tao, widely considered to be one of the greatest living mathematicians, has a list of accomplishments that only a true genius could obtain.
At 7-years-old, he was taking high school math courses with little difficulty. He received his PhD from Princeton University at 21 and became a professor at 24. He’s written more than a dozen books and hundreds of papers that solve the most complex math problems. At 31, he won the prestigious Fields Medal, which is considered the Nobel Prize of mathematics.
Historically, the pressure of being a genius has taken its toll and some of the greatest minds have ended up with serious problems. What’s most interesting about Tao, who’s now 40, is that he’s so normal. He’s far-removed from the tortured genius trope that most people know.
One of Tao coworkers at UCLA says he is “like Mozart; the mathematics just flows out of him except without Mozart’s personal problems; everyone likes him.”
According to a profile in the New York Times, Tao turns down offers to work at more prestigious universities because he likes the weather in California and the lack of drama at UCLA’s math department. One of his students noted that Hollywood could never make a movie about the married father of two because he has a happy, trouble-free life.
While we’ll never be able to match the rare genius of Tao, the mathematician does provide us with some great lessons to find success in our own lives.
Intelligence Isn’t Everything
Tao is a prolific blogger who covers everything from developments in the field to how to become a better writer. He also offers some invaluable career advice to prospective mathematicians that can be applied to just about any industry.
Being naturally gifted is a great asset but Tao says on his blog that, “one does not need some sort of magic ‘genius gene’ that spontaneously generates ex nihilo deep insights, unexpected solutions to problems, or other supernatural abilities.”
You can trust what he says; he’s a genius, after all.
So what traits should someone have? According to Tao, the ability to work hard, collaborate with others and “think about the big picture” (combined with some intelligence) leads to success. He’s speaking about the field of mathematics, but it applies to just about any line of work. A combination of winning traits is often more useful than raw intelligence.
Tao achieved much success by the time he enrolled in Princeton University as a graduate student. While he was by no means lazy or arrogant, he wasn’t completely prepared for some of the challenges in front of him despite his incredible mental abilities.
Tao performed unsatisfactorily in the university’s “generals,” a challenging oral examination conducted by a panel of three professors. Most students spend months preparing for this exam, but Tao put off studying until the last minute. His lack of preparation showed and he was unable to answer some of the questions posed to him.
Tao passed the generals, but not as well as he may have been accustomed to. There are so many stories of egotistical people who blame everyone but themselves for letdowns. For Tao, this was a learning experience that he held himself accountable for. Now, Tao regularly stresses the important of hard work on his blog.
Succeed in Both Teamwork and Solitude
There’s this stereotype of the mad genius that’s prevalent in literature and film. This person – who is often dangerously temperamental – shuns the outside world toils in solitude to come up with a great discovery. Eventually, there’s the “eureka” moment where the genius succeeds.
While such things have happened throughout history, this isn’t how great discoveries are typically made. Instead, collaboration is often how important work is accomplished. Tao realizes this and is keen to work with others. He’s co-authored dozens of papers and has solved some complex problems with long-time partners. The Green-Tao Theorem, for example, was proved in 2004 with fellow mathematician Ben Green.
The benefits of working together are many. Teams that have liked-minded goals are more innovative. When team members are comfortable with each other, they’re more likely to challenge each other and improve their work.
As important as collaborations are for success, there are times when individuality is effective. Tao and a team of collaborators were tasked in 2009 with solving a complex mathematic puzzle known as the Erdős discrepancy problem. The team made some progress but was unable to solve the problem. A couple years later, Tao was working on another mathematical problem when he noticed a similarity to the problem that previously that stumped him and his colleagues. On his own, he developed a proof that solved the Erdős discrepancy problem.
Working effectively with teams is crucial for success, but Tao also shows there are times when it’s best to go it alone.
Let face it – we will never match up to Terrence Tao when it comes to brainpower. While he’s on a whole other level of brilliance, he’s such a rare and inspiring person that there’s something everyone can learn from him. He proves that even if you’re a genius, there’s no substitute for hard work and strong working relationships. For us normal people, there’s something reassuring about that.