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Genius in Specificity

27 August, 2010

One of the fairly standard findings in research about genius is that genius is something that can be very domain specific – and, depending on the area, specific to domains within domains.

There was a study done on soccer players around 2008.  To briefly summarise, there is a skill in soccer that is about anticipating where the ball is going to go.  The offensive and defensive soccer players were divided into two groups, and it was found anticipating where the ball is going to go was done far better by defensive players than offensive players (even when done in defense and offense, respectively).  Obviously, the defensive players have this as a central part of their role, while it’s more peripheral (and has less damaging results) for offensive players.

A Mark Williams,  Paul Ward,  Julian D Ward,  Nicolas J Smeeton. (2008). Domain Specificity, Task Specificity, and Expert Performance. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 79(3), 428-33.  Available from .

On the surface, this looks counter intuitive – soccer players should be soccer players, right? – but even mentally, there are quite different skills required in defense from offense, even though it’s within the one game.

We can apply this to everyday life, too.  I have a friend who works as an engineer for a major mining company, and at the drop of a hat, he can tell you the exact specifications of any given bolt that can be used in mining machinery.  Another friend worked in air conditioning, and could easily diagnose any problem that happened to an air-conditioner. I’m sure many readers could bring out other stories like this (and feel free to comment with some of them).  By the same token, that engineer would be at a significant disadvantage in, for example, electrical engineering – even though it’s engineering, with similar concepts required.

What this means for us is that we choose to excel at needs to be defined, specific and achievable.  We can’t be afraid to spend several thousand hours perfecting that skill, either…but that’s another post for another time.

Originally posted on The Genius Project.

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