What is the process to become like Gore Vidal, David Berlinski, Slavoj Žižek, Noam Chomsky or Umberto Eco? How many books do they read? How do they define their research topics?

So, first off, wowsa…that’s quite a list! From my observation, research, and learning about these folks over the years (via documentaries, interviews, lectures, reading their work, etc.), I would say there are a handful of common denominators for most of them:

1. Voracious curiosity and ability to absorb huge amounts of information. These guys can take a firehose of new data on a regular basis and quickly integrate and contextualize it. And then — and this is pretty key — they can remember all of it! This is an aptitude like various forms of intelligence…which can, perhaps, be mimicked; but I don’t know if it can become second nature without someone being blessed with certain genetic advantages from birth.

2. An ego big enough to crave public attention and/or recognition. This appears to be a major component of productivity and public engagement for most of these guys — to varying degrees. And it can certainly be mimicked as well…but do you really want to? There are pitfalls to being driven by ego and a need for attention…a certain kind of blindness that undermines the thought field being fostered and propagated by its originator. It can also lead beyond hubris to less savory habits — like unconscious plagiarism.

3. Being a skilled and adaptive communicator. This can be learned — to write well, speak well, etc., and then be able to tailer and condense an idea into accessible language for different groups of people. But it is an absolute necessity to do this…or very few people will understand what you are trying to convey.

4. Pattern identification. This last is really not something that can be mimicked or learned…it is simply a gift, and a pretty rare one. There are academics, writers, philosophers and thinkers that are actually much smarter and more well-read than any of the folks on your list. But they don’t have this gift of seeing patterns in data — and rarely have the “aha” moments that seem to stream out of the thinkers on this list. Someone who possesses this gift can leap to well-supported conclusions almost instantly, while nearly everyone else must slowly and deliberately struggle to catch up…if they even can.

My 2 cents.


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