A correspondent writes:
Why do you think we not like great creators of mathematics, literature, art or music, such as Schubert, Dante and Poincaré?
But they are not even like each other, so it isn’t surprising that other people aren’t like them as well. People are just different. Dante is not like Schubert. Even another composer, say JS Bach, is not like Schubert.
Anyway, what do you mean by “great”? Is Schubert’s greatness in his field commensurate with Dante’s in his?
Is it because we are not as good at communicating as they are?
Well, Schubert and Dante communicated through their music and poetry respectively. So, they wouldn’t be great, by definition, if they couldn’t communicate. Schubert was not a great communicator with his peers. Was Dante? Many mathematicians have a mindset which doesn’t lend itself to great communication.
Or is it that we do not perceive the world in the way that they do?
Well, we don’t know how they perceived the world. I don’t perceive the world in the way that you do, dear reader; though, of course, there is no way of demonstrating this.
If a person aspired to “achieve the heights” that they did, should we copy their (known) habits?
Certainly not. Their greatness does not lie in their behaviour! Knowing what someone does, but not understanding why or how, isn’t going to lead anywhere (whatever NLP practitioners would have you believe). I think Chateaubriand sums this up beautifully: “The original writer is not he who refrains from imitating others, but he who can be imitated by none.”
Or in perceiving their greatness to be in thinking like no one before thought, should they actively try to not think like them?
That’s so difficult, it’s not worth trying:
(1) How do you know how Dante and the rest thought? Answer, noone can know this.
(2) It is impossible to not think of something (for more than a limited time). If I may drag out the tired old cliché, if you try not to think of purple elephants, how long is it before you do?
I fear my answers are rather banal. Firstly, in defining these three as “great”, we must already know what it is that makes them different from us because that is how we separate them from everyone else in the first place. If you weren’t able to say what you meant by “great”, it would be hard to take seriously any assertion you made that a particular individual was “great”. So, if your answer is that “great” means the possession of attributes X, Y and Z, then these three differ from us precisely in possessing more of these attributes than we do.
But, you presumably asked the question because you want to know what X, Y and Z are. In which case, it is the wrong question—or, at least, you’ve asked it too soon. A better question would be “What are the characteristics of Poincaré, Dante and Schubert that result in people saying that they are great creators in their field?” Not, “why aren’t we like them?”
The answer to that is probably that they don’t share the same characteristics, and, in particular, I doubt Schubert’s maths was up to much any more than was Poincaré’s music. It requires different thought processes to excel in these areas. (Whilst there is a correlation between skill in maths and skill in music, that is not an indicator of greatness.)
What they do share is probably a, literally, abnormal development in certain areas of their mind which allows them to excel in restricted, specific processes (writing poetry, writing songs and so on). Other abnormalities in people’s minds result in less happy outcomes but, in this case, people (or some people, anyway) have chosen to use the word “great” regarding the work of these three and their colleagues.
So, without knowing what all these characteristics are, I think it is still fair to say that “great” creators do not have anything different from us, but they have the same things in different balances from us.