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19 June 2015updated 05 Oct 2023 8:38am

The Evil Genius theory: do you have to be a nightmare to be truly innovative?

From Johann Gutenberg to Steve Jobs, extraordinary creativity is so often coupled with callous disregard for others.

By Alix Christie

Among the reams that have been written about Johann Gutenberg, there is one little known and telling piece. The inventor of printing, it seems, could be a brute. While experimenting in the 1430s in Alsace, he was sued by a lady with whom he’d dallied, but refused to marry. Yet her claim for breach of marriage contract wasn’t half of it. When the matter came to court, the German entrepreneur attacked the woman’s witness with such vulgar threats that he was fined for his foul mouth.

Gutenberg was undoubtedly a genius, but he could also be a lout. He left a trail of lawsuits and disgruntled partners behind him throughout his career, while at the same time dreaming up the most important human innovation since the wheel.

Researching his life for my first novel, I couldn’t help but notice how his behavior echoed that of the titans of our own technology revolution—and, for that matter, megalomaniacal creators through the ages. Many great innovators, from Steve Jobs to Larry Ellison, Pablo Picasso to Wolfgang Mozart, exhibit a similar profile: extraordinary creativity coupled with callous, often imperious, disregard for others. Silicon Valley is stuffed with such “brilliant bastards,” reported Wired magazine in 2012.

At a time when all of us, in every walk of life, are exhorted to show “innovative thinking,” it is worth asking what such profiles tell us. Must we be cruel to create? How far should we accept the idea that great minds are not all that social? The experience of the world’s first tech entrepreneur may help to shed some light.

Printing with moveable type was a fraught undertaking that took Gutenberg ten, if not 15, years to get to actually work. Borrowing money left and right, he turned to letters only after the failure of another venture, making metal mirrors for medieval pilgrims. Even then, he and his team—his venture capitalist, the merchant Johann Fust, and his apprentice, the former scribe Peter Schoeffer—had to overcome political, financial and technical obstacles galore. Perseverance was a key prerequisite: to hang on through that long, bumpy ride, he had to have thick skin.

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Such disdain for the opinions of the herd may in fact help to ring-fence original thinking. As every artist and writer knows, thick skin is essential to weather the contempt of contemporaries while engaged in the process of forging something new. Social interaction is also antithetical to solitude; to get into the creative flow, the world must be shut out. (It bears noting that Gutenberg never married or had children.)

Recent studies show that brilliant people’s brains are more sensitive to stimuli, and less able to filter them out; their emotional lives are more volatile. Antisocial behavior can be useful in keeping the world at bay, creating space for leaps of cognitive insight.

Nowadays, we’ve even hit on a new diagnosis of the abrasive, brilliant individual—they’re neurologically different from the norm. Extreme focus and social awkwardness are common in mild forms of autism such as Asperger’s Syndrome. A 2012 study, meanwhile, revealed “exceptionally high” rates of autism among high-tech workers in the Netherlands, a finding the authors extended to tech clusters like Silicon Valley.

A more recent study suggested that geeks produce more autistic offspring, though some argue that the spike may simply be due to later childbearing or higher education generally. Temple Grandin, the autistic animal scientist, remarked that Albert Einstein would be considered autistic today.

Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist who co-founded PayPal, asserts that people with “Asperger’s-like social ineptitude” have the ideal psychological profile for creative innovation. “If you’re less sensitive to social cues, then you’re not likely to do the same thing as everyone else around you,” he and a co-author wrote in the 2014 book “Zero to One.”

Working with such people, of course, can be a nightmare, as many who knew Jobs report, and as Gutenberg’s example suggests. Yet at the same time they can inspire. Two recent biographies of Jobs reveal this dichotemy, which my novel of Gutenberg also explores. We put up with the brutal, egomaniacal boss because the work is so important and exciting. Paradoxically, they push us beyond our limits, provoking us to accomplish things we never imagined we could do.

Still, a domineering, belittling demeanor will only take you so far. We still cling to the Romantic view of the lone genius. But in technology, more than in literature or art, eventually you need a team to execute your idea. By the second coming of Steve Jobs – when in 1996 he resumed the lead at Apple after being booted out ten years before – he had at last learned to play more nicely with others.

Gutenberg, alas, apparently had not. Here is the other side of the story of his famous Bible: although the splendid book was made, the partnership was poisoned by bad blood between the genius and his banker. It blew up spectacularly in yet another court of law, and Gutenberg, for all his brilliance, was left to watch the others profit.


Alix Christie is an author, printer, and journalist. Her debut novel “Gutenberg’s Apprentice” is out in paperback from Headline Review.

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