What It Really Feels Like To Be Called A Genius

02/11/2016 11:49 AM AEDT | Updated 06/11/2016 11:25 AM AEDT
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People know me as the girl who solved complicated maths problems on the SBS show "Letters and Numbers". I've got a degree in Bachelor of Mathematics and Finance, and a Bachelor of International Studies. I did my Honours year with a first class thesis in Mathematics and I'm now a professional mathematician, data scientist and public speaker.

But I have never thought of myself as being smarter than anyone else -- not in school, university or since. Just because you are really good at maths and science doesn't make you a genius.

There is a lot of mystery around mathematics for the general public -- and it can be very challenging -- so I think people automatically think it's too hard and that someone like me must be a genius to understand, and enjoy it.

The thing is, I don't feel like a genius, I just feel like me. But yes, I am someone who chose to study a subject that few others choose. To me, maths is fun -- it's solving puzzles and games in a way. It helps me to understand the world and to think more clearly, strategically and logically.

I was always brought up with a freedom to explore my curiosity. Most of my family have done some tertiary-level study of mathematics and so for me there was a natural pathway to embrace it too. I was introduced to the concept of infinity at the age of five while counting with my granddad. We go to 100 and I simply couldn't imagine a larger number. But he said that no matter what number I could think of, there would always be a bigger one. I guess from there I was hooked.

I had always thought that my abilities were nurtured by this environment, where knowledge was celebrated and learning was encouraged.

But recently, while interviewing six incredible people across the world and for a podcast, I've begun to realise a little more about my abilities. The show asks the basic question -- what is genius? Is it nature, is it nurture, can you turn yourself into a genius through sheer hard work?

If you'd asked me before the show I would have said you can do anything if you work hard enough. But since speaking to the six podcast interviewees, all of whom are doing incredible things, I am more convinced that genetics plays a part. And my family's predisposition for that subject matter has probably made it easier for me.

The irony is that while there is a certain science to what classifies as a genius -- like being in the top percentile for memory or IQ -- 'genius' is a term we bandy about pretty freely. I say it about 10 times a day. Someone does something great and I'm like 'that's genius!'. The term genius means something different in different situations.

And being labelled a genius can be a lonely gig.

At least one of the interviewees for the podcast felt as though she had to hide it from her friends for fear of being socially excluded at school. It still seems a bit silly to me that knowing something makes you vulnerable socially -- it is weird. The stereotypes around being classified a genius, and specifically as a woman in STEM, really bother me. I want to dispel the myth that only boys do maths, that women and girls can't do it. That's completely wrong.

People also sometimes think of geniuses as socially inept -- think "The Big Bang Theory"'s Sheldon. The stereotype of someone who is hyper intelligent and really out there in terms of IQ is that they are introverted or not as social.

So even if people feel the need to label me a genius, I know that it takes all sorts of people to make the world go around and I'll never feel as though I have to live up to any kind of stereotype.

My co-host on "Letters and Numbers", Richard Morecroft, said something really profound to me one day after filming that I have never forgotten. He said, 'Maths is your subject, you like it. Be unapologetic about that.'

I think that's a great personal mantra. There is nothing embarrassing about knowledge. I am unapologetic about it I don't think that it is anything weird or strange about being good at maths -- it's just knowledge.

Lily Serna is the host of a new six-part podcast, "Decoding Genius". Speaking to six young genius' from around the world, the podcast investigates what it really means to be a genius, whether people are born genius' or become them, and why genius' persist when others give up. Download and subscribe to the podcast here.

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