We often forget that geniuses are humans first and geniuses second. Sure, these inimitable minds may go down in history for composing “Fur Elise” or discovering gravity, but they’re not the mere sum of their successes. Just as often, they get frustrated, tired, overwhelmed—and, just like you, they have methods they use to keep themselves sharp. From Thomas Edison‘s napping tendencies to Isaac Newton‘s crazy note-taking habits, geniuses throughout history have deployed key mental-health strategies to stay on the top of their game. And sure, these tricks led to the creation of our greatest compositions and inventions, but be warned: Not everything could be considered healthy—or even legal—by today’s standards, so emulate at your own risk. And for more brain-sharpening habits to adopt, check out the 8 cutting-edge video games that are proven to make you a smarter person.
Yes, Albert Einstein—the guy who first pops into your head when you think “genius”—never deigned to tidy up his workspace. It may seem surprising, but it makes sense; after all, the guy is famously credited with this quote: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” In other words, you don’t have to feel bad about “misplacing” that to-do list under a pile of papers.
Alexander Graham Bell, the guy who—if you really trace things back—you ultimately have to thank (or blame) for the supercomputer in your pocket, allegedly only worked at night. As the esteemed inventor told Success magazine founding editor Orison Swett Marden, he started working around 9 or 10 at night and kept going until 4 or 5 in the morning.
Alan Turing, he who cracked the German “Enigma” code in World War II and originally conceptualized the “logical computing machine”—a.k.a., “the computer”—was an ardent runner. In fact, the guy loved running so much that he legendarily used to run from meeting from to meeting.
Every day, Nikola Tesla, eternal rival of Thomas Edison, would walk to the park by his house and feed the pigeons. As legend has it, if Tesla, for whatever reason, couldn’t make it to the park, he’d pay a child in the neighborhood to feed the pigeons in his stead. Why the fondness for urban living’s peskiest creatures? Simple: He fell in love with on. “Yes, I loved that pigeon,” Tesla told biographer John O’Neill in Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla. “I loved her as a man loves a woman.”
It’s fitting that the man who ushered in the Electric Age—which itself ushered in a shattering of the circadian sleep cycles humans lived by up until that point—didn’t adhere to the typical sleep schedule of the time. In fact, he notoriously railed against sleep, writing, in 1921, “I never found need of more than four or five hours’ sleep.” But here’s the catch: The guy loved to sleep. After his death, appraisers found napping cots throughout in his library, study, and laboratory.
One of history’s most esteemed geniuses, Leonardo Da Vinci, swore by a polyphasic sleep cycle. In other words, instead of sleeping once, the painter got his daily six to eight hours over the course of three or more separate sleeps.
After lunch each day, Ludwig van Beethoven would embark on daily walk to settle his stomach. The practice is similar to a passeggiata—Italian for “daily walk,” and one of the 5 Best Italian Healthy Living Secrets.
As detailed in Letters of Mozart, a compendium of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart‘s personal letters, the revered composer adhered to a painfully strict daily hour-by-hour schedule. He had his hair done at 6 o’clock every morning, for example, and wrote music for three hours starting at precisely 10:00 every evening.
La Comdédie Humaine writer Honoré de Balzac allegedly consumed about 50 cups of coffee—each day. Whatever the playwright’s literary legacy ended up being, this habit of his, at least, has inspired something concrete: In Canada, there’s a small chain of coffee houses called Balzac’s Coffee Roasters. Balzac died of caffeine poisoning, but that’s no surprise. The surprise is that he lived—drinking, again, 50 daily cups—to 51 years old.
Isaac Newton was known for two things: Watching an apple fall, and remembering every word he ever read. While everyone and their mother knows the story of the first one, the second tale is more obscure. As it turns out, Newton has no shame in vandalizing literature: While the guy read, he’d take notes directly on the pages of library books, filling up nearly every shred of white space in the page’s margins.
What’s in the box? Well, if the box belonged physicist Erwin Schrödinger, it’s not a cat. In addition to conceptualizing groundbreaking theories involving the hypothetical torture of felines, the erstwhile scientist was a huge fan of the theater. From when he was a child, he kept a photo album full of every playbill of every show he attended. Allegedly, as a student at the exalted Gymnasium in Venice, he hated memorizing facts and figures; his brain was more attuned to literary-minded information, and memorizing playbills helped with his overall memory.
No, we’re not talking about Bryan Cranston‘s Walter White. The IRL Heisenberg, theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg, was, in addition to being the so-called “father of quantum mechanics,” an avid pianist: He reportedly practiced the thing five days a week.
He may be known for all things science and space (there’s even a spacecraft named after him!), but Galileo Galilei was kind of a literature nerd. According to the University of Virginia, during a job application for a role at the University of Pisa, the astronomer mathematically deconstructed one of his favorite tales, Dante‘s The Inferno, figuring out just how deep underground, exactly, the fabled nine circles went.
Could The Bard have been a pothead? According to research published in the South African Journal of Science, scientists found four cannabis-caked pipes in the garden of William Shakespeare. A subsequent article in The Independent linked “Sonnet 76” to the consumption of “weed,” implying that, yes, Shakespeare indulged in the stuff. And if you’re copying The Bard in that manner, hey, no judgement; just make sure you toss out the bong—it’s one of 40 Things No Man Over 40 Should Ever Own.
Despite redefining what we think of life and competition and how the two are inextricably entwined, Charles Darwin lived a fairly normal day-to-day. He’d wake, work, and walk his gardens. But most notably was his daily habit of listening to music. Each day before supper, Darwin would lie on the couch of his drawing room and listen to his wife, Emma, play piano until he dozed off for a short time.
“Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” Fact check: Ben Franklin, the guy who that quote is attributed to, was, in fact, healthy, wealthy, and wise.
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