Reply to Myles Downey's blog on Genius

Reply to Myles Downey's blog on Genius

I agree with Myles on most things he says about the way we, as humans, doom ourselves to mediocrity. Everyone has immense potential, far more than they realise, and through commitment and effort they can realise that potential. Moreover, as Myles says, there is a common mindset that limits aspiration to greatness, though we are all, more or less, born with the same genes. Thing is, I like having geniuses on the planet, alive or deceased.

What does it mean to be genius?

In his new work 'Enabling Genius', Myles makes the point that the definition of ‘genius’ as it is commonly accepted is a self-imposed limitation that prevents us all being geniuses. If a genius has to be a ‘special’ person in some genetic way, then nature rather than nurture has the upper hand in randomly selecting the one-in-a-million of us who will be a ‘true’ genius. The rest of us, no matter how hard we try, will always be also-rans, never a genius in our own right.

Myles’ point is, I think, that by somehow re-defining the word ‘genius’ we can all re-shape our aspirations to believe in and develop our potential as geniuses. No-one need be an also-ran - for the most part genius is simply the result of personal vision, strong commitment and hard work over (often) decades. According to Thomas Edison, the American inventor whose genius has touched all our lives ‘Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration’. He also said that 'a genius' is often merely a talented person who has done all of his or her homework.’So there are plenty of geniuses around. A genius is simply an ordinary person doing extraordinary things.

However, this doesn’t really sound different to saying that we all have extraordinary potential. Do we really have to re-define the word ‘genius’ before we can allow every human being to express their extraordinary (and usually untapped) gifts and innate talents?

There is I believe such a thing as ‘true’ genius in nature, those rare genetic events that have given us Michelangelo, Mozart and Einstein and the like. ‘True’ geniuses such as these do have some rare combination of genes that makes them so - they are truly one-offs. They may subsequently be positively nurtured further into ‘public’ genius for the world to know or negatively nurtured so their unique gifts are never revealed to the world, but a ‘true’ genius they remain. Their existence doesn’t detract from the rest of us, in fact I believe it enhances our own aspirations to greatness. Every human being is born hugely gifted, with immense capacity for achievement. We can all be geniuses in our own way when our natural gifts are nurtured and developed. How is that different from saying that we all have huge untapped potential? Is it not wonderful and uplifting when we come across the work of a rare ‘true’ genius? I hope that there will always be the occasional ‘true’ genius whose innate natural gifts are truly extraordinary, because they affirm our own journeys towards our own individual expressions of genius. Someone else being brilliant should not prevent me from seeking brilliance also, but should be a beacon for my journey.

It’s not the word ‘genius’ that holds me back (because I don’t believe I am or ever can be a genius), but the unconscious fear that I am a genius and that I am playing a small and mediocre game in my life. This has little to do with the fact that there are a few people who are ‘true’ geniuses and a lot to do with my worldview, my mind-set and what I am committed to achieving in work and life.

Myles rightly asks who decides on who is a ‘true’ genius with a big ‘G’ when the rest of us get a small ’g’? After all the Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines genius as: a very smart or talented person: a person who has a level of talent or intelligence that is very rare or remarkable: a person who is very good at doing something: great natural ability: remarkable talent or intelligence. That surely could be most or all of us with sufficient encouragement, effort and commitment?

As ordinary people, we’ve all had moments of flow, where our talent, hard work and commitment – Edison’s ‘talent and homework’ - fuse in a joyous burst of outstanding performance. In these moments we seem to rise above ourselves – in fact the Spanish word ole, traditionally shouted by observers when a performer does something truly amazing, derives from Allah – we feel moved to say that the performer is expressing something beyond mere mortal capability, that we are witnessing something of the divine before our eyes. Through nurturing, commitment, and often many years of dedicated training, anyone can realise their own immense potential, or genius if you prefer.

If our ‘everyday’ genius is no different from the expression of our extraordinary potential then there seems no real reason to call this ‘genius’ except from personal preference. I’m not a musician but I’m guessing that the thousands of wonderful composers and musicians who have lived since Mozart and who have achieved extraordinary things weren’t put off by Mozart’s genius (with a capital ‘G’) but aspired to it, except perhaps Salieri. In his case, it wasn’t Mozart’s genius but Salieri’s reaction to it that was the problem. Salieri too had extraordinary potential but allowed his light to be dimmed because another shone more brightly next to his.

So to re-define the word ‘genius’ seems unnecessary. What might be more helpful would be to clarify ‘genius’ as a distinction rather than just a word. We use the expression ‘Oh they’re genius at that …’ meaning they’re very good at something. On the other hand, if you were describing say Mozart’s capacity for composing music, then you might use the same words, but mentally use a capital ‘G’ as in ‘Oh they’re Genius at that …’ The difference is the way we distinguish genius, rather than the word itself. Like beauty, genius is in the eye of the beholder and most us agree on what it is when we see it.

Yes, everyone can be a genius in the sense of fulfilling their human potential. And there will always be those very rare individuals whose gifts- whose ‘true’ genius - distinguish their genius beyond our own. They don’t limit our potential, they expand the field of human possibility for us all.