You Should Stop Believing In The Myth Of Genius

Genius is a funny word. In Ancient Rome, it used to mean that an entity followed you around, entrusting the gift of brilliance to you. More recently, it’s become known as that thing you either instinctively have or you don’t. Looking back through history and popular culture, the people whom we admire or are in awe of – perhaps inventors, novelists, fashion designers, architects, musicians, politicians and public figures – all seem to have something the rest of us don’t. But perhaps behind the mythology of every so-called polymath or prodigy, there are some facts and real-world wisdom we can learn from.

Myth #1: Genius happens in a flash

Like lightning, you have to be there when it strikes. In reality, a lot of skills actually come from deliberate, sustained practice. This is true, too, when it comes to those “child prodigies” you hear about: Mozart may have reached fame as a composer at age 17, but his symphonies that outlasted him – the ones that we still hear today, came much later in his career, after tens of thousands of hours of practice.

According to Bill Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions at Harvard, most people are born with tremendous potential. The deal-breaker is whether we use our work ethic and grit even in the face of potential failure. That means following through on difficult things – even on the days when you don’t feel like it. Even if it seems like a lot of work for very little immediate payoff, which builds and reinforces perseverance. Taking the time to get good at something and being diligent in the tasks you set for yourself is more likely to help us succeed rather than worrying about the right time for a light bulb or “aha!” moment to appear out of the blue.

Myth #2: Genius is genetic

Maybe they’re born with it, maybe it’s… something else entirely. Unfortunately, genius can’t be passed on because of the family tree you’re part of. There’s no special gene you can inherit to be smarter than everyone else.

This is good news in that believing in “drudge theory” (do the work, even if it is sometimes mind numbingly boring and tragically unglamourous) from an early age, and trying to adjust your attitude to get you through it are approaches that can help. Broken down, genius is more about aspects of your personality, cognitive ability and motivation all working together. That motivation can either come from yourself – wanting to personally succeed despite the odds – or from external factors, such as being encouraged by family members or professional colleagues who can mentor you, as well as having the opportunity to be around those with a similar skill level or aptitude for knowledge from an early age.

Environment and learning techniques we’re exposed to play a huge part in all this: back in the ’90s, a study carried out by a group of psychologists demonstrated that parents or guardians who take a child step by step through an argument they’re trying to make, or who encourage a child to explore ideas, will foster a more open and creative thinking style.

Myth #3: Geniuses aren’t tied to geography, education or personal circumstance

The good news here is that developing an encyclopaedic knowledge of something, or totalling up debt to gain an impressive educational history, isn’t a prerequisite for acquiring “genius” status. Albert Einstein was famously a mediocre student, and even when he was at his most prolific, his overall knowledge of physics was still overshadowed by others working in the same field. He didn’t collect knowledge, but he was able to make leaps of understanding that other people couldn’t.

Instead of trying to prove that he knew everything, he was always considering problems from every possible angle. It’s also important to remember that genius doesn’t turn up randomly, but rather, occurs in little clusters, like seasonal fruit or flowers, across the globe. This is especially true for environments where an openness to experience and an ability to nurture creativity and come up with ideas is valued.

As Plato once said, “What is honoured in a country will be cultivated there.” Having access to resources that allow you to test or execute your ideas as well is an important factor. This could mean financial support, access to travel, good health, and the necessary resources and materials to test your ideas on. This is where motivation comes in again: after all, if you don’t end up doing it, someone else will.

Myth #4: Geniuses are hermits and lone wolves

Pop culture encourages us to accept the idea that in order to be brilliant, you have to be a little haven’t-left-the-house-in-two-weeks kind of dedicated. Smart people are far from tortured, solitary scribblers making work all on their own in a dark cave, though. They’re actually keen collaborators.

You’ll find them in writer’s rooms, on film sets, starting up conversations at industry meet-ups, leading brainstorming sessions in an office, bouncing ideas around in a co-working space… mostly, they just want to find kindred spirits who can reassure them that they’re not going batty, and are possibly onto something. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a long solitary walk or a big cup of a caffeinated beverage on your own. But being able to glean wisdom and some sense of process in both environments is super important to reaching your full potential.

Unleash your genius

It took me a long time to get rid of the pedestal I put on the word “genius” on, especially as a young student and, eventually, as a professional in a competitive field. I have my own equivalent of Einsteins, Picassos, and Mozarts that I once wanted to follow in the footsteps of. Novelists who got published as undergraduates, debut feature film directors who won critical acclaim and commercial success on their personal projects, entrepreneurs who started their businesses in their bedrooms and went on to make millions.

I’d be lying if I said a small part of me still didn’t have goals like this sitting somewhere on my to-do list. But I realised that I’d also be standing in the way of building my own path to success in the amount of time it takes me, not someone else, to get there. Maybe our first few attempts at making something we might be proud of will be too ugly to share with the world, but there’s a process we’ll develop from it that we’ll eventually be able to make something good, and possibly useful, from. Over the years, I’ve learnt this much is true: study the greats. Learn from them. Build something new.

Nathania is a writer, video editor and snack enthusiast based in Melbourne. You can find her on Twitter @unicornology.

Main image: Sherlock / Hartswood Films, BBC Wales, WGHB