Play up the difficulty of genius to preserve your own impressiveness

Two podcasts I listened to on BART this morning both addressed the same topic: the differences between successful and 'average' people. On Radiolab, Malcolm Gladwell talked about how we're comfortable saying that there's some innate difference between average people and geniuses, but how it's very uncomfortable to say geniuses are just people that love what they're doing more than everyone else. He cited Gretzky, who watched hockey games when he was 2 and cried when they were over, as someone who was so passionate about the game that that was all he could think about, and that's what made him so good - he always wanted to practice more and try out new things, because hockey was his life. Then on This American Life this guy was discussing how we the people expect startups to have some mythical creation story and to be founded out of adversity. There's a lot of emphasis on building something out of a garage, or building a newer, better tool because getting something done, like uploading a video, was too hard before YouTube. While people should get excited to hear that there aren't vast differences between themselves and so-called geniuses, many people get very uncomfortable, because it makes their own lack of accomplishments even more unimpressive. That's especially grating when you've built a career around doing what you're doing, and you spend the majority of your waking hours working in that area.

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One thought on “Play up the difficulty of genius to preserve your own impressiveness

  1. Apex

    It’s interesting that you and Gladwell seem to think that there is some uncomfortableness that makes people want to believe that geniuses are somehow different than the average person.

    First on its face the idea that everyone can be a genius is mathematically impossible. Not everyone can be on the right tail of the bell curve, half of the people have to be on the left side.

    Secondly there are plenty of people promoting the idea that there are no innate differences in people so I reject the idea that the vast majority of people are uncomfortable saying that genius are made and not born.

    What I don’t understand is that it seems it’s the educated who are most likely to think that intellect and genius are not innate. This same group of people generally fully accepts Evolutionary forces that shape differences among species and people. Evolution has given africans black skin and europeans white skin. It has given asians different shaped eye lids and generally lacking in the height that europeans have. It has given blacks increased risk of heart disease. It has given the swedish blond hair and blue eyes. It has given broad diversity across the human genome and then within each racial group there is wide diversity in how these things are given. There are tall asians, there are darker skinned europeans in addition to albinos, there are Swedes without blue eye etc.

    But somehow when it comes to the brain or abilities this group of people has reached the conclusion that genes don’t matter, Evolution doesn’t matter, ancestry doesn’t matter, all brains and abilities are granted equally and it’s those that try harder that succeed. I almost have to laugh as I read the preposterous nature of such thinking.

    What you do with the talents you have been given can have wide ranges of impact on how successful you become at it, but this idea that we can all be great at whatever we have passion for is utterly ridiculous. And to trot out trite examples like Gretzky is just horrible reasoning. Anyone who is great will have to work hard, but giving examples of someone who worked hard and became great doesn’t prove anything. It neglects the literally thousands of people who were as passionate as Gretzky but you never heard about them because they didn’t have enough talent to even make the grade school hockey team so they could never develop.

    Greatness is innate talent molded. By passion, by effort, by sheer will, by whatever means necessary, but without the original innate ability, there is no greatness.

    Secondly, it’s not true that success is the same as genius. True genius and greatness is extremely rare. Do we really believe everyone has an Einstein inside them, or a Picasso, or a Mozart, or a Newton, or a daVinci? There is a reason these names are rare, unparalleled, and do not come from every era of history. Passion isn’t enough to get you there.


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