Service of Genius

November 15th, 2010

Categories: Genius, Marketing, Writing

genius

Terry Teachout critiqued Andrew Robinson’s book, “Sudden Genius?: The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs,” arguing that he didn’t agree with Robinson’s premise about creative genius, that it is “the work of human grit, not the product of superhuman grace.”

In this Wall Street Journal article, “No You Can’t,” Teachout describes the 10,000 hour rule whose proponents agree with the author: if you spend 20 hours a week for 10 years you can become successful at anything, you don’t have to be a genius. This viewpoint “meshes neatly with today’s egalitarian notions of human potential,” wrote Teachout, a fancier way of expressing the notion that “practice makes perfect.”

practicemakesperfectTrouble is I don’t think it does. Practice makes better-or not. I’ve worked with marketers who have done what they do for 20+ years, putting 50 hours a week to the task, and I have been unimpressed with their lackluster, uninspired performances. Others have a knack for their vocations and fly to the moon in their industries from the start. Maybe being superlative isn’t genius but talent or a penchant for or interest in or passion about something that makes the difference.

We need geniuses to admire, inspire and enchant us and in the case of medicine and mathematics, to save us.

Since childhood, Yo Yo Ma practiced his cello daily for hours while keeping up with his homework enough to land in Harvard. Would he perhaps have been in a prestigious orchestra instead of  becoming a renowned soloist if he didn’t have a gift for music and his instrument and far more than a pinch of talent along with a gazillion hours of practice under his belt?

choirI sang in the school choir for years [I went to an all-girl’s school] because it culminated in a dance in 12th grade after a joint concert with the Yale freshman class choir. Yale was all men in those days. I never could sing very well and 30 hours of practice and lessons a week wouldn’t have helped put me on any other stage. [The dance was great  and when I hear the part of Handel’s Messiah we sang, I still sing along.]

If you write a lot, you will improve, but you won’t necessarily ever be a great writer. Doesn’t mean you won’t make millions selling your books and articles. How many heralded books have I returned to the library unfinished or slogged through thinking there must be something wrong with me to think the writing or imagination of this renowned person was so faded and flat.

My parents had a friend who was a world-renowned orthopedic surgeon and not to insult the brilliant people I’ve met, along with my husband [who usually reads my posts, but really!], he may be one of the few geniuses. In addition to his day job, which often began at the operating table at 6 a.m. and ended at 11 at night, he had in-depth knowledge of world history, music, theater, architecture, art, politics [and I don’t remember what else]. Drive down a historic NYC street with him and he could reel off the name of every architect. I returned from living and traveling in Turkey for two years and he added tremendous amounts of information to what I’d read and seen in those years. He took my breath away. To top if off, he had a great sense of humor.

Have you known any geniuses? Do you think anyone can become a genius with enough practice? Are geniuses made or born?

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4 Responses to “Service of Genius”

  1. Simon Carr Said:

    Before answering your question, I think it is important to recall what the origin of the word, “genius,” is. It is from the Latin for one’s guardian deity or the spirit which watches over each of us from birth.

    The intent of Andrew Robinson’s claim that creative genius is “the work of human grit, not the product of superhuman grace” was clearly intended to supoport his egalitarian beliefs. It was also wrong and unnecessary. Genius is egalitarian by definition. Everybody’s got it. But like genes, nobody has got exactly the same type or amount of them as somebody else.

    I like Italian Opera. In our time, there are few competent Italian opera singers, but once there were many, and in some cases a few very great ones. Why? In Italy 50 plus years ago opera was a national pasttime. Many youngsters with good voces tried to become opera singers. Now they would rather sing rap. Probably even now a few of these, like before, have extraodinary voices, “genius” voices. There is no way of telling because none of them seem to have chosen opera singing as a vocation. However, even back then only two of that handful, Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni, achieved, in my opinion, a level of competence, perhaps equaled, but never exceded by any other singer. True, thay worked hard at their trade, but no matter how hard they worked, they wouldn’t have had as great voices had they not been born with them.

    Everybody is born with genius, but few of us are born with a mix of genes sufficent to permit us to accomplish extraordinary things, and still fewer of us actually do accomplish them.

    In closing, I believe I’ve known several geniuses, including one man who had the timerity to run for Vice President of the United States wearing a coon skin cap. Another was a cousin who graduated with Firsts from Cambridge at 16, with a Masters in Physics from MIT at 18, and an MBA from Havard at 20. He speaks, reads and writes in at least 13 languages, including Esparanto, Pharsee, Arabic, Japanese, and Russian. He plays a wind instrument at a professional level. Before he was 50, he worked in third world countries trying to do good. At 50 he decided he had better make some money. At 60, he was living on Fifth Avenue in the seventies. Now he is writing dense tomes, which I find too daunting to read. Yet another is a classmate from school and college who has written over 80 scholorly books, including translations of numerous works in Green and Latin. What Google doesn’t tell about him is that in his twenties he wrote a series of pulp novels with names ending in “ist” that were made into box offixe hit movies. The money he made from those before he was thirty has enabled him to live quite comfortably while writing his 80 scholerly works.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Simon,

    I am not sure that I agree with you that everyone is born a genius. Maybe we have a penchant for one thing or another, languages come easily or we bake up a storm with no trouble or we can juggle six kids and a job or….but genius?

    However your examples, especially of your cousin, fit my framework for genius.

    I also admire interior designers who have amazing memory for color, a vision for furniture placement, have superb [my] taste and are articulate and superb business people to boot. Left brain, right brain. Wow.

    I wonder about scholarly works. Anybody’s. I feel if they are understood by few, their potential is wasted. Why can’t the most complicated thoughts be written clearly? If you don’t believe me, let me introduce you to many excellent writers who would welcome the work of helping genius scholars to express their ideas succinctly–in writing, in speeches….

    I wonder if living in the woods somewhere may be an incredible artist, musician or physician…hmmm.

  3. Lucrezia Said:

    I am unsure what is meant by genius. The term is all too often misused by being applied to those with great intelligence, but who fall far from the mark. Da Vinci was undoubtedly worthy of such a title, as was Einstein. Now take Bobby Fischer: Huge chess player but unable to otherwise take care of himself very well. Genius or idiot savant?

    All that said, is being a genius, whatever that may mean, important? Much depends on what a person does or does not do with his gift. Otherwise, who cares?

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    Maybe being a genius isn’t as important as being under the false impression that with hard work you can become one.

    You can, at times, distinguish yourself if you work harder than those who are even smarter than you, but I don’t think you can become a genius if you aren’t one. The author, Andrew Robinson, thinks you can. Because I disagree with him, I thought that this was an interesting topic to nibble on.

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