A couple months ago I was talking with a friend about Einstein, whose biography I read last fall (Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson). Actually, I was asking about general relativity, aspects of which I still have a lot of trouble grasping. (I do this to my physicist and mathematician friends, starting with my husband, in a futile hope that someone somewhere will suddenly hand me the key to fully comprehending the stuff in the way I wish I could, and which no amount of reading seems to do.)
We wandered onto the topic of genius. The friend contended that Einstein wasn't necessarily the genius he's always sold as, but simply happened to be the right person at the right time to make "his" discoveries. It's an argument with which I agree, especially as it's clear that many other scientists had already made similar discoveries (but hadn't quite connected the dots yet), or were verging on them.
This led on to the question of whether genius actually exists. And, again, I found myself agreeing with the friend's contention that there are no geniuses, only people who happen to be able to follow or take certain opportunities when they're fortuitously presented.
On further thought, however, I would argue that in fact everyone is a genius, or has the capacity for genius. Two writers have bolstered this personal conviction. First there was Arthur Koestler's book The Act of Creation, now sadly out of print, although you can easily find used copies. I originally picked this book up because I found his Sleepwalkers (about the lives and discoveries of Kepler and Galileo) to be a masterpiece, and thought this book would delve into the psychological activity behind the creativity in art, writing, etc. It was far more interesting than I anticipated, as it actually focused on the "ah-ha" or "eureka" moment of great scientific discoveries.
The Act of Creation is far too long and involved to go into detail here, but what I found interesting was Koestler's investigation into how the "eureka" moment, like that of Darwin's, is often preceded by years, sometimes decades, of research and hard work. In other words, it's not a matter of genius at all but simply a matter of pursuing a passion or interest in a dedicated fashion until one day the pieces seem to fall into a new pattern and you're looking, possibly, at an entirely new discovery or shift in paradigm. Which is essentially what happened with Einstein.
Koestler’s research would indicate that "genius" is actually a matter of having the time, ability, and drive to do or pursue something you're passionate about, with no promise of immediate results or of ever seeing a reward.
This viewpoint is still limited, however, as our accepted concept of genius focuses only on the accomplishments that get mentioned in the public sphere. And genius is so much more than simply academic or creative intelligence. I've met people who are geniuses at dealing with babies, who know instinctively how to handle the toddler tantrums of the terrible twos; people who know how to live at peace with their world, who can cobble a delectable meal from the most unlikely and sparse ingredients; people who can manage the tempers and caprices of a boardroom or political field to help a group of people reach a needed goal; people who seem to make gardens produce unbelievable bounty with the daily stroke of their hand; people who inspire others to do great things with their own lives. Geniuses in every possible aspect of life, not just in the achievements that win Nobel Prizes or Pulitzers or even those that solve the biggest problems facing the human population and the planet.
If genius is, as I think, a matter of doing what you're meant to be doing with your life, of following your passion, then we are all surrounded by geniuses every day; we just don't know it. And we all have the capacity to tap our own genius.
The other author was Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love), whose TED TV talk on "A different way to think about creativity” proposed going back to the Greek and Roman concept of genius being a sort of daemon or “other” who assists the writer or artist or musician in making their piece of work as good as it can possibly be.
(If you don’t watch the occasional TED talk, you should. The organization TED—Technology Entertainment Design—has the sole goal of presenting weekly talks on Ideas Worth Spreading, whether they’re innovative ways to accomplish social justice, new ways to think about creativity, or discussions about brain science.)
Gilbert’s talk was thoroughly enjoyable, aside from presenting a new and interesting idea. And if we took her advice and changed the way we think about artists—seeing their “genius” as some sort of separate entity that simply assists in their work—then there is no reason that the same concept can’t apply to everyone.
The problem is, of course, that very few people will ever have the means to allow their genius to work its magic. Most of us are daily, hourly, grindingly involved in activities that are designed, yes, to earn us a living or scrape us a scanty life, but also to keep us from ever listening to the genius-creature whispering in our ear. The vast spectrum of human experience up to this point doesn’t allow more than a tiny, lucky percentage of the population to even consider what it is they love to do, or expose us to ideas that might inspire us. And even those of us who listen to flashes of insight are constantly derailed by the seemingly constant demands of simple daily life.
None of this reality, however, changes the fact that we all have the capacity for genius. We can stifle it, deny it, run from it, strangle it, or fear it. But we can’t ever fully kill it.