Lesson #5: What is genius?
Knowledge, presence, genius
In the traditional Western view of education and personal development, we strive primarily to acquire and apply knowledge. We read books, go to school, and learn new skills so that we can build our internal databases of information about ourselves and the world. This is the path to growth and success. As early 20th Century American author Napoleon Hill put it bluntly in Think and Grow Rich, one of the top-selling self-help books of all time, ‘The way of success is the way of continuous pursuit of knowledge.’ According to Hill and many others, we grow by growing the libraries of our minds.
But while acquiring knowledge is inarguably essential to growth, it is also almost certainly not the only important element. We also strive to cultivate presence. We practice meditation, yoga, or go on a walk in nature in order to gain greater clarity, acceptance, and equanimity. By truly being in the now, we attune to our own aliveness within us and around us. In doing so, we not only access a deep sense of peace, but transcend internal barriers that may have otherwise limited us and learn to apply our knowledge wisely and effectively. As Eckhart Tolle writes in his 1997 classic The Power of Now, “Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life.”
If cultivating well-being, driving well-doing, and practicing integrity are three core processes we undergo to enact change, knowledge and presence are two of our greatest supporting assets in change. Knowledge helps us better understand what has happened in the past and access the skills and resources accumulated throughout our histories. Presence helps us to sense into, understand, and navigate the moment at hand and intuit what might want to emerge through us.
However, there is yet a third element to growth, a third core asset within us, and it is often the most underappreciated and undernourished. That third asset is what we might call genius.
If knowledge is about retaining learnings from the past and presence is about being highly attuned to the now, genius is about dreaming up and constructing the future.
What unites us
We typically use “genius” to refer to someone with incredible intelligence or talent. Albert Einstein was a genius. Nina Simone was a genius. Mohammad Ali was a genius. That friend of ours who graduated summa cum laude from Harvard is a genius. We usually use “genius” to distinguish exceptional humans from the rest of us.
We’ve got this all wrong.
The word “genius” comes from the Latin verb gignere for “to bring into being.” And “genius” actually had a very specific connotation for the ancient Romans. For them, genius was the guiding creative spirit that dictates a person’s unique personality and gifts. If someone had accomplished something remarkable, it was due to the exceptional genius within them.
In other words, genius is not something people are; genius is something people have. Genius is a capacity that every human has, whether it is active or dormant, realized or still waiting to be expressed. Genius is not what separates exceptional individuals from the rest. Genius is the capacity that unites us, that defines us, as humans.
Our guiding creative spirit
Genius is not about exceptional talent or ability, as we often hear. Genius is not about being the best at anything. Genius is not about being really smart.
Genius is our capacity to create something novel, to bring into being something that had not yet existed at all or in quite the same way. Genius is what allows us to create art, philosophy, technologies, mythology, culture, and more. It is our ability to imagine potential worlds and futures and then bring them into being. It is the fire within each of us that makes growth and change possible.
Einstein was a genius not because he was exceptionally smart, but because his incredible intelligence allowed him to bring forth new ideas about physics and the universe that never before existed. Nina Simone was a genius not because she was the most technically proficient singer or songwriter, but because she expressed aspects of the human experience that had never before been expressed so brilliantly. That friend of ours at Harvard might be exceptionally intelligent and hard-working. But that does not necessarily make them a genius.
In his now-famous 1971 debate with Michel Foucault, Noam Chomsky asserted “A fundamental element of human nature is the need for creative work, for creative inquiry, for free creation…” This creative spark is not simply some capacity we all have access to. It is a fundamental, essential element of our being. We all deeply yearn to use and express this genius. We need it to feel truly alive. We need it to be truly ourselves. Our genius is part of what makes each of us human.
The genius within
Genius is perhaps the core trait that distinguishes humanity from other life on Earth. While other creatures have knowledge of sorts and certainly have presence, no other creature we’ve encountered has this same capacity to imagine and create. No other creature needs creative inquiry and expression the same way we do. This phenomenon has informed the entire unfolding of human history. We have constantly reinvented ourselves and our societies through new values, beliefs, cultures, institutions, and technologies. Each generation brings new ideas and new ways of being.
Humanity itself has demonstrated this creative capacity since our earliest days. But genius is also a unique creative spirit contained within each of us as individuals. Like a fingerprint or DNA, each of us contains a unique genius that offers a window into what we are uniquely able to create and offer the world. Einstein’s genius was different than Simone’s. And your genius is different than anyone else’s. It is wholly unique to you.
For this reason, genius is among the most important concepts for change agents to understand and embrace. Through lighting and tending the fire of our unique internal genius, we enable ourselves to offer our greatest contributions to the world in a way that makes us feel our most alive, powerful, and purposeful. Through it, we get clarity on the roles that are ours to take on and the ones that are not. Through it, we become most ourselves. Through it, we access our superpower.