What is genius?

Genius diagram

Knowledge, presence, genius

In the traditional Western view of education and personal development, we strive primarily to acquire 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. As early 20th Century American author Napoleon Hill put it 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 in our society, we grow simply by growing the libraries of our minds.

While acquiring knowledge is inarguably essential to growth, it is not the only important element. We also strive to cultivate presence. We practice meditation, yoga, and other mindfulness modalities in order to gain greater clarity, focus, and equanimity. By being in the now, we attune to our own aliveness and break down the internal barriers that limit us. As Eckhart Tolle says in his 1997 book 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.”

Knowledge and presence are two of our greatest assets. They are absolutely essential to every thriving human. And yet, 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.

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, in this conception, genius is not something people are; genius is something people have. Genius is a capacity that every human has, whether active or dormant. 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 the 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, and more. It is our ability to imagine potential worlds and futures and then bring them into being.

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 asserts “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.

The genius within

Genius is perhaps the core trait that distinguishes humans from other species on Earth. No other creature we’ve encountered has this same capacity to 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.

And yet, as the Romans believed, 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. For this reason, genius is among the most important concepts for change agents to understand and embrace. It is the fire within us that makes growth and change possible. 

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 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 truly become more ourselves.


This lesson is drawn from our training program Change 101. To access the full lesson, including images, diagrams, exercises, resources, and comments, join Change Community and enroll.

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