A New Meaning for Genius

Genius, as both an idea and a word, has a long history. And one of the things that mark this history is the changing understanding of it that people, and indeed various societies, have had. I draw attention to this because I want to suggest that the current, common understanding is a real and present limitation to human performance. And in so doing open up the possibility for an understanding that might just serve us better.

Very few people get to be called genius – and most of them are dead, which seems a little extreme as a price to pay. I do wonder who gets to confer genius status? Who sets the bar? Is there committee sitting in Geneva? And, whoever and wherever they are, do they only declare genius posthumously? The prevailing view, outside the world of science, is that genius is the preserve of the few – the very few men and even fewer women (!), who stand out as exceptional. In fact, in talking to many people the popular consensus would seem to be that there have only been two geniuses: Einstein and Mozart! Again this makes me wonder. Why we would want to hold onto an idea that genius is for the very few? What or who does that serve?

Perhaps the following anecdote from one of my colleagues in the Enabling Genius Project sheds a little light on what is going on here. She was talking to the HR Director of a large global organisation about the Enabling Genius project. Initially there was interest but, when it became clear that the underlying idea was that everyone had genius in them, the Director responded immediately with “we don’t need our people to be geniuses, we just need them to do their jobs.” I do find it somewhat shocking that an HR Director responsible for the wellbeing of some thousands of people should hold such a view. And I am, in equal measure, bemused because I know exactly what was meant. It would seem that society needs people willing enough to ‘just do their jobs’ and not aspire to anything greater. And many of us are, almost certainly unconsciously, signed up to that idea.

Cannon fodder, factory fodder, wage-slaves, our armed services need people willing to fill the trenches, our factories (whether that’s a manufacturing facility or an accountancy office), need bodies to do the jobs for which we have not yet invented machines to do. Such a viewpoint is certainly true of the past but it still holds sway in most quarters today. As a result we have, for instance, education systems that our politicians will proudly tell us are designed to develop people who can find jobs – that is who will fit into a given slot. And if there are no slots available then you are stuffed because you have been trained to comply. Trained to jump through the hoops that we call exams. You have not been trained to be self-reliant – or do I mean you have been trained to be not self-reliant?

What is the primary message from the Adam and Eve fable? Knuckle down and do as you are told – and above all do not seek knowledge, do not explore your potential. The story of Narcissus is equally troubling. Here is a guy, a young man, who is told that he would live to an old age as long as he never knew himself. Looking at one’s reflection, I suggest, is an early act in the process of getting to know oneself. The implicit message is that to try and better yourself is vanity and will lead to your death.

However it is utterly barmy to think that this young man had not seen his reflection before he reached maturity. Or not had the ability to distinguish between himself and his image. In reality, there are deep veins in the strata of our culture that have the effect of limiting our potential by stopping us from exploring it.

I had the following conversation at a conference recently with a man who was enraged with the every idea that everyone could be genius:

Me – So, let me check, do you believe that all people have potential?

Him – Absolutely!

Me – Do you believe that people have genius?

Him – No. Absolutely not.

Me – So, if I understand you, people have potential but it is limited to somewhere

just short of genius?

Him – I’ll have to think about that.

Thankfully he was willing and able to question his own assumptions. Many people I speak to are irrevocable against the notion that anyone can be genius. Often they are people in some position of authority; a headmaster, a church leader, for instance, intent perhaps, on preserving their own authority or position. Worse still most individuals do not believe they are capable of genius: “I am what I am”, is the cry, unable to change or develop. No, I don’t think so.

In this paradigm where we cannot all be a genius and cannot reach that exalted state or the level of excellence implied, we are doomed to mediocrity or competence at best. So do not even try to reach for genius, do not even imagine it! This is the message given.

If this message is true it means that the rest of us are not geniuses and, more specifically, do not have the potential to become one. Which is puzzling because most people are born equipped pretty in much the same way. The same genes, pretty much. Same kinds of bodies, pretty much. And the same number of brain cells and connections between them, pretty much.

But what if this is not true? What if genius is not the preserve of the few, but rather available to all?

A brief history of genius

The history and roots of the word genius have a tale to tell that explains a little more about how we got ourselves entangled in this self-limiting mess. The word ‘genius’ has its root in Latin. The idea was that each and every person had a guiding spirit, unique to them, whose job was to provide direction and thus to help them progress safely and successfully through life – a genius. A particularly successful person was seen to have a particularly powerful guiding spirit or genius. A similar idea occurs in many other cultures. Prior to the Romans the Ancient Greeks had a very similar notion of an invisible being, a Daimon, who watched over a person. According to the Greeks each person obtains a unique Daimon at birth who watches over them, warns them about possible errors but who, interestingly, would never tell them what to do. Never telling their charge what to do suggests a respect for their individuality and autonomy which is picked up much, much later on by the humanistic movement and, in particular, Carl Rogers’ person-centered approach to therapy.

In the Arabia of the past you will find the term Dijinn or Genie, referring to spiritual creatures, also guides, able to interact with people. In these conceptions genius is a separate entity outside of the self. Then something truly interesting occurs. It seems that the Romans, about two thousand years ago in the time of Augustus, began to use the word to mean talent or inspiration, perhaps collapsing the meaning with that of ‘ingenium’, which in turn, means innate disposition or talent. The significance is that now genius is understood to be a part of who and what you are not simply something, a spirit, outside of yourself. The idea of genius as an innate ability really became part of common understanding in the Eighteenth Century. This is a big shift in understanding for if genius is within you then you have some responsibility for and some influence on it. It is also interesting that there is not a strong link to extraordinary performance – everyone had a genius. Just some were more powerful than others.

The link to performance occurs much later. Francis Galton refers to genius in relation to eminence and this begins the connection with excellence. In his book ‘Hereditary Genius’ (the title says it all) Galton states “a man’s natural abilities are derived from inheritance…”. He also argued that eminence was rare in a population – the preserve of the few. His central methodology was to count and assess the eminent relatives of eminent men. He found that the number of eminent relatives was greater the closer the connection. The nature versus nurture debate, which we will look into in detail later on, really begins at this point, and Galton’s work is a nature argument: genius is in the genes. His work was much criticized, even his half cousin, one Charles Darwin, commented thus; “…I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work and I still think this is an eminently important difference”. Darwin’s insistence on the impact of ‘zeal and hard work’ will prove profound as will be shown in the next chapter. A part of the criticism leveled at Galton was that his work did not account for social status and the resources that would have been available to those more advantaged in this manner – this being the nurture side of the debate.

Genius today

Galton’s ideas about the primacy of hereditary factors remain central to this debate to this day, and still shape popular understanding. You only have to listen to the language of most sports commentators to see that this is so. “It’s in the genes”, they say, inherited, whole and complete, from one’s parents. “It’s a gift”. A gift, from god perhaps, but certainly unearned. Another commentator’s favourite is ‘she’s just a natural!’ I think that if I was that person, the natural, who had dedicated upwards of ten years of my life to my sport, forgone holidays, parties, beers, up early in the morning trying to fit in training before rushing of to the day job or my studies, struggling to pay my bills, I would be furious to have that effort, deprivation and sheer sweat overlooked, no, dismissed in such an off-hand manner. Just a natural? No. Of course, and to be clear, genes have a part to play but the science is more complex than the idea that some people are born geniuses – and more hopeful for those of us who, at first, might not occur as ‘gifted’.

Here’s another meaning of genius. Guinness, the makers of the famed stout, were and still to some degree are, famous for the advertising. Many were iconic. ‘My goodness, my Guinness’ comes to mind. One campaign ran with the slogan ‘pure genius’. It may be a very Irish use of the word; it is not about the acts or products of a conventionally defined genius – a person. It refers to something that is perfect for a particular situation, complete of itself, that is the act or product of an ‘ordinary’ person. A story told, a witty response, a shot at goal, a sketch that gets to the essence of someone or something. We know it when we see it – pure genius. The Guinness advertisement on the television showed a pint of the stuff being poured slowly into a glass and settling from the initial creamy brown to a pure black with a cream coloured head, followed by the words ‘pure genius’.. That was the ad, nothing more. In this situation genius is used to describe a thing and an event. The pint itself. The pouring of the pint. Bringing to mind the moment when you took a draught, when the bitter malted barley taste engulfed your gustatory and olfactory senses. Half the country was salivating. Pure genius, let me tell you.

My colleague on the genius project, Andrei Mikhailenko, gives insight to a further meaning, not completely dissimilar to the last: “Genius”, he writes, “was used by Alexander Pushkin in the nineteenth century meaning of a perfect representation of a certain quality. In this poem (below), the poet’s beloved woman appeared before him as the genius of beauty – an ideal manifestation…”

‘A wondrous moment I remember,

Before me you at once appeared,

A fleeting vision you resembled

Of Beauty’s genius pure and clear’

(From a poem dedicated to Anna Petrovna Kern, written in 1825 by Alexander Pushkin and translated by Julian Henry Lowenfeld)

The possibility

So we have genius as an external spirit, as one’s innate talents, as one’s genetic inheritance, as a thing, an event, a manifestation or a moment. We have genius as the preserve of the few, which traps the rest in mediocrity. Many meanings. A dictionary definition, The Chambers Dictionary 11th Edition, has this to say: ‘Consummate intellectual, creative or other power, more exalted than talented, a person endowed with this; the special inborn faculty of any individual; a special taste or natural disposition.’ The root is given as Latin, from gignere, genitum; to beget. And beget, in turn means to produce or cause (Genius is only genius when there is a result). Of course the bit I like is the ‘the special inborn faculty of any person’ bit.

Risking utter pedantry, ‘genius’ is a word. Words are things to which we attach meaning. No word has innate meaning. If words had innate meaning there would be no need for the roughly 6,500 identified languages that humans have invented – nor the all attendant dialects and regional variations. We frequently relate to words as if they did have innate meaning, which merely results in a stuckness of mind and is a bar to creativity and possibility. As the story here illustrates the conception of genius is a reflection of a particular society at a particular time. The current conception of genius simply does not serve us as human being seeking to explore what we are capable of. Worse than that it actually limits us. There is another possibility and this is the project team’s proposition, maybe even a provocation or challenge, which is that genius is available to all.  It is a provocation because, now that you know genius is available to you, what are you going to do?

This article is drawn from ‘Enabling Genius – a Mindset for success in the 21st Century’ by Myles Downey (LID Publishing, 2016)