Genius has been understood over many years, centuries in fact, in a number of different ways. The current, prevailing understanding is still founded in what can now be seen as a fallacious argument: genes dictate what you become.
No, genius is not simply a function of what you are born with but, much more significantly, what you make of what you are born with. The Enabling Genius Project Team came up with the following propositions:
Proposition One: Genius is available to all
Given that the meaning, or more accurately the understanding, of any word shifts no one gets the right to define it. The intent here is to make a case for an understanding that serves us better, which is more fitting to our needs and aspirations. It is a proposition in a number of parts, five in all. The first part is the most simple, the most obvious and you will already have worked it out. The proposition is that genius is available to all. As Buckminster Fuller said in a tribute to Maria Montessori, the famous Italian physician and educator:
“All children are born geniuses. 9,999 out of every 10,000 are swiftly, inadvertently degeniused by grown-ups”.
Genius is a slightly less hackneyed word then potential, which has lost it’s potential (forgive me): it drifts by in conversation without causing anyone to think. Genius, I propose, refers to the innate ability of each and every individual, all the resources, skills, abilities and capacities that are part of being human. Genius is the uninhibited expression of those resources.
Genius is an intent and a way of engaging that I can awaken in myself and inspire in others – to allow this instrument – me, you – with all it’s capabilities and limitations, to be expressed in a given moment. Genius is an intent in action. Genius is a provocation. By comparison ‘to be my best self’ which contains a get out, an escape route, as in “well, I guess my best self just is not very great!” ‘To be my best self’ is a notion stuck in the idea that ‘genes dictate’ and that ones potential is limited by inheritance. But to intend genius has no such escape route. To intend genius is a give oneself an on-going, everyday challenge. Genius is joyous, healthy, holistic, creative, generative, life enhancing and affirmative. It is being “unstuck”, it is to inhabit your own authority and autonomy, self-actualising. Genius is a choice available to each and every on of us.
Proposition Two: each person can develop a Unique Individual Genius
We propose that each person can develop a Unique Individual Genius. A Unique Individual Genius is something that we choose for ourselves. It is not pre-determined by a deity or by one’s genes. One of my colleagues in the project, Irena, put it this way:
“The optimal way to develop genius is to find what we’re naturally good at (genes), and then nurture that.“
Choosing a discipline for which you are not well matched is going to make the job harder – if not impossible. We have not yet come across research that sheds light on just how close the match needs to be but I can only assume that the better the fit the greater the resulting excellence. There is a quote that has been attributed to Einstein but I can find no evidence that he actually said it. Nevertheless it is appropriate for us here:
‘Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live it’s whole life believing that it is stupid”
It is possible that one may develop more than one genius and I will write about that in the next proposition. The idea of a single Unique Individual Genius is that in being focused on one discipline one is much more likely to achieve excellence. The first task is to choose one’s Unique Individual Genius. This might start with how a person defines him or her self: musician, tennis player, lawyer, teacher or salesperson. Or even something more archetypal such as a leader, a servant or religious/spiritual guide. Another starting point might be what one is genuinely interested in or fascinated by. Then the task is to define how one, with all one’s unique gifts best approaches that discipline, craft or skill set. And each person will approach it differently – this is the essence of unique individual genius. Then comes the task of developing your chosen genius.
I have had a number of roles and phases in my working life: architect, tennis coach, business coach, trainer of coaches, company director, business owner, author – with varying degrees of success. A few years ago, in 2011, I left a business, The School of Coaching that I had previously sold without a clear idea of what I was going to do next. The only clarity I had was that I did not want to start another school – I had done it, it was successful and fun but it was time for something new. My strategy – I can only call it that in retrospect – was to engage in a variety of projects as a way of working through my options. One project, the creation of an automated coaching system, now called Enable, emerged as a strong candidate for my attention. So I put time, money and effort into it. After two years it was going somewhere, not nowhere, but very slowly and I was spending most of my time doing things that I was capable of (just) but which gave me little pleasure: trying to recruit a managing director, looking for a reliable IT firm to develop the platform, speaking to investors. It was like trying to drive a car in second gear on the motorway with the brakes on – handbrake and footbrake. In something close to desperation I arranged a conversation with my coach, Cliff Kimber. Gradually the light shone through. The first insight was that the activities that I was spending my time on were not consistent with primary skill set or what I would now call my unique individual genius. What became clear was that I was being driven by a received idea that to be successful I had to build capital value – grow a business that was worth a chunk of money – and this was driving behaviours and actions that I could do but was not truly great at. With more talk and more reflection I began to understand that my unique individual genius was as an author. There was a point when I looked at my diary and saw my days filled with meetings, conferences, training events and telephone calls – but no writing was scheduled. My diary was inconsistent with my genius. Now I keep Tuesdays and Fridays for writing. The idea of ‘author’ expands to writing the coaching scripts for the automated coaching system and then to any idea; anything that might be termed intellectual property. As soon as an idea takes shape I form partnerships with others who develop it, deliver it or take on some aspect that is not part of my unique individual genius.
McKinsey and Company, the much respected global strategic consultancy use a concept that reflects this idea in relation to the development of their consultants. You have to be very competent in a whole variety of areas – knowledge and skills, in order to succeed in the firm. And to excel and indeed differentiate oneself, you need to have a ‘spike’: an aspect in which you are outstanding. This is something you identify and then nurture over time.
In my experience not many people think about themselves like this, as having genius. Mostly we fall into careers or jobs as a function or the expectations around us (which is why I studied architecture), our abilities or simply the opportunities that are available locally. I have yet to met the career advisor who thinks of his or her charges in terms of their genius.
At different stages in life we may be called to develop different unique individual Geniuses. Some careers, like those of professional sports people, only last a few years, a decade if you are lucky. And so they are forced to develop new careers. Some have done this really well. Sebastian Coe, now Lord Coe, the middle-distance runner and Olympic Gold medalist amongst many other achievements went on to lead the delivery of the very successful Olympic Games in London in 2012 – a completely different discipline. As people live longer the opportunity to develop genius in a number of areas becomes even greater and, arguably, more important. As we progress through the ages and stages of life are strengths and abilities change. The apprentice becomes the crafts person, who then becomes the mastercrafts person with a broader perspective and apprentices now in his or her care. And then the possibility of Eldership. There is the potential for new Unique Individual Genius in each phase.
Proposition Three: each person can develop genius in any discipline, craft or skill.
We also propose that you can develop genius in any discipline, craft or skill. This is likely to be an aspect of my life that I have a great interest in or a need to develop in order to survive or thrive. I cannot be a great independent management consultant if I cannot sell, might be an example, so I might approach my development as a sales person to find my genius in it. Or I may find that I am involved in a business life that does not inspire me but one that I cannot, for whatever reason get out of. I may then choose to develop another aspect of myself for the fulfillment and learning that would ensue.
Simon Williams, a project team member wrote this:
“My guitar playing, cycling and this genius project are all examples for me of areas I am trying to develop that are not my day job but inform, support and develop my day to day consultancy and leadership roles. I would be incomplete without doing both. My day job would be much the poorer if I could not do them. And in years to come, as I step back from my company, they will become my primary focus.”
I have noticed that many people who achieve excellence in one domain are often very good in one or two others. I think it may be a real help as the learning from one discipline can show light on the other. This can show up on fairly obvious skills and abilities: the ability to concentrate; to get into flow; self-confidence; willingness to learn to list a few. More subtly, ways of engaging in activities, beliefs about oneself and characteristics like self-confidence can be transferred from one discipline to another. As I engaged in the tennis project I realised that when I was competing in my youth I had a very simplistic notion about how to win; hit it harder, preferable to the place on the court where your opponent was not. There was a strong parallel in my business life in which, as I described, I was not succeeding in the manner I desired – I did not know how to win. As I learned how to win in tennis there we considerable lessons that I have begun to apply to my business: real clarity about what ‘winning’ means in business for me and a simplified approach or strategy more aligned with my goals are two examples.
Proposition Four: moments of genius are available to all
The next proposition is that moments of genius are available to all. Moments of genius are spontaneous, mostly unplanned, events. You are walking down the street and an insight occurs. Genius. You’re having an early morning shower and a solution to a problem that has been bothering you pops into mind. A friend of mine driving in London’s West End, was looking for a parking space and spotted a person getting into a parked car. He positioned himself to take the parking spot. Another car drew up alongside with an irate and aggressive looking man behind the wheel. He winds down his window and says that the owner of the parked car had promised him the spot. My friend instantly responded with a warm smile and “let’s toss a coin for it”. The situation was instantly defused. Spontaneous, unplanned and unrehearsed. Uninhibited self-expression. Genius. And he won the toss.
“It’s like this,” another friend of mine, Peter, observed, “anytime you’re walking down the street, wherever you are going, whatever you are doing, your genius is by your side. The only questions is – are you open to it?” Knowing your genius is ‘by your side’ means that you can, to a degree, plan for moments of genius (I know I said “mostly unplanned” in the opening sentence of this paragraph). Frequently, when I am faced with a problem I do not seek to solve it in one go. I might create a mind-map and just leave it on my desk. I may come back to it a few times and add some notes. I trust that when the moment is right, often in the shower or when I am running, an idea pops into my mind.
Proposition Five: People can work together in a state of collective genius
The fifth proposition is that there is a state of collective genius. This is where a group of individuals come together in a state of flow and deliver something extraordinary. While this most often happens in situations where there is an immediate need to perform, such as sports or the performing arts, it in can also happen in teams at work. Some years ago I did some work with a colleague, Judith Firman, with a team who were I the process of launching a bank. They had a sort of mantra which was about ‘dancing with customers’. Judith suggested that they should learn to dance together. This was initially met with some resistance but, after a while, Judith prevailed and they started learning to dance. At the launch party, in front of a few hundred staff the leadership team performed their dance and brought the house down – it had been kept a secret. However, apart form the drama, it was really noticeable that, after the dance practice, the conversations were more fluent, interruptions were purposeful and often challenging and, the group began to facilitate it’s own conversations. In these moments the group had little need of the facilitators, Judith and me, and operated with sensitivity, speed and decisiveness. On one occasion they elegantly solved a problem in 50 minutes that the Board of the parent business had not resolved in five hours the day before.
This is such an immense topic in it’s own right that we are simply bringing it to the attention of our readers as a possibility. In the second part of this book Andrei M. and Lena S. have an article which develops this thinking. Lena writes:
‘A High Performance Team need to be in Flow, the state where the individuals are fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement and enjoyment in the process of the activity. A team in Flow can be characterised by the ease and sense of fulfilment and purpose that the participants enjoy, as well as a perfect notion of goals and purpose. Problems are there to be solved and new ideas keep emerging. In the state of Flow, everything seems possible. Teams make results with lesser resources, time, money and people, than everyone thought possible, the team members included. Individuals build on each other’s ideas and contributions and are more or less single minded in the pursuit of solutions and results. And at the same time open to contributions from other teammates.’