Genius, as both an idea and a word, has a long history. And one of the things that marks this history is the changing understanding of it that people, and indeed various societies, have had. I draw attention to this because, in this blog, I want to show 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 will shed a little light on what is going on here. She was talking to the human resources director of a large global organization 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. It would seem that society needs people willing 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 a manufacturing facility or an accountancy office), need bodies to do the jobs for which we have not yet invented machines to perform. Such a viewpoint is certainly true of the past, but it still holds sway in most quarters today.
I had the following conversation at a conference recently:
Me Do you believe that all people have potential?
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 a 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 the majority is 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. This idea can be seen 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 obtained a unique Daimon at birth who watched over them, warned 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 individuality and autonomy that is picked up much, much later by the humanistic movement and, in particular, Carl Rogers’ person-centred approach to therapy). In the Arabia of the past you would 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 occurred. 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 as well, perhaps collapsing the meaning with that of “ingenium,” which 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 18th century. This was 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. Some were just more powerful than others.
The link to performance occurred much later. Francis Galton referred to genius in relation to eminence and this began 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 a 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-vs.-nurture debate, which we will discuss 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.” A part of the criticism levelled 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.
Galton’s ideas about the primacy of hereditary factors remain central to this debate today, 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. Another commentator’s favourite is “She’s just a natural!” I think that if I was that person, the natural—who had dedicated upward 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 off 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, even dismissed in such an off-hand manner. Just a natural? No. Of course, and to be clear, genes have a part to play, as we will show later, 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 appear as “gifted”.
So we have genius as an external spirit, as one’s innate talents, as one’s genetic inheritance. 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 special inborn faculty of any person”.
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 evolved—nor all the 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 concept of genius simply does not serve us as human beings 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.