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The Heart of Genius: Learning by Myles Downey

Mar 21, 2016 / by Enabling / In Genius, Uncategorized / 1 Comment

The Heart of Genius: Learning

My guess is that learning is not at the centre of your agenda.

Leaning conjures up images of institutionalised schools, learning by rote, important but intrinsically meaningless exams to be passed, time wasted. Hardly inspiring.

Learning is not something that is much talked about in our day-to-day business lives, it is not ‘the thing’, not cool, not sexy.

Learning is something we hand over to the HR department.

Or we call it ‘change’ in the hope that this will make it more strategic, more acceptable

How did that come about?

There are many issues here but three are key: ‘Fordism’, The Myth of the Gifted’ and Self doubt

In manufacturing Henry Ford created a breakthrough with the production line. That philosophy has continued and grown to embrace Total Quality Management, Business Process Re-engineering and Six Sigma technologies. All of which have made a contribution and have a place. But the principles, appropriate to inanimate things, have been brought to bear on human beings. Our education systems, our performance systems, our talent management systems are built on a model of prescription, measurement and compliance. Take the word ‘competencies’ for instance. Who would want to be merely competent when greatness or self-expression is possible?

To quote Sir Ken Robinson, one of the leading educationalists “ Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we have strip-mined the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future it won’t service”

Then there is the ‘Myth of the Gifted’. We have held a notion for some time that says that some people are intrinsically talented, genetically different to and better than the rest of us.

What would change if you found out that there was no such person, no one who was ‘gifted’, no one intrinsically better than you. How would that change you view of learning? How then would you understand genius?

The most recent evidence firmly points to new idea – genes do not dictate individual destiny. We can influence what we become. Studies of the apparently gifted reveal one consistent fact: they have put in ten thousand hours of practice over a period of ten years. There’s caveat here; this does not mean that anyone can achieve anything – your genes, and many other factors, do play a part.

The truth about child prodigies is not that it was in the genes but that they were immersed in their discipline from a very early age. Mozart was born into an environment where his father was a musician and teacher who had developed a unique instruction system, his older sister was being taught the piano while he was staggering around in nappies. As soon as he could reach the piano stool he was learning and then trained by his father. No prodigy here, merely 10,000 hours over ten years. And the result is genius.

The implication for all of us, mere mortals that we are, is that we have more than enough potential to learn and to achieve most of our desires in life and work. This is the pursuit of genius. The only question is our willingness.

The third point is about self-doubt. A prevalent response to Fordism is compliance. When you combine compliance with humility the toxic result is self-doubt. Nothing interferes with our potential more than self-doubt: It buries creativity, erodes confidence, undermines motivation and destroys genius.

In some professions, the performing arts and sports in particular, learning is at the heart of the agenda. New routines are developed and added to the repertoire; new skills are developed to ensure that one stays ahead of the competition. Federer has developed his game in the last few years: more power on the backhand and new skills added such as the drop shot. He is not the same player who first came to prominence in 1998. He has developed, he has learned. Recently he stated that it was a disappointment to him that he had not had more time to learn and practice. What if?

Another example, Aristotle Onassis, one of the best business negotiators of all time, practised meetings with his team (the rest of us endure them – rather than get good at them).

You might like to think about the core of your career as a craft and yourself as a craftsman. In your craft what is it specifically that you are, or could be great at? What is your unique, individual genius? How might you develop that? Where’s the weakness? What might you learn?

Clive James, author and broadcaster wrote he following in the London Review of Books in September 1983:

“Indeed, it can be said that the realisation of the necessity to learn is one of the marks of talent, even for the genius, who seems so advanced only because, a critical capacity being part of his gift, he has managed to learn on his own.”





  • Trayton Vance April 4, 2016 at 3:04pm Reply

    I agree with Myles on most things he says about the way we, as humans, doom ourselves to mediocrity. Everyone has immense potential, far more than they realise, and through commitment and effort they can realise that potential. Moreover, as Myles says, there is a common mindset that limits aspiration to greatness, though we are all, more or less, born with the same genes. Thing is, I like having geniuses on the planet, alive or deceased.

    In his new work Enabling Genius, Myles makes the point that the definition of ‘genius’ as it is commonly accepted is a self-imposed limitation that prevents us all being geniuses. If a genius has to be a ‘special’ person in some genetic way, then nature rather than nurture has the upper hand in randomly selecting the one-in-a-million of us who will be a ‘true’ genius. The rest of us, no matter how hard we try, will always be also-rans, never a genius in our own right. Myles’ point is, I think, that by somehow re-defining the word ‘genius’ we can all re-shape our aspirations to believe in and develop our potential as geniuses. No-one need be an also-ran – for the most part genius is simply the result of personal vision, strong commitment and hard work over (often) decades. According to Thomas Edison, the American inventor whose genius has touched all our lives ‘Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration’. He also said that ‘a genius’ is often merely a talented person who has done all of his or her homework.’ So there are plenty of geniuses around. A genius is simply an ordinary person doing extraordinary things.

    However, this doesn’t really sound different to saying that we all have extraordinary potential. Do we really have to re-define the word ‘genius’ before we can allow every human being to express their extraordinary (and usually untapped) gifts and innate talents?
    There is I believe such a thing as ‘true’ genius in nature, those rare genetic events that have given us Michelangelo, Mozart and Einstein and the like. ‘True’ geniuses such as these do have some rare combination of genes that makes them so – they are truly one-offs. They may subsequently be positively nurtured further into ‘public’ genius for the world to know or negatively nurtured so their unique gifts are never revealed to the world, but a ‘true’ genius they remain. Their existence doesn’t detract from the rest of us, in fact I believe it enhances our own aspirations to greatness. Every human being is born hugely gifted, with immense capacity for achievement. We can all be geniuses in our own way when our natural gifts are nurtured and developed. How is that different from saying that we all have huge untapped potential? Is it not wonderful and uplifting when we come across the work of a rare ‘true’ genius? I hope that there will always be the occasional ‘true’ genius whose innate natural gifts are truly extraordinary, because they affirm our own journeys towards our own individual expressions of genius. Someone else being brilliant should not prevent me from seeking brilliance also, but should be a beacon for my journey.

    It’s not the word ‘genius’ that holds me back (because I don’t believe I am or ever can be a genius), but the unconscious fear that I am a genius and that I am playing a small and mediocre game in my life. This has little to do with the fact that there are a few people who are ‘true’ geniuses and a lot to do with my worldview, my mind-set and what I am committed to achieving in work and life.

    Myles rightly asks who decides on who is a ‘true’ genius with a big ‘G’ when the rest of us get a small ’g’? After all the Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines genius as: a very smart or talented person: a person who has a level of talent or intelligence that is very rare or remarkable: a person who is very good at doing something: great natural ability: remarkable talent or intelligence. That surely could be most or all of us with sufficient encouragement, effort and commitment?

    As ordinary people, we’ve all had moments of flow, where our talent, hard work and commitment – Edison’s ‘talent and homework’ – fuse in a joyous burst of outstanding performance. In these moments we seem to rise above ourselves – in fact the Spanish word ole, traditionally shouted by observers when a performer does something truly amazing, derives from Allah – we feel moved to say that the performer is expressing something beyond mere mortal capability, that we are witnessing something of the divine before our eyes. Through nurturing, commitment, and often many years of dedicated training, anyone can realise their own immense potential, or genius if you prefer.

    If our ‘everyday’ genius is no different from the expression of our extraordinary potential then there seems no real reason to call this ‘genius’ except from personal preference. I’m not a musician but I’m guessing that the thousands of wonderful composers and musicians who have lived since Mozart and who have achieved extraordinary things weren’t put off by Mozart’s genius (with a capital ‘G’) but aspired to it, except perhaps Salieri. In his case, it wasn’t Mozart’s genius but Salieri’s reaction to it that was the problem. Salieri too had extraordinary potential but allowed his light to be dimmed because another shone more brightly next to his.

    So to re-define the word ‘genius’ seems unnecessary. What might be more helpful would be to clarify ‘genius’ as a distinction rather than just a word. We use the expression ‘Oh they’re genius at that …’ meaning they’re very good at something. On the other hand, if you were describing say Mozart’s capacity for composing music, then you might use the same words, but mentally use a capital ‘G’ as in ‘Oh they’re Genius at that …’ The difference is the way we distinguish genius, rather than the word itself. Like beauty, genius is in the eye of the beholder and most us agree on what it is when we see it.

    Yes, everyone can be a genius in the sense of fulfilling their human potential. And there will always be those very rare individuals whose gifts- whose ‘true’ genius – distinguish their genius beyond our own. They don’t limit our potential, they expand the field of human possibility for us all.

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