Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Appreciating Genius

One of the things that most fascinates me in the world is genius. Genius writers, of course, but genius in all other ways, as well. There's something captivating about experiencing the heights of human talent. A chance to see something special, perhaps even profound; a chance to bear witness to the sudden expansion of human potential.

This is part of why I put up the guitar pieces the last few days. Yes, I really like the music. But I appreciate their genius. I appreciate what they've put into learning these skills, and to the expression of them. The complexity, the thought, the endless practice: all of this can be apparent in the moment. All of this can be expressed in action, in expression, in the way fingers tap out endlessly strange rhythms upon strings.

This genius, I think, can take an endless number of forms. There is athletic genius:

This is what it is like to see a giant fly and create magic out of thin air. There is genius in such physical grace.

Or perhaps a mixture of physical grace, art, and storytelling:

This is the weird multiplicity of genius. I appreciate watching experts do what they do best. I don't even have to love the end product. I may know zilch about embroidery, have never tried doing it, and own nothing that is embroidered myself, but I bet if I watched a genius of embroidery at work in creating a picture pattern... there would be something beautiful about it, something captivating.

There is a profound faith, I think, inside a moment of genius. The artist's faith in their own fingers, their own thoughts, their own ideas. A confidence in them moment and the task at hand.

And it's interesting to consider the similarities between people of genius. I think of three keys: talent, creativity, and effort.

I believe in talent. It is not the be all and end all, certainly. I hear arguments that talent is everything: either you have it or you don't. And I hear arguments that it's all about the work: you get what you've paid for (with blood, sweat, and tears). And I believe in work, too. But everyone has different talents. And talent, I think, will always determine the range of your genius in any particular task. My capacity for language is much higher than my capacity for music. This is the way it is. I might practice for a million years and eventually gain musical competence (eventually overcoming my natural musical idiocy), but I will never play the guitar like Kaki King or Michael Hedges. My brain isn't built that way. Talent often determines the effectiveness of effort.

And then there's creativity. I think great geniuses have this in common--a differnce of vision. They see, through the scope of their talent, a slightly different world. Michael Jordan saw, in the clip above, a seam in the wall of defenders, and envisioned, in mid-flight, a strange path to success, to achieving what he wanted. This involves inspiration and physical creativity, and an almost oracular faith in his own ability. I think genius always shares in this creativity. An ability to transcend, to go beyond what has so far been found.

Talent and creativity, however, mean very little without effort. Without work. Talent and creativity sing of potential. Work speaks of possibility.

I have never seen a genius who didn't work harder than everybody else. Why could Michael Jordan stick so many game winning jump shots? Because he hit so many jumpshots in practice, so many shots that must have seemed almost meaningless at the time. But true work is never meaningless. It pushes forward. It advances some inner need to achieve something, to get better.

There's a famous story from the concentration camps in WWII, in which the Germans experimented by forcing prisoners to do meaningless work. Weak and starving prisoners were forced to move heavy stones from one end of the compound to another. And then the next day they were forced to move them back. Again. And again. The work served nothing, no purpose, and it drove many prisoners mad. Such pointless work, perhaps, destroys the soul. True work, on the other hand, pushes people forward.

A fourth aspect grows out of this, I think: habit. Habits have a bad name, these days, because most of the time when we think about habits we're thinking about bad habits. Our smoking habit, our drinking habit, our 94 hour-a-week Facebook habit. But our lives are formed from habits: little ones and big ones. We create them out of the pattern of our lives. Do we brush our teeth, and when? And how? And where do we set the toothpaste down? But there are bigger habits, too. When do we make time for our passions? Our art, our writing, our sports? And greater still. How do we talk to our children? What are the patterns of our human relationships? Our faith?

Our habits shape us, and sometimes control us. But we also shape them. We make them. We can create the patterns of our life. And geniuses do this, at least in regard to their talent and creativity. They funnel their talent and creativity and desire into work, and into habits that support their excellence and genius.

Your habits might revolve around shooting jumpshots, or making story pictures in the sand. But charity can be a habit, too. Mother Teresa made a habit of this. She worked at it. Faith can be a habit. Pope John Paul II made a habit of this. He made constant habits of prayer and confession. Service can be a habit. Nelson Mandela made a habit of this. He worked at serving the needs of his people.

I appreciate genius in all its forms. It makes me wonder about my talent, my creativity, my effort, and the habits I make from these... and what these habits make of me.


Ted Cross said...

The geniuses that I have known have all worked very hard, BUT they all had something clearly special about them even before they worked hard. I met Tal Shaked when he was 8 and was coming to the chess club for the first time. Everyone there could tell there was something special about him. It was like he had an aura, and none of us had ever seen him play. But there was a clear buzz. I know I felt it. A few years later he was a grandmaster and later he became World Junior Champion. Becoming great takes hard work. Being a genius is something you are born with, in my opinion, but to make it shine takes hard work still.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I don't have a natural talent for the guitar, but that still doesn't stop me from practicing every day. (I minored in music in college, so I at least have a grip on it.) I can appreciate the talents of other guitarists even if I don't listen to their music. They worked hard to get that good.
You can be born with talent, but you won't rise above the masses without effort.

Charlie said...

Brilliant post Bryan. We all have dreams and some of us have talent, but without the determination to work hard to achieve your dreams, you're only dreaming.

PS. I saw Michael Hedges years ago from the front row center in NYC - he was an amazing player. Coincidentally, he opened with Face Yourself.

Elena Solodow said...

A very nice exploration of genius. I love all the angles. Thanks for the read : )

lori said...

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and the energy Michael Jordan brought to the Bulls, to the city, was something great. I think genius is inspirational. It gives you energy to do more, be more, even if you're never going to be a genius yourself. Thanks for sharing the videos :)

Josin L. McQuein said...

Genius or "X-Factor", whatever you want to call it, there's something awe-inspiring about seeing someone hit the wall of what's expected and knock it to the ground. It's a glimpse of what's possible when everything other than the goal at hand fades to white noise and the whole of a person's focus shifts to something they not only excel at, but enjoy.

The most telling aspect of it, IMO, is that no one can really explain how to do it. Jordan might be able to tell you the basic of how to play basketball, or even the ideal point and angle from which to jump to make a shot, but he couldn't hand off his sense of timing or coordination. There's something more to it beyond what can be seen.

You can teach someone to pick up a brush and paint, and you can tell them that red is the color of anger or passion, but 99% of the people who paint a person, even well, will only paint the person's body. That other 1% will find a way to fuse soul to canvas and make you feel their fury.

That's what makes people frustrated when they want to know the "how" from someone and that someone can't tell them anything they don't already know. It's unquantifiable and beyond purchase or lesson.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...


And I will only quibble a little. :)

I believe children come into this world with their DNA, but still a nearly blank slate. They will have talents, to be sure, but I am convince that very early influences (years 0-8) can make a huge change in the raw "talent" that a child possess. They literally still grow neurons at that point in their lives, and the part that gets fed well (musical talent, mathematical talent, emotional talent), is the part that thrives, grows, dominates. Of course, the part that is strongest within them will demand to be fed, so even then, it is circular.

Jessica Bell said...

You're right. Talent does come in all shapes and forms. And genius does come from hard work, blood and sweat. BUT. Do we need to be able to do things to perfection in order for them to seem genius?

Let me give you an example. I play guitar. My guitar skills SUCK, because I taught myself. I don't know what note I'm playing half the time, and I create unusual tunings because I have no rules to follow. I think my creativity on the guitar is freer. But, ultimately, it stunts the potential I think I could reach. TO ME. I don't think I have any talent at playing guitar. I've never even TRIED to excel in playing either, because all I wanted it for was to create a bit of music to sing to. It's the singing I love.

So why do I always get people telling me I'm talented on guitar? I don't know. I don't feel talented. So I'm thinking perhaps perception of talent is skewed depending on the talent of the individual perceiving it, because creative individuals like you and me are always comparing ourselves to other talents.

Have I lost track here and gone off on another tangent? Oh dear ... Anyway, do you see what I'm trying to say?

Great post. First one that has got me thinking in a long time!

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

@ Susan

I agree with your quibble. To a point. :)

I do think that's the period where you can expose children to things and work wonders (which is part of why I used to be a gradeschool teacher). But it can't do everything. Because lots of kids will be exposed to great education and opportunities, and will still be unable to master certain things.

I love music. I was exposed to it when I was small. My mother and sister are musical. I, however, am not, however I might now wish otherwise. My audio memory is almost useless. I can't remember my own national anthem (which I heard almost daily for close to two decades). Music simply doesn't code into my brain, into my memory, in any functional way. Now, I'm a smart guy, and with enough time and effort I'm sure I could find some ways around my problems. Tricks to reach competence. But I'm never going to be a musical genius. The inherent talent and brain function simply isn't there (luckily I have a few other talents).

And I've seen brilliant, well-educated people who could talk for hours about Aristotelian poetics but who were literally unable to add double digit numbers together. These are people who've had the opportunity, who've had good teaching, people to who education is important. They would never be able to work for Nasa as an engineer. :) They simply don't have the right wiring.

There are a vast array of different ways a brain can function, and all of them are good for every task. Though I do think a lot of children never have the opportunity to test their potential... but that's a whole 'nother post.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

@Bryan There's no arguing that some children aren't wired for some things (and are for others). I still think the plasticity of the brain, especially in young children, is something we're just beginning to understand. Heck, until recently, we believed that old folks like me (or anyone over the age of 20) couldn't grow new brain cells. That's been proven very much wrong.

I think it takes more than just exposing a child to something, and it's easier to kill talent than nurture it. And you can't make my short son a basketball player. But I'm philosophically inclined to keeping options open for children. I don't know their talents any more than they do - it is a discovery we make together, like a sprout unfurling from the soil, just waiting to find out what it is capable of.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

@ Jessica

That's actually been proven in psychology experiments. Talented and knowledgeable people have a clearer understanding of their own ability. The better someone is (on average), the better they are at judging their own skill level. If people don't know much about something, it will be hard to tell the difference between something that is good and something that is great. Including their own abilities. People who are poor at something often grossly over-estimate their abilities, and over-predict their scores. People who are good, however, have a clearer understanding of their abilities, and better predict their future scores. For example, they'd be better at understanding whether they're great or good.

Now, these are averages, of course. Other things factor in, like the individual psyche.

I'm guessing because you are a great singer, and have a lot of musical talent, and you've been around a ton of great musicians, you can probably see where your skills are good and where they might be lacking. You can probably feel your skills and also your potential, and feel what you might have been capable of if you had devoted yourself to learning it since you were a kid. You probably have a clear understanding of what it takes.

I'm a half-decent tennis player, for example. I took it up only as a gimpy adult. I'm not great, but I'm good enough to see that the game suits me. What if I'd taken it up as a child, before I wrecked my shoulder and my ankle as a teen? I think I would've been good. Possibly great. I don't have the skills or experience to really know for sure, but I'm good enough to see the possibility of that potential.

It's like that line in Good Will Hunting, when the professor notes that only a handful of people in the world would have been able to tell the difference between what he could do and what Will could do... but he had the misfortune of being one of them.

I always thought that was psychologically astute.

And I should say, also, that this evaluative tendency is a large part of how talented people learn. They compare, they evaluate, and then they act on whatever they learn. We all look to stand on the shoulders of giants...

And I would totally love to stand on the shoulders of guitar giants... but I keep tripping over their toes. I'll have to settle for other pursuits.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

@ Susan

I love that last point, and agree with it completely. I've always wanted to provide lots of opportunity for my kids to find their own loves and talents, rather than forcing my own on them. My middle boy, unlike me, seems really musically inclined, and just seems wired for sound. I'm hoping I can nurture that and support him, despite my incompetencies. Spent part of the day listening to funky guitar music with him on Youtube!

Matthew MacNish said...

Well I can only speak to one aspect of your abilities when it comes to judging you as a friend: the talent you have for using language to communicate creatively is beyond measure.

I can only assume that you've got the effort covered too.

For me, true genius requires innovation too. If you're doing something incredibly well, but exactly the same way as the last guy, that's not quite genius.

Marlene Nash-McKay said...

I met Nelson Mandela, shortly after his release from Victor Verster. The ANC had a conference in the boardroom of the company I worked at and out of all the staff, two 'assistants' were chosen to assist with any requirements. At one stage he came out and sat down, alone, in the corner of the reception area and I walked up to him to ask whether he needed anything. Words are not sufficient to explain his presence. His aura is so massive that it extends meters around him. He said no, he didn't need anything and asked if I wanted to sit for a while. Then he enquired about my life. It was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had... He is genius indeed.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

@ Marlene

That's awesome. I think people like that have an ability to absolutely focus on whoever they're with in that moment. A focused attention, where that person (for that moment) is the center of the universe.

Way cool.