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.