Monday, April 8, 2013

The Myth of Genius


Lately I have found myself thinking a lot about lessons that I want to pass on to my kids. Often they are the sort that could begin with, "I really wish I knew this when I was younger..." One that's been on my mind recently is the problem of genius. 

One online dictionary defines genius as "exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability." For as long as I can remember, I have been plagued by the concept of genius and its relation to success. I do not know where the idea originated, but I held a subconscious belief that success in one's chosen field was surely and necessarily the result of some innate, from birth, type of genius. 

Ideas have consequences. I spent the better part of college agonizing over whether or not I had genius, because in my mind, I could only be mediocre without it. I entered into every project and assignment with fear, trepidation, and expectation. Would I once and for all prove myself, or be woefully inadequate? After four years of academic successes, my anxieties remained and the mere thought of more education emotionally exhausted me.

My husband and I wanted to start a family, and as the kids came (three, nineteen months apart) I wasn't so invested in thought about it. I had stepped off the treadmill, and uneasily glanced back only occasionally. Maybe my shift in thought came as a result of this distance. Maybe it was the new perspective that living in the "real world"  (though I hate that expression...) afforded me, seeing real people achieving real successes in their chosen work, and also exposure to some great resources, but I came to recognize the myth of genius. 

The life truth that I want my children to know from a young age is this: Genius isn't the key to success, or even a necessary component; it can actually be a distraction or a pitfall if overly emphasized or relied upon.  True and lasting success is ultimately the result of integrity of character, hard work, and productive methods of problem solving. 

I think that an earlier grasp of this reality would have allowed greater joy into the ventures of my younger self and dispelled the discouragement that so often haunted my steps. Such thinking also changes the mental paradigm from, "Am I good enough?" to "If anything is possible, is this good enough (i.e. a worthwhile goal)?"

Hopefully one day my children will read this. And hopefully, if there is some idea, some project, some goal stirring in your head and heart today, you will put aside your fears of inadequacy. Put aside the suspicions of self and and ask whether you really want to achieve that goal, and if it is worth it. If the answers are yes, go for it! 

P.S. If you are looking for some resources to help jumpstart your bid for life successes, I highly recommend this book and this book.


  1. Agree with you Mary,

    "Genius isn't key to success" and I would add 'isn't key to happiness either". In fact, how many geniuses in history have been miserable? Most. Van Ghogh for instance, and the list goes on.

    Initiative, enthusiasm, empathy and the capacity to listen would be my formula for success and happiness.

    Great reading you as always,


    1. Ana, thank you for the words of wisdom.

    2. That's exactly what I was thinking, too; genius very often seems to be a terrible burden. When I was younger, I think I, too, put a lot of stock in being exceptional, or having a natural flare for something. I would agonize over decisions, too, because if I couldn't be great at it, I wasn't sure I wanted to attempt it! Since college, I've been learning how to just "be" and be "normal"; and I have to's wonderful :).

  2. Agreed, Mary! Thank you for putting it all into words so well. You definitely have the "genius" of articulating your thoughts.


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