The Nature of Genius

What is genius? There is no such thing in the usual usage of the word. Genius is a title we confer on those who do remarkable things in their field. It is like being knighted, made a Commander of the British Empire, or winning a lifetime achievement award. In a way similar to such honours, which persons are awarded the status of genius is largely a matter of circumstance.

Albert Einstein

Genius combines reason with imagination, a unity most easily seen in the visual arts, but also there in the ground-breaking work of scientists such as Albert Einstein. (Image: public domain.)

What we ultimately label as genius is the product of a highly evolved mind. We are not born with such minds. We acquire them through long effort. To become a genius one must pursue some line of enquiry, or some art, long enough and thoroughly enough to acquire a high degree of sophisticated knowledge. In turn, that accumulating knowledge generates increasingly powerful thinking about the enquiry or art. Creativity research has shown that the mind is self-organizing. The process of becoming skilled enough to earn the title “genius” happens without our conscious awareness.

It is an obvious truth that character is destiny. The long pursuit of some enquiry or art entails certain qualities of mind and personality. Not everyone has those traits. Therefore, not everyone can earn the title of genius. However, the traits which will get you there are not rare or exotic. It is entirely possible that you possess them.

When we speak of geniuses, Einstein most often comes to mind. Everyone wanted to know his most significant traits. He listed curiosity, obsession, stubbornness, and self-criticism. There is nothing remarkable there. If you think obsession is rare, try prying the average teen away from the latest video game.

We must be careful to distinguish between talent and genius. The former may be inborn, but the latter is definitely the consequence of long years of dedicated effort. To qualify for the label “genius,” you must have lived the writer’s life, the philosopher’s life, the scientist’s life, the artist’s life. You get the idea. Putting in just a few years will not earn you the crown.

Let us look at genius from another angle. An old definition says genius is the ability to combine reason and imagination in the prolonged pursuit of your calling. There it is again. No matter where we look, we keep coming across the notion that genius is inseparable from duration.

Perhaps this level of dedication sounds boring. If that is what it takes, then who wants to be a genius anyway? If you think that way then you have not found your true interest in life. This is the other ingredient in the recipe for becoming a genius. You probably already know that it is not hard to obsess about a video game. Nor is it hard to obsess about your first car. The people who devote their lives to some enquiry or art are not stern disciplinarians who lash themselves with a whip. Creative individuals burn with an inner need for self-expression or a desire to explain their own experience in the world. The truth is they cannot wait to climb out of bed in the morning and get to work. There is a great secret here. Creativity and genius are indeed a sustained way of life, but the creative way of life is so rewarding it sustains the creator.

Do you want to get on board?

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

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