The first task with a subject like genius might be to define it, but I’m going to resist that temptation. I’d rather develop the ideas as we go, so that just about the time we think we’ve put our finger on it, we’ll understand why we can’t. What I’ll say is that while genius may seem to be a rare bird in our present society, it is not because any one of us lack access to it. What is suggested by this word is the fundamental nature of who we are, and if that sounds like a boring or inaccurate beginning it is only because of our lack of imagination about ourselves.
We’ve been led in our culture to believe that genius is evidenced by superiority of achievement in a field, which is not to say that it is not found in the masters we look upon with awe, but such an emphasis can be misleading. In any field there are those who possess a particular talent for it, which, if combined with years and years of practice and the type of ambition that shapes matter to its aim, may lead to the emergence of a sophistication. But technique alone is insufficient for genius. We are all familiar with those who possess astounding technique, but lack, for whatever reason, that little something extra that truly captivates and inspires us—that speaks to the very heart of who we are. Skill alone can be tedious.
On the other hand, we are also each familiar with those who lack the particular physical talent or practiced complexity that mark the most technically accomplished of a given field, but who, by the force of their passion and the manner in which they reveal the mystery of who we are, touch us deeply. We are wounded by such offerings, ushered to the brink of the roaring intensity alive within us, even as we are transported to the star-swept womb of a lowing silence. Genius inspires us to identify with what lies beyond necessity, beyond convention, and without which we would be but empty shells.
We might say that genius is the character of life itself, but this too is inaccurate, for what is meant by life? For too many of us yet, the experience of this world is a treadmill of survival. Genius may reveal itself in the face of life’s trials, but it is not the trial itself. There is no genius in suffering. There is no genius in earthly power, for that matter—in persecuting or enslaving others, in whatever form—just as there is no genius in deriving power from fealty. The power of genius is that it entitles everyone to a share, and where there is real genius, this is instantly recognized. Where there is genius, everyone is rewarded.
This niggling something extra we call genius cannot be captured or taught. It cannot be codified, reduced or pinned down, and no structured program can synthesize what is in truth the very content of our being. We cannot make ourselves any more or any less who we are, but we can desire to know who we are, and in our explorations is genius revealed. We can proceed only by remembering, and discover only by sharing.
The hallmark of genius is that it reveals us. Genius eclipses the norm, to be sure, but the norm is an arbitrary convention that nowhere exists, and uniqueness itself is not genius. We’ve all seen the sort of turning-away that is prideful and affected. Genius involves an authenticity that transforms all who partake of it, by releasing us from the bonds of our mistaken conclusions. It doesn’t rancor against what has been, but eclipses it with a beautiful certitude that renders our previous muddling moot. Though genius is not out to claim victory, it is our way out of loss, because genius makes us whole.
The problem with genius is that it is not a respecter of qualifications. It requires no resume or previous training, and our systems tend to be built on the convention of paying dues—on entitlement, seniority and lineage. Some of this is as it should be. And some of it is not. If you want to go farther in a field than those who previously set the markers, then you may have to retrace some of their steps. Genius is not about a willy-nilly hunch—it’s not about strapping wings made of wax onto your back and diving off a cliff. Too often we equate genius with derring-do. The genius is not in any particular feat, but in the attentiveness we give to our dreams, in the knowing that we work with—which no other can give us—and in our scraping away the barnacles of doubt we’ve picked up from the tidepools of history into which we were born.
Where there is genius, there is magic. The unknown is made real. There is conception, and birth, and new life. What existed for no one, comes into existence for everyone. There are stocks of this little something more within all of us, and I think the challenges we face on this planet arise principally from our efforts to come up with systems that work without resort to this most fundamental resource. It’s like trying to grow food without resorting to the use of sunlight, like trying to breathe only the air we’ve first squeezed into tanks.
If we had this stuff we’d use it! we say. But this is not so. The truth is we spurn genius, and we are frightened by those who can enter the sanctity of their own being and emerge with something we think we could not have. We think fairness is when long-suffering is the only resource at our disposal. Insights are too unpredictable; there is no obvious proportionality between the work that is input and the revelation received, and so they upset our tiered systems of privilege. But so long as we sustain a world in which the inventor reaps a reward that no caregiver can hope to receive, a world in which only what is provably earned may be received, genius will be thwarted.
We’ve created a world where power trumps authenticity, and this world requires only such genius as may be trademarked, copyrighted, or patented. In this world we cannot compute the possibility that what is real is only that which is shared by everyone. It is ironic, is it not, that the victors in our systems lay claim to the spoils? What we call power in this world exists in equal measure to all the unused stocks of genius that have gone rancid. It is the product of our dismay with all those who refuse to know so little as we ourselves do.
But worry not, for genius is the power of who we are, and it is the only power that will remain. If that seems like a definition, then perhaps you know something about us that I do not, for I have yet to even glimpse the horizon.