Einstein wasn’t a genius. Neither was Mozart, nor was Beethoven.
But society’s brilliant masterminds and superhuman performers share one thing in common: a spark that ignited their soul and lit an eternal fire under their rear.
Let me explain.
Innate genius is not a new concept. Homer credited the greatness of composer and singer Demodocus to divine gifts in the “Odyssey” nearly three millennia ago: “Call in the inspired bard Demodocus. God has given the man the gift of song.” In 1790, philosopher Immanuel Kant argued in “Critique of Judgement” that artistic genius was of “nature’s elect,” a “natural endowment.”
Today’s media continues to reason that skill is derived from innate talent, fueling the romanticization of “genius.” Netflix’s most-watched limited series, “The Queen’s Gambit” (which boasted 62 million viewers within its first 28 days) tells an alluring story of an orphaned chess genius conquering a male-dominated industry while processing the effects of mental illness and addiction. Similarly, “The Imitation Game” featuring the legendary WWII cryptanalyst Alan Turing grossed more than $200 million worldwide and won the Academy Award for best-adapted screenplay.
Vogue’s piece “Why Are We So Obsessed With Geniuses on Film?” entertains the idea that we are averse to the ordinary. The dichotomy of wanting to be extraordinary while simultaneously maintaining its impossibility — the lust for something we can’t have — ties us to the myth of genius. Genius entertains and mystifies us. More dangerously, it has the potential to limit us.
The summer before I began my college applications, I pondered whether to continue studying the piano (the longest and biggest love of my life) or to pursue a liberal arts education and discover an academic interest (that holds more job security). Since the age of six, I had dreamed of holding the stage as an internationally touring concert pianist and painting stories and feelings through music, but I questioned my talents compared to the sea of child geniuses that surrounded me. A part of me felt like I was too normal; I didn’t have the “something special” that could make me one in a million. I wondered if this period of rumination was a moment where I could reaffirm my commitment to music or if I was just delusional to consider the odds.
I signed up for a class called “Deliberate Practice” that month. During the first session, my instructor put up a portrait of violinist and philosopher Shinichi Suzuki on the screen. Beside him, a quote that I can’t fully recall, but that stuck with me. In Suzuki’s “Nurtured by Love,” though, he writes, “There is no such thing as natural ability, no such thing as a child born without talent. … Talent is not inherited or inborn, but learned and trained. ‘Genius’ is an honorific name given to those who are brought up and trained to high ability.”
Today, there are mountains of accumulating modern research falsifying ancient philosophers’ theories and demystifying the age-old social construct of genius. One of the greatest studies is Cambridge University Press’ 2006 publication, “The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.” The 900 plus-page handbook includes contributions from more than 100 leading scientists on expertise and top performance in surgery, acting, chess, writing, computer programming, ballet, music, aviation, firefighting and more.
The real magic is not genius; it’s the marriage of three components: intrinsic motivation, deliberate practice and expert coaching.
Daniel Coyle’s book “The Talent Code” explains that results are tangible in a neural circuit insulator called myelin, a layer of fatty tissue that accumulates whenever someone focuses intensely on a specific circuit corresponding to a specific skill; with more myelin layers, signal strength becomes stronger, faster and more accurate — ultimately building skill.
Some great works I found in my research were: “The Making of an Expert,” “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” The Talent Code, Talent is Overrated and Deep Work. Here is what I gathered on three of history’s mammoth figures:
Golf giant Sam Snead insists on telling a different narrative of “naturals” than those assumed by popular lore: “People always said I had a natural swing. They thought I wasn’t a hard worker. But when I was young, I’d play and practice all day, then practice more at night by my car’s headlights. My hands bled. Nobody worked harder at golf than I did.” Snead echoes researchers’ findings that deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable, though ultimately rewarding.
Mozart — who began composing from the young age of five, gave public piano and violin performances at eight and produced some of Western culture’s greatest masterpieces by 35 — is the leading counterargument to the anti-talent thesis. Here’s my response: Wolfgang’s father, Leopold Mozart, was a composer, performer and widely-acclaimed pedagogue.
The original “tennis father and tiger mama,” Leopold demanded intensive training in composition and performing from 3-year-old Wolfgang as a way to improve his family’s fortune, claiming “Wolfgang’s good fortune and success will be our sweetest revenge” (written by Leopold in “The Letters of Mozart and His Family”). As for young Wolfgang’s compositions, “Talent is Overrated” notes that his manuscripts were suspiciously written in the hand of his father, and as a teen, his pieces were often rearrangements of other composers, including Johann Sebastian Bach (often regarded as the father of classical music), whom Wolfgang studied with in London. Today, Wolfgang’s first real masterpiece is said to be his Piano Concerto No. 9, composed at the age of 21 — the result of eighteen years of deliberate practice and intense coaching.
When teenage Benjamin Franklin, a primary school dropout, endeavored to improve his writing, his method did not depend on passive reading. Rather, he dissected issues of the popular British publication The Spectator, and days later, practiced reconstructing them from memory, matching subtle hints in sentiment and expression. Franklin would then compare his version of The Spectator with the original and correct his faults. He sharpened weaknesses in vocabulary and variety in prose by translating articles into rhyming verse then verse back into prose — the mentally demanding work of deliberate practice.
Despite modern research and historical accounts which aim to loosen the media’s grip on the notion of the born-genius, we are slow to change long-held and deep-rooted beliefs, and it is only hurting society and its progress.
I urge you not to bow your head under the ceiling of “genius.” Ask yourself not, “Am I good enough?” but, “Am I willing to do the work?” Ignite your soul with an obsession — only that can fuel tireless, unending willpower to learn and become better. Rage to master.
Lily Kwak is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.