Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will grow up believing it is stupid. — Albert Einstein
‘What is your genius?’ I’d like you to reflect on this for a moment. I find that when I ask people this question, they often don’t know what to say. The G-word can stop us in our tracks. Years ago, when I was first asked: What is your genius? I thought: ‘Genius? What genius? I’m just a guy’.
I am just a guy. But I have come to see that everyone is touched by genius. Perhaps it is just a gentle caress. Perhaps your genius lies in something so uncommon that you’ll have to search the world before you find the opportunity to express it. There may be years of toil, of wanderings near and far, a host of grand adventures in your path before you finally discover your potential. But there is genius in you, waiting to be discovered. This post will explain how to find it.
If everyone is a genius, why is the world so messed up? For creatures who have the capacity for genius, we do a brilliant job of being dumb. Clearly, we are not, at this point in history, living up to our potential. But this is not surprising, since we only put a fraction of the work into cultivating our genius that we could. We doubt ourselves (‘Genius, what genius?’). We aim low (an easy trap to fall into, since that’s where most people are playing). Once we’re out of the education system, few people bother to encourage us to find our inner genius. Can you imagine your boss telling you to find that rare and special thing that makes you great and cultivate it? Not going to happen (‘Get back to work!’). We are the products of cookie-cutter education systems, of ‘knuckle-down-and-conform’ economies, of shallow, hyper-mediated, cultural systems that celebrate cannibalization and incremental innovation over true disruption (Lady Gaga is the incremental innovation of Madonna; the latest superhero blockbuster is the cannibalization of every superhero trope that has come before). Given this, it’s no surprise that we forsake our deeper talent. Really, why should we bother to look for brilliance in ourselves when society as a whole is geared for averageness? Why stick your head up over the edge of the trench? You’ll only get it blown off.
What an appalling waste of talent. Don’t give up on yourself like this. Find that rare and special thing that you do extraordinarily well and make it central to your life. Here’s how you can do it.
1. Get lost (to find where you belong)
Reflect, for a moment, on the quote that heads up this post. Einstein says: ‘If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will grow up believing it is stupid’. What do you think he mean by this?
The thought is a play on the idea of a fish out of water. In its aqueous environment, a fish is a magical being defined by grace, speed, and agility. Out of its environment, these gifts are null and void. The only way a fish will climb a tree is in the paw of a monkey who is carrying it home for dinner. If we were to judge the genius of a fish based on its performance in a forest, we’d conclude that it was a waste of space.
The fish, of course, is just an analogy. Einstein wants to encourage us to think differently about our own potential. Ultimately, he is asking us to consider the possibility that our true genius may be hidden from us on account of the environment, or environments, we live in. Ever seen a monkey glide through coral in a shaft of light? Dance a ballet with a school of monkeys, feeding on the shifting tide? We wouldn’t judge the powers of a monkey on the basis of its performance at the bottom of the Atlantic Trench. Why is it, then, that we judge our own powers based on our performance in environments that we did not choose but simply found ourselves in?
Like fish out of water, we watch our compatriots swing through the trees and curse our luck to be born clumsy and stupid. But what if our apparent lack of talent were really just a lack of fit – a lack of fit between our personal powers and the contexts in which we are expected to apply them?
What environments do you need to cultivate your gifts? Perhaps you need the hustle of a working kitchen in a big city restaurant. The orderliness and precision of a financial consultancy, where everything has a number and value. An isolated tract of mountain wilderness, where you can hunt game and go skinny-dipping in the river. Everyone is different, and everyone needs a different environment to unleash their gifts and become what they can be.
Never assume that the environment you’ve been born into, or tuned and calibrated to, is the best environment for you. The world is vast and complex and there are myriad different places, spaces, companies, communities, groups, platforms, and practices you can potentially slot yourself into. Forget about who you’ve been told you are and where you think you belong. If you want to find yourself, you need to lose yourself. You need to leave the place that you’ve been born and wander in the wilderness in order to find your home.
So get out into the world and explore. Get lost to find where you belong. This is a vital piece of advice for anyone – young or old – who seeks to cultivate their gifts.
2. Find your flow (and work it)
The second thing you should do is find your creative flow. Flow lets us tap into the intuitive side of the mind and harness our potential. Look especially for challenging activities that help you get into flow. Flow offers us a good indication of the nature of our gifts.
Everyone has experienced flow at some time or other. Flow is the state of mind that you slip into when you are doing something and you become completely absorbed in the activity. You get caught up in the flow of things. You become fully focused and engaged, without feeling that you’re trying to hard. You are ‘in the zone’, as they say. You might be dancing, playing a video game, or just chucking a ball about. Time slips away – your sense of self slips away – and you become part of the activity itself.
Studies have shown that, in the state of flow, we tend to perform better than when we are thinking about what we’re doing. We become more creative too. We shut down the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for conscious reflection – and tune into our holistic bodily awareness. We slip into a state of consciousness akin to daydreaming. We become more sensitive and receptive to new ideas and associations. It becomes easier to improvise and spontaneously create. It becomes easier to tap into our creative gifts.
Flow reveals our personal genius. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, who pioneered the study of flow at the University of Chicago, claims that we get into flow by finding activities that enable us to match our skills to particular challenges. If a task is too difficult, we get frustrated. If a task is too easy, we get bored. We achieve flow states when we find ourselves challenged and tested yet capable of meeting the challenge. We are fully engaged yet not overwhelmed by the task at hand.
Let’s connect this to the previous insight about finding your place in the world. When you go into the world in search of your gifts, make sure that you challenge yourself. You need to leap into tasks and tackle challenges that you’ve never wrestled with before. You need to put yourself to the test. The point is not to make life hard for yourself. On the contrary, the point is to identify those challenges that should be hard but that you find intuitive and easy. In a word, you need to find your flow. Now, prepare yourself for disappointment. In many (if not most) cases, you’ll find that the challenge you undertake overwhelms you like a giant wave that rears up to break upon your head. Occasionally, however, when you let yourself go and tap into your gifts, you’ll find that the wave does not break upon your head, but sweeps you up to its vertiginous crest and powers you forth. You’ll find that your powers are equal to the task. You’ll find that you are capable of extraordinary things – things that other people struggle to do.
Through flow, we find our genius.
Often, when people give advice about how to cultivate one’s gifts, they say: ‘Find what you love’. Find that thing that makes your heart sing and do it. I agree that, ultimately, one’s sense of capacity should conicide with a sense of happiness and fulfilment. But it is a mistake, I think, to try to identify one’s gifts starting with the things we love. What we love most of all is comfort and security. Love binds us to environments that we are already accustomed to, and there is no guarrantee that these will be the best environments for enabling us to thrive. If we try to identify our gifts starting with the things that we love, we inevitably short sell ourselves. We take the easy road to self-fulfilment, rather than the challenging route that tests us and brings out our mettle.
If you want to cultivate your genius, look for the most challenging things that you enjoy doing, not the things that you love. Tackle these tasks and make them easy and you’ll discover a sense of accomplishment that can be even more rewarding than love. Love has immense rewards, it’s true. But it can also weaken and corrupt us, as philosophers through the ages have attested. Seek flow, not love; and you’ll discover a deeper sense of love that comes from self-respect. You’ll learn to love the things that you do best, not just things that are close and familiar. Moreover, you’ll become someone who is worthy of love, and there is nothing better than that.
3. Dedicate 10 years to excellence
Identifying your gifts, of course, is just the beginning. To cultivate your creative genius, you need to devote yourself to developing these gifts. Personal mastery takes practice. Ten years, or 10,000 hours, should do it.
The American author Malcolm Gladwell reaches this conclusion in his book, ‘Outliers’. Gladwell researched the lives of people who had been astonishingly successful in their fields. He found that these people had devoted at least 10,000 hours to honing their craft before their career took off. That’s an average of 20 hours per week for 10 years. The Beatles spent 10,000 hours rocking the clubs of Hamburg before their first hit record climbed the charts. Gladwell himself spent 10,000 hours plying his trade as a journalist before writing his first bestseller.
Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule is the third condition for cultivating your creative genius. To turn your talent into a life-defining pursuit, you need to devote 10 years to excellence. As Aristotle said: ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit’.
You need to work at what you do best until finding your flow becomes second nature, until genius is no longer something that you aspire towards, but simply something that you do.
For some, this will be discouraging news. We like to think that if we are truly any good at anything, we should be able to produce excellence at the drop of a hat. But this is simply not true. Ask anyone who’s made a career out of creating good ideas and they’ll tell you that it’s hard work. Before you can start producing good ideas with regularity, you need to throw a lot of stuff at the wall. You need to try, try, try – fail – try – fail – and keep going.
Failure is not evidence that you are no good. Failure is a milestone on the road to greatness.
As you walk this road, keep an eye on the prize. Forget about the upsets and false starts, and push through the challenges with everything you’ve got. Stay focused on the intrinsic benefits of cultivating your genius. By focusing on this goal, you’ll learn to find yourself, to figure out what it is you really love, and to develop personal discipline and mastery.
These are skills for the flourishing life. Cultivating genius is learning to live well – an ancient philosophical pursuit.