Geniuses don’t exist in the present. Think of all the people you’ve met: would you call any of them a genius, in the Mozart, Einstein, Shakespeare sense of the word? Even the commonly called genius grants, from the MacCarthur foundation, shy away from actually calling their recipients geniuses. Most people throw the g-word around where it’s safe: in reference to dead people. Since there’s no one alive who witnessed Mozart pee in his kindergarten pants, or saw young Picasso eating crayons in kindergarten, we can call them geniuses in safety, as their humanity has been stripped from our memory of them. Out of respect, and worship, we allow ourselves to believe the 2% of our heroes we find superhuman is the entirety of who they were.
Even if you believe geniuses exist, there’s little consensus on what being a genius even means. Some experts say genius is the capacity for greatness, while others believe it’s that you’ve accomplished great things. Frankly I don’t care. Chasing definitions for a final, argument ending answer is a waste of time, since the interesting questions defy finality. Worse, you can’t accomplish much as a maker of things if your time is spent arguing about the meaning of words. To the core of my point, the chase for definitions never provides what we want: a better understanding of how to appreciate, and possibly become, interesting people.
I will now take a wild, manic, run through the history of genius. I make no commitment to be definitive in any way. However, I do promise to avoid easy answers, to use facts to support pet opinions, and to state the obvious and the contradictory, especially when they best define the truth.
Have a great, or horrible, family
Picasso, Mozart, Beethoven, Einstein and Goethe are five popular geniuses and they all had parents who took an interest in their creative lives. Mozart and Beethoven had fathers who were professional musicians, and at young ages they were taught by Pops how to read and play various instruments. Can you guess what Picasso’s dad did? Yes, he was a painter, and spent many hours with young Pablo, showing him the ropes. One popular legend around Einstein is his young obsession with a compass from his dad, but more potent in his development was family friend Max Talmud, who taught Albert science, philosophy and other intellectual pursuits throughout his boyhood. And of course there’s Van Gogh and his brother Theo, the only healthy relationship he ever had.
But lousy families can make for geniuses too. Beethoven’s dad was abusive and cruel, torturing him during childhood practice sessions. Unlike what happens to most child prodigies (burnout at age 15 and complete hatred for their gifts and micromanaging self-centered parents) somehow Beethoven’s passion for music survived. Leonardo Da Vinci was a bastard, a child not of his father’s wife, and the little we know doesn’t paint a picture (ha ha) of a healthy child-parent dynamic. Isaac Newton was also born to a single parent home, his father dying several weeks before Isaac entered the world. His mother remarried, Isaac didn’t like it, and perhaps found a seed of unrest to fuel his pursuit of an independent life.
I’m fond of the idea of independence, free will and the belief anyone can do anything, but when it comes to being a genius it’s hard to ignore the role of family, country, and era, all things out of an individual’s control. If Mozart’s dad were an electrician, or Beethoven’s a plumber, what would have happened? Had Emily Dickinson’s mother not been seriously ill for decades, forcing Emily to live mostly in seclusion, would we know her name? Whether positive or negative, opportunities in children’s development create potential, but their work has to surface at a time when their particular talents are valued in the world (demonstrated by the number of posthumously appreciated geniuses, including Kafka, Van Gogh and Dickenson).
Be obsessed with work
Show me a genius and I’ll show you a workaholic. Van Gogh produced 2000 works of art between 1880 and 1890 (1100 paintings and 900 sketches). That’s 4 works of art a week for a decade, and he didn’t start making art until his mid twenties. DaVinci’s famous journals represent decades of note taking, doodling and observations, and it’s a good guess that work was the center of his life: no spouses or children are mentioned in any of our records of him (though he likely had lovers in his studio). Picasso made over 12,000 works of art (“Give me a museum and I’ll fill it” he said, and he was right) in his lifetime, including sculptures, paintings and other mediums. Shakespeare wrote more than 40 plays, not to mention dozens of sonnets, poems and of course, grocery lists. These are people who practiced their crafts daily and sacrificed many other ordinary pleasures in life to make their work possible. Every math or music prodigy practiced to produce the work they are famous for (See the ten year rule).
And of course very few of these works are considered masterpieces, by their creators or anyone else. Sure, today, any coffee stained sketch by Picasso or Van Gogh garners millions, but that has more to do with the signature that’s on the painting, than the quality of the painting itself. No matter the field, the productive have more failures to show than successes by ratios of 10 or more to 1. Hemingway is noted for his belief that writing is rewriting, and that dozens, or hundreds, of attempts are required to write anything well (“The first draft of anything is shit“). Most painters, from Dali to Turner made sketches and studies to experiment and explore before committing themselves to the final versions of the amazing works we see in museums.
Whatever their talents or genetic gifts, most everyone who earned the label genius was dedicated to their work: the list of lazy geniuses is short. Certainly there are burnouts, suicides, and those who spent unproductive years in retreat (or rehab), but none could be called petrified of work. The debate over talent vs. work ethic is moot in history: without the work, we’d never heard of most of these people.
Have emotional or other serious problems
A high percentage of geniuses weren’t particularly happy, well adjusted people. It’d be unfair to say it’s a requirement, but there’s sure evidence for a correlation. For all their brilliance, it doesn’t seem like most of these people led stable lives. Picasso, Van Gogh, Edison, Einstein, and Nietzsche (not to mention almost every major modern philosopher) had difficult, if not disastrous, personal lives. Every one of them either never married or married many times, had children they abandoned or became estranged from, and had episodes of great depression and turmoil. Isaac Newton and Tesla spent many of their days in isolation, and had enough eccentricities and personality disorders to earn a cabinet full of pharmaceuticals today. Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain and dozens of other genius level creatives committed suicide, a reflection of the torment they felt at existence itself.
Michelangelo and Da-Vinci were troublesome employees, abandoning commissions from Popes and bishops, fleeing cities for threats of war and personal debts. Kafka and Proust were both notable hypochondriacs, each spending years of their lives in bed or in hospitals for medical conditions, some of which we’re psychological in nature or origin. Voltaire, Thoreau, and Socrates all lived in various kinds of exile or poverty, and used their response to these conditions in the works they are famous for. Positive emotions and experiences can work as fuel too, there just don’t seem to be as many genius stories that center on happy, well adjusted lives. John Coltrane, C.S. Lewis, and Einstein had deeply held, and mostly positive, spiritual beliefs that fueled their work. Stephen King seems like a happy guy at his core, despite all the horror that passes through his mind.
Emotions of any kind, positive or negative, provide fuel for work, and many geniuses were simply better at converting their emotions into work than their peers. The need to express feelings, escape suffering, or prove the possibility of an imagined world was stronger in these people than the challenges of the work itself, enabling them to spend more of their waking hours searching for expression, or solving problems, than most people choose to. Creativity and self-expression are hard work for anyone, but perhaps a lesson we can learn from the prolific is to widen our sources of fuel and raise our tolerance for hard work.
Don’t strive for fame in your own lifetime
This is the killer for the ego, but most geniuses received a fraction of the PR in their lifetimes than they received after their deaths. Kafka, Darwin, Melville, Edgar Allan Poe and Van Gogh all died young, poor, and with moderate (and in Kafka, Melville and Van Gogh’s cases, zero) fame for their talents. It’s possible that desiring legend status in your own lifetime spoils whatever magic you have. This theory explains why many people have a single amazing work, but never return to the same artistic, intellectual or creative brilliance in their later efforts. The attention of their fields, or the world at large, may create more pressure than they can manage. The list of suicides and young deaths among brilliant creators is painfully long, including Jim Morrison, Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, Van Gogh, Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Wolf, Alan Turing, John Coltrane, John Belushi, Chet Baker, Jackson Pollock, the lists go on.
Perhaps it’s best not to care what the world thinks, or what labels it gives you, and that independence is the true seed for making great things worthy of, someday, earning you the moniker genius. To focus on the making, the thinking, the creating seems the best way, leaving it to the world to decide, long after you’re gone, what value your work had. As long as you’re free enough to keep making and creating in ways that satisfy your own personal ambitions, or perhaps the tastes of a handful of fans, you’re doing much better than most people on this planet.