top of page
  • Brendan Stec

Genius is Overrated

Here's a thought to write down: no successful individual ever achieved his goals with natural ability alone. Albert Einstein, graduating near the bottom of his class at Zurich Polytechnic in 1900, dedicated 8-10 hours a day immersed in thought experiments to formulate his first theory of special relativity in 1905. He's considered a "genius" by many, but this label overlooks the endless toil and sacrifice that actually contributed to his success. Crediting anyone's success to pure "genius", whether it's Taylor Swift's or Warren Buffett's, is a destructive perspective. It convinces us that hard work doesn't matter and that we're stuck with the genetic cards we're dealt at birth. It's a perspective that assumes we can't determine our own future or improve our abilities, when in fact, the very opposite is the case.

Some people are born with more advantages than others. In the past, these advantages were permanent: individuals born into nobility carried access to wealth and comfort for the rest of their lives. Individuals born as peasants spent their entire lives fighting disease and famine with little hope of improvement and little opportunity to realize their true callings in life. In the 21st century, the standards are much better thanks in part to democracy and technology. While inequalities still exist, it's not uncommon to see individuals from humble backgrounds (Will Smith, Sonia Sotomayor) reach dizzying heights of success. Now is the best time in history to mold one's future.

Even so, many people continue to hold a perspective that mere genius - exceptional natural ability - determines success. It's an attitude that says "I'll never be as smart as genius Bob, so it's not worth trying to get better anyway." It's an attitude that convinces us to avoid challenges so to avoid potential failures. Most destructively, it's an attitude that encourages us to leave the future up to fate, while we aimlessly careen from one weekend to the next with no willpower to take the reigns and actually push toward our goals.

Zora Neale Hurston wasn't supposed to be successful. Growing up as a black American in the 1890s South without a family, she bounced from town to town in Florida, making ends meet by cleaning houses and taking other odd jobs. In the houses of her white patrons, she found precious time to read every book she could find and file away special quotes she could later use in her own writing. After lying about her age to enter a black high school in Maryland, she continued her furious pace of reading and writing and gained acceptance to Barnard College in New York as their first and only black student. In New York, she befriended Langston Hughes, became a seminal figure of the Harlem Renaissance, and published brilliant satires detailing the racial tensions of the time. Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is included in TIME's 2005 list of greatest English novels written after 1923.

Zora Neale Hurston could have taken the "genius" perspective: who was she to forge a writing career with the cards completely stacked against her? Fortunately, by continually stealing minutes here and there to read and using her vast experiences to constantly observe human behavior, she refined her craft to an unparalleled degree. She's not alone. Leonardo da Vinci spent hours each day sketching detailed designs of flowers, plants and creatures as a child. It's no surprise he was capable of painting the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper with such breathtaking vigor and precision. Charles Darwin scraped barnacles off of rocks and suffered incessant seasickness for over five years during his excursion aboard the HMS Beagle. Darwin's seminal work On the Origin of Species could not be the foundation of evolutionary biology without these painstaking sacrifices.

It's convenient to assume other people were given chances we never had. It's comfortable to look past our own faults and cast blame on the system or others for our lack of fulfillment. That doesn't do us any good. That perspective doesn't get us any closer to what we truly seek, whether it's a successful career or better relationships with others. Hundreds of masters before us put in their hours, made their sacrifices, and overcame unimaginable adversity beyond what their natural ability provided. That's why genius alone is not enough.


Further reading:

Mastery by Robert Greene

bottom of page