This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

Myths and Illusions: The Myth of True Genius

Ivan Aivazovsky, "Pushkin's Farewell to Sea" (1877)Today’s entry into the pantheon of modern Myths and Illusions: True Genius.

If you haven’t seen the recent movie Whiplash, here is a brief synopsis: it’s about an aspiring jazz drummer struggling under the tutelage of an unbelievably abusive, perfectionist teacher. If you have seen the movie, let me get this out of the way first: the professor depicted in it is psychotic, a criminal, and just all kinds of wrong; no way would anyone in real life get away with half of what he did, nor should they. But, as someone who spent six years learning piano and vocals at a highly respected music school that prided itself on getting its graduates into the notoriously selective Moscow and St. Petersburg conservatories, I recognized the culture of tough love right away: the uncompromising teaching style meant to separate the wheat from the chaff (I was one of the chaff, Dear Reader) and mold those with potential into classical musicians who may one day be known throughout the world. And I recognized, also, that rare student who realizes that the only path to greatness is to reject all other things in life, to strip down one’s existence to the very basics, and practice, practice, practice — not until you are tired, or until you’ve “done your best” — but until you get it just right, whatever it takes.

This being America, naturally this movie precipitated the usual discussion of the supposed worthlessness of effort in the realm of art, exemplified most vividly by this critic, who declared that, “[a] mounting body of evidence shows that no amount of practice, whether 10,000 hours or 20,000 hours, guarantees true genius.” This statement is correct only in the most technical sense — which is to say, it’s misleading. The author juxtaposes effort and genes, but do good genes guarantee true genius? Apparently not. This is a fair question then: what does guarantee true genius? In this life, nothing guarantees anything. But Whickman isn’t concerned with guarantees generally. His point — and the reason I picked his editorial as an example of what I’m talking about — is that since hard work doesn’t absolutely one hundred percent guarantee success, it’s not worth doing at all.

The philosophy that drives this notion is the Myth of a discrete, palpable True Genius, the idea that “true genius” is a phenomenon that exists independent of learning or practice, and makes effort, any degree of effort, superfluous. I am sure Whickman and those who think like him would I say I’m oversimplifying here, but I believe their thinking boils down to this: a true genius wouldn’t need to work, and someone who doesn’t possess true genius would never achieve anything through hard work anyway, therefore to hell with work. Worse: practice is a form of cheating, since someone who has to practice to be good isn’t a true genius, but is using work to pass himself off as a genuine article. This myth has, of course, sprung numerous well-known corollaries: all memorization is rote memorization; all drills (the backbone of achieving foreign language proficiency as an adult) are by definition “mindless” and therefore, a waste of time and an affront to humanity.

I often wonder how many of those who embrace this asinine view — and that’s a LOT of people, sadly — actually have any experience playing a musical instrument (well), singing professionally, speaking multiple languages (again, well), creating art or playing professional sports. Sure, being a Professional Serious Person may come naturally to some, but a lot of other endeavors actually require practice, repetition and an investment of time even of people who are undeniably gifted. Even Mozart (“the” Mozart), for all the claims that he composed music “effortlessly”, engaged in that supposedly “effortless” exercise for many hours a day, practically every day; and the story of him never working through multiple drafts or revising his compositions is unverifiable and likely apocryphal.

Meanwhile, the idea that a “true genius” always produces flawless work and would never need improvement or teaching is belied by history: consider the complete works of people widely recognized for their genius — such as William Shakespeare, for instance — instead of just sampling the most celebrated, and you’ll see a palpable variation in quality, the pattern usually being that an artist produces his most impressive work after his spring-chicken phase.

I am not a biologist, and I don’t know whether there has been any effort to identify specific genes responsible for making someone really good at playing an instrument or painting breathtaking landscapes. So, geneticists, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. For what it’s worth, I am going to out on a limb here and propose that genes do not give anyone an instant ability to play like a virtuoso or produce great works of art or literature. Heredity plays a role, but it’s not a magic bullet. No one comes out of the womb speaking five languages, solving integral equations or composing poetry in iambic pentameter.

It’s a mistake to identify talent solely with genes. Talent is a complicated concept; being gifted consists not only of having an aptitude for specific tasks, but also possessing a certain kind of personality. You would be amazed, Dear Reader, at what you could accomplish if you park your tush for ten hours and work on something all that time without distractions or procrastination — and do that every day for a year. Problem is, very few people have that ability; which makes it that much more ridiculous that sheer willpower, the ability to dedicate oneself to one’s craft at the expense of (other) pleasures, is often breezily dismissed as being “not true genius”. Moreover, it takes a tremendous amount of mental discipline to be honest with oneself about the defects in one’s performance, to tune out the chorus of well-meaning Sensitive People (including family and friends) telling you you should only do “your best”, and attack a problem again, and again, and again, and again until you conquer it; and that too, gets unfairly dismissed as “mindless repetition”, or worse, a developmental disorder. The Russian language has a wonderful expression for this, that I wish English would adopt: to nibble at the granite of science. Talent isn’t just having really sharp teeth; it’s also the willingness to wear them down to the gums. Extreme dedication and uncompromising perfectionism: those too are essential components of true “true genius”.

The myth of genetic true genius is part of a growing aversion in the American — and to some extent, Western — culture to academic and artistic effort, to putting kids and young people under any degree of pressure, of subjecting them to any expectation whatsoever. Pressure leads to depression, acting out and suicide, we are told; but we are also told that depression among teens is out of control, even as we increasingly relax our already ridiculously mild educational standards, abolish grades (or frightfully inflate them) and give everyone a prize just for showing up. If young people in this country (okay, white middle-class kids) are as troubled as we are led to believe, maybe academic pressures aren’t to blame. Maybe, on the contrary, it’s the abysmally low expectations and the discouragement of effort that make them so listless and dejected.

That “true genius” is sui generis is a belief embraced by a society increasingly committed to mediocrity and underachieving; to comfort as everyone’s highest good. In this day and age, when globalization is on the rise, and America’s ability to draw on other countries and immigrant families for its greats is waning, this kind of mentality is extremely troubling. But you know what? I was wrong when I said that nothing guarantees anything. It’s true hard work doesn’t guarantee true genius; but demanding nothing of oneself or others guarantees its absence.

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7 thoughts on “Myths and Illusions: The Myth of True Genius

  1. I really enjoy your posts; your writing is such a pleasure to read.
    I am surprised to learn about this, “effort isn’t worth it,” mentality. I know some lazy people for sure, but I didn’t know there was such a developed rationalization for lack of effort.
    As I was reading, and comparing my own anecdotal non-genius experience, I began to wonder if the pervasive depression and ennui I see so much of was related to lack of just practicing something/anything, only to get to the end and find you wondering that too.
    I don’t know if genius exists either, but it’s pretty clear that aptitude does. Some people have innate grace and sense of their bodies- making them good at ballet or surfing. Others have the ability to “see a figure in a block of marble and chip out everything that doesn’t belong.” And et cetera. I wonder if tenacity might not be as big a factor?
    Personally, I’m a really good cook, knitter and carpenter – things I have practiced daily for 20+ years. I’m not gifted by any means, but I’m good enough that I occasionally awe someone. I really enjoy working at a hard thing. I took up the violin at 47 last year in just that spirit. I might not be any good for 10 years, but it’s sure fun.

  2. That the “True Genius” does not originate in the genes but in the male brain, can be seen just in the fact that the myth is generally male occupied. This makes also sense if a genius is the result of the utmost dedication and willingness to suffer for perfection. The entry is reserved for men because women (may they have it in their genes or not) had and have usually simply less time to discover the genius in itself and therefore get stuck in the middle…
    Thanks for another great post. I really enjoy reading your blog.

    • There is a certain clash of expectations when it comes to gender. My parents really wanted me to become a concert pianist, but they also made me understand (and it was, indeed, the cultural norm where I grew up) that nothing I achieve would have any value unless I got some guy to marry me. Being a concert pianist (long hours of practice, frequent travel and no housework whatsoever, due to the risk of injury) would make marriage a very difficult proposition. In marriage, wives are expected to sacrifice for their husbands, not the other way around. And being unmarried past a certain (typically quite young) age is far more damaging to a woman’s reputation than to a man’s. Bottom line, the costs of achieving greateness are extremely high for anyone, but they are typically MUCH higher for women than for men. Which is one, but by no means the only, factor that accounts for the disbalance. It’s not a matter of brain function, but one of the interplay between costs and benefits.

  3. “That the “True Genius” does not originate in the genes but in the male brain..” I`m just thinking… I hope you don´t get me wrong. I want to say that the idea that there is something like a true genius is something that occurs in and for male brains. It didn´t want to say that male brains tend to be more genius than female brains. :-), Ciao, lara

  4. Aren’t the people describing “true genius” getting that confused with “idiot savant”? If a person doesn’t require practice that’s a savant. I think most people value hard work and practice over effortless talent. Natural talent is supplemented by practice and deep knowledge of a chosen art (or sport, really), that’s what I hear most. Who are these people you’re hanging around with who only value born ability as “true genius”?

  5. I can’t say that I’ve experienced any lowering of expectations in schools, nor do I see America as a country in which hard work and constant repetition have been stripped of honor. Can you elaborate on your claims?

    • First of all, I did not state generally that hard work and repetition have been stripped of honor in America. I referred to those things specifically in the context of education, and artistic and academic endeavors pursued by children and young people. If you want elaboration on that point, please read my post more carefully. It appears you merely skimmed it (or had a knee-jerk reaction).

      As for the state of expectations in American schools, I suppose it’s simply a matter of seeing it, or not seeing it. I’m not sure what kind of elaboration you are requesting. Scientifically verifiable proof? References to quotable sources that have said the same thing? I think I’ve repeatedly made it clear that I do not publish this blog in any professional capacity. It’s just my thoughts, inspired by what I’ve seen and experienced. You can take it for what it’s worth. And for what it’s worth, I’ve gone to school in other countries, and I have family and friends working in the American school system. The state of the American secondary education is abysmal; the problem lies less with money and more with the philosophy that inspires current policies. The prevailing view seems to be that an invariably positive self-image is more important for children’s growth than skill acquisition, genuine challenge, or, godforbid, excellence. There is a certain schizophrenic quality to the way even “helicopter” parents manage their children’s education: where, on the one hand, they fill their calendars with a myriad activities, yet push to have the most challenging of those activities dumbed down and stripped of any objective assessment of performance, so their darlings could get a star no matter what. Math, science and foreign languages are under constant pressure for easier curricula, no-grade evaluations, etc.; and things aren’t much better with “language arts” or other arts. I do think our culture treats teenagers and young people with a curious mixture of contempt and over-protectiveness, believing them to be, by default, psychologically fragile children who cannot withstand a shred of criticism or a hint of demand without some catastrophic unraveling of their emotional well-being; this is the bias that translates into low expectations. It is, as I said, largely a matter of perception, and if you are not seeing it, then that’s the end of it. Maybe things really are that much better where you are.

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