Myths and Illusions: The Myth of 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.