I was having a conversation with a good friend last week about what happens to so many talented, brilliant, even genius people who decide to take their own lives… John Belushi, Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, Twitch. We discovered right away there were a lot of variables, some which were understandable, some which were not. For instance, here’s what Wikipedia says about Robin Williams – “On August 11, 2014, at age 63, Williams died by suicide at his home in Paradise Cay, California. His autopsy revealed undiagnosed Lewy body disease.” Many think he died of Parkinson’s and took his own life to save his family from suffering with him and for him, for a long time. Turns out “Robin Williams was misdiagnosed with Parkinson’s when, in reality, he had Lewy body dementia in the lead up to his death.”
Someone could have, perhaps should have stepped into our conversation right there and said, “No, no no… actually very few geniuses commit suicide. We simply tend to hear about them more because they are a rare breed, different from the mass of the rest of us, and therefore in the news more.”
Fair enough. The geniuses among us are, indeed, rare and noticeable in that regard. Probably there are other, low-profile geniuses among us who are able to hide it, keep it to themselves. If they do, it’s a neat trick, because as a culture we commonly act like a pack of slugs.
But was Robin a genius? If he wasn’t, then neither was Albert Einstein. But then what is ‘genius’?
1. exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability. “she was a teacher of genius”
2. a person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative, either generally or in some particular respect.
“one of the great musical geniuses of the 20th century”
All well and good. But is there an actual definition of genius? Meh, everything I could find tried to represent ‘genius’ with high IQ scores. For example, “Most people fall between the range of 85 and 115, and the average score on an IQ test is 100. A score above 140, meanwhile, is considered to be genius level.” And, because I know you have got to be wondering, my IQ score in high school was 113.
As usual, another typically cold and numerical analysis of something that has so many more aspects to it than a clinical explanation could ever provide. Where does talent fit into that profile? And a magnetic personality? For that matter, what is a magnetic personality, and if it is somehow tied to genius, then how?
I like this definition of a magnetic personality – A person with a sense of calm self-confidence and authenticity who others are drawn towards instinctively. After thinking it over, I now think that a magnetic personality has nothing at all to do with genius.
There. Now, we have at least enough info of the outside world’s concept of genius to do a little innocent speculation as to genius, as to what it is, how it affects us. I have thought, for years now, that being “a genius” is not necessarily a desirable thing to be. Most of the geniuses I’m aware of seem eccentric, sometimes to a fault. Some of those I’ve observed are socially inept. Not that that’s important, but when you add unusually unruly hair, disheveled clothes, an occasional strange look in the eyes, along with a consistent look of deep preoccupation… well, you’re starting to get it, right? Not really fair, perhaps, but certainly a recognizable profile.
There are many quotes about genius; I like this one – “Genius is a curse, mediocrity a blessing.” I have found pride, even a measure of safety, in my mediocrity, and am daily grateful for it.
A website named Quora gave us its list of geniuses, or perhaps geniui?
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Paramahansa Yogananda – I read the book about his life. Yup, spiritual genius.
Elvis Presley a genius of charisma – Sorry. Just not. (And there’s that ‘magnetism’ again…)
Lincoln. Wait… smart, intuitive, maybe brilliant, but genius?
Patton – Really? Patton??
Stevie Wonder – Wait! Wouldn’t he fall under ‘immensely talented’?
John Coltrane – Same with him.
John Mclaughlin – And him.
George Harrison – And him.
Ravi Shankar – And him. Don’t let the name fool you.
based on his work, Shakespeare – (Based on his work? 2/3 of these names are work-based…)
Dr Stephen Covey
Cecil B DeMille – eh…
Henry Ford – I guess, but I have questions…
Wagner – yet another immensely talented…
But where is Mozart? Where is Stephen Hawking, and worse, where is Leonardo Da Vinci? And where, for god’s sake, is Nicola Tesla?? To my mind, George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg are screaming geniuses… but what do I know?
Sorry, but that list above is lame. But I had to share it to make this point: Who really knows what genius is? Evidently the fine folk on the internet who thought they knew, don’t know. Nor do I, for that matter. My genius gauge begins to swing when I see or hear something fantastically new and different, that hits me as beyond great, perhaps genius-inspired. Also, whenever I hear anyone in a crowded room say anything about “quantum physics.” How’s that for an objective point of reference?
But are genius and talent connected somehow? Oh, absolutely! (More of my dynamic objectivity…) No, really! It’s not too hard to realize that all these wonderful young folk, who are great students, or great artists at the tender age of 10, almost have to be genius. I mean Mozart, for god’s sake… he wrote a symphony when he was eight! Joey Alexander hit the charts as an excellent jazz pianist at the age of 12. Doesn’t necessarily make him a genius, but I think he is. He was at an advanced place in his playing that some of the great jazzers didn’t hit for sometimes 10-20 more years.
Here’s what Kathryn Hepburn said about one “genius…”
“I work at being good. Mine is not a natural talent, a great talent. Mine is an earned talent. I want to be good, and I get to be good through hard work and good luck and the aid of others. But Tennessee [Williams] was a bolt of lightning, a mountain, a blooming tree of immense size. He was breathing–so natural and so necessary. Now, the man could not dress himself properly–nothing much matched. The man had trouble handling a tray in a cafeteria–I saw this. I think life, and all these boring things we have to do to get the lights on and the dogs fed and the floor clean and the bills paid–that all defeated him, or nearly did. But then he’d sit down and that mighty talent would flow on the page, and it was genius. I can clean the floor and feed the dogs and get the bills paid, but I can’t just show up and be great. I have to work at it. I have to search for it. It was Tennessee’s destiny. He had genius in being. He showed up a genius.”–Katharine Hepburn on Tennessee Williams/Interview with James Grissom/1990
I can almost smell genius in a musician, having been one, of course. (Musician, that is…) Keyboardists Keith Jarrett, Lyle Mays, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Russell Ferrante, geniuses all. I can almost hear you asking, “What about Miles Davis?” Eehhhhhh, no. Smart, courageous, adventurous, creative, even eccentric. But not genius. On trumpet, Clifford Brown would be close to genius. On sax, the fabulous Charlie Parker.
See, it’s so hard to objectively define what is genius. There seems to be little defining characteristics of those of the genius persuasion, aside from the ones I mentioned above. Besides, without the IQ bar as a somewhat iffy determining factor, much objectivity goes out the window. There are jazz players out there who think my playing sucks, while others have told me I’m one of the best they ever heard. See the problem?
Ordinarily I would say that only each of us knows if we are truly a genius or not. But that doesn’t work either, as there are some huge egos out there who know for an absolute fact that they are geniuses. In those cases, it’s more than likely they think so much of themselves, they aren’t even close to genius level… probably closer to a big-headed blowhard, or a poseur.
Here’s what one genius wrote about another:
Albert Einstein’s high review of Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy (1945)
“Bertrand Russell’s ‘History of Philosophy’ is a precious book. I don’t know whether one should more admire the delightful freshness and originality or the sensitivity of the sympathy with distant times and remote mentalities on the part of this great thinker. I regard it as fortunate that our so dry and also brutal generation can point to such a wise, honourable, bold and at the same time humorous man. It is a work that is in the highest degree pedagogical which stands above the conflicts of parties and opinions.”
Well spoke, Albert. And by the way, what is “pedagogical?”
Have I put too much emphasis and importance on the state of genius? Oh, absolutely! Do I think I recognize genius when I think I see it? Of course! Do I seek it out? Nevah! What I really seek is found below…