Paul MacCready is a writer and inventor who has carefully studied genius and the ways people understand that concept. MacCready has evolved several categories of what genius seems to mean, and these can be useful starting point for defining what genius really is.
In the first category is what Paul MacCready calls the “everyone agrees” geniuses. These people are the great icons of civilization, including Einstein, Leonardo daVinci, Shakespeare, and Michelangelo. Is there anybody who believes Einstein wasn’t a genius? I don’t think so — so this category is for the geniuses who are elected by unanimous consent.
MacReady’s second category is the officially designated geniuses. These are the people who have won Nobel Prizes or other highly respected awards. Whether or not we understand what they’ve accomplished, we think of them as geniuses based on their recognition by people who are supposed to know one when they see one.
A third category includes people who haven’t yet gained national or international prominence, but who have done something so remarkable that they seem to be in a different realm from ordinary mortals. Some of these are the prodigy young people I mentioned earlier in this session — students who have won national science contests or gotten perfect scores on standardized tests. Often they’re not the best in the day to day conduct of school or business, but they have some special gift that eventually reveals itself. Quite often, these people are underachievers who struggle with shyness and low self-esteem. Their surprising success is surprising only because they’ve deliberately tried to stay in the background.
I think you can see how each of these three categories seems quite legitimate — but it’s the fourth one that’s really most important for this program. And you may be surprised to learn that the fourth category questions or even completely refutes the other three. Because the fourth category includes everybody. It’s based on the idea that we all have the potential for achievements that are wrongly considered possible for only a few. And there’s plenty of evidence for this. After all, the physical and mental challenges of learning to walk and talk are more difficult than anything we face later in life — yet the vast majority of human beings meet these challenges successfully.
True, it’s been argued that these primary skills are hardwired into our genetic makeup. But there are many things that the genetic argument can’t account for. In the 17th and 18th centuries, for example, it was simply expected that every member of the educated class would be able to read and speak several different languages, write poetry, play a musical instrument, and know much of the Bible by heart. Furthermore, all these skills were performed at a very high level and at very early ages. In other words, thousands of people routinely displayed abilities that today would be considered truly amazing — and perhaps even evidence of genius. But in those days what we call genius was just the fulfillment of society’s expectations.
When we speak of everybody being a genius in this sense, it doesn’t mean everyone has to get 800s on their SATs or have an IQ of 150 or above. It doesn’t mean everybody can play the violin or create beautiful oil paintings. Those are other ways of looking at the concept of genius. But right now, let’s go back to the origin of the word itself. A researcher by the name of Thomas Armstrong has done some excellent work on this. He points out that the word genius is closely related to the word genesis. It comes from Greek and Latin words meaning “beget,” “be born,” or ” come into being.” It’s also related to the word genial, meaning “festive” or “jovial.” In the Middle East, the term has been linked to the word jinni, or genie, the magical power that lay dormant and hidden in Aladdin’s lamp until a secret method released it.
Combining all these roots leads to a very powerful and beautiful definition of genius. It means “giving birth to your joy.” In this sense, genius is a word for an individual’s hidden potential. It also includes the process of discovering that potential and transforming it into action. But the first step is belief. The first step is certainty that you have greater capabilities than you thought. Not only do you have those capabilities — you also have a responsibility to develop them and put them to use.