Where Does Genius Come From?

The term “genius” is perhaps the most over-used and under-comprehended term in the English language. In the 14th Century, someone’s “genius” was thought to be an external force guiding one’s creative endeavors – usually an angel.

As the western world became more interested in science, the term began to signify an innate ability to do something extraordinary in the 18th century. Leveraging the new science of eugenics, Francis Galton, the half-brother of Charles Darwin, theorized that genius, in the form of extraordinary ability within a narrow set of questions could be measured with a standardized test. He also initiated the debate between “nature vs. nurture,” meaning that we weren’t sure if one’s abilities came from your genetic makeup or the influence of your environment and upbringing.

More recently, as Goleman proposed a theory of multiple intelligences, popular culture started broadening the term to mean just about anything that someone could do particularly well. So we have literary geniuses, musical geniuses, rap and hip hop geniuses, athletic geniuses, business geniuses and so on. One might argue that the word “love” has gone through a similar transformation from a very narrowly defined term to one that is broadly applied. (When was the last time you “loved” a movie or nice dinner out?)

Based on what we know today, your brain is the source of your thoughts, your actions and your decisions, everything you do and feel. No matter how we define the word, there is no doubt that some people in every generation appear heads and shoulders above the rest in terms of one or more type of performance. You can google “genius” and come up with a variety of lists  purporting to be rankings of historic and/or present day geniuses. Depending on who generates the list, you’ll recognize the names of Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein, Mozart and others – along with lesser known names that are just as “genius-worthy.”

So what is genius, anyway? Much like art, we seem to know it when we see it. And yet, we’re struggling to define what it is. I have no idea how to define genius, but I  have a feeling that we will learn more from the advancement of neuroscience in the coming years and decades as we study Kotler’s Flow and other manifestations of peak brain performance.

Can you imagine a world where learning disabilities are studied only as a historical curiosity in the civilized world, like scurvy or polio? Where employers no longer build special programs for their ‘high potentials” because that term applies equally to everyone?

What will we do with these new discoveries? Will we put our powerful super-charged brains to work to cure cancer, eradicate hunger, even save our rapidly failing planet? Or, will we invent more efficient engines of war and find new ways to violate each other’s privacy? The answer to this question doesn’t depend on the outcome of some future game of chance. It will be a choice decided by our present and future actions. And we will have no one to credit – or blame – but ourselves.

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