How to be a Genius

In five steps, with five examples

William Blake, The Lovers Whirlwind from Dante’s Inferno. (source: Wikipedia)

Genius is an overused word that’s hard to pin down. The best definition is perhaps this: geniuses are those who expand the horizon of their domain. There’s no sure way of defining if a person is a genius, or at which point they become a genius, it’s more a matter of recognition.

We come to recognise a genius in the same way we come to recognise a convergence of events as one big, momentous event, like a revolution. In hindsight, some things become obvious, even if they weren’t at the time.

The Encyclopédie, edited by the French Enlightenment figure and genius, Denis Diderot, defines genius as (excuse the 18th century sexism):

“he whose soul is more expansive and struck by the feelings of all others; interested by all that is in nature never to receive an idea unless it evokes a feeling; everything excites him and on which nothing is lost.”

The truth is that as much as we romanticise genius, it isn’t written in the stars. The genius isn’t kissed by a muse or blessed by God. Talent can only get you so far. Geniuses have characteristics in common that make them so, and these characteristics can be acquired.

Having spent a long time studying the lives of geniuses and what gives them that title, I’ve whittled down five characteristics that all geniuses have in common, each of which can be found in the definition of the Encyclopédie:

  • Divergent thinking
  • Seeing from other perspectives
  • Never settling
  • Questioning conventional thinking
  • Audacious self-belief

I’ll spare you motivational slogans or platitudes about hard work. Productivity is not a prerequisite of genius. The fact is not all of the below examples worked hard, one of them barely “worked” at what he did at all.

Neither did all of them “fake it till they made it” by copying other geniuses. Nor did they routinely embrace failure, though they no doubt “failed” from time to time. None of those attributes that motivational coaches so love actually make a genius.

What actually underpins all of the five characteristics is courage, and that is perhaps why genius is so rare. All the geniuses below were attacked in some way. They were mocked, threatened and abused at the very least; one was sued, two jailed, one of those was executed. All this for genius.

If you nailed each one of these characteristics— and you’ll need a lot of courage to really nail them — you’d be a genius.

We may never be geniuses, but we’d do very well to try to be.

Divergent thinking — Pablo Picasso

Genius in simplicity… and divergent thinking. Picasso’s Bull’s Head from 1943. (photo Lars Wästfelt, cc license CC BY-ND 2.0)

We are mostly taught in convergent thinking, which is to create a single solution from different stimuli. Divergent thinking is when you come up with a number of solutions from one stimulus.

One exercise in divergent thinking is to take a single object and put it to multiple uses. Children are very good at this. When a child plays they can imagine a tennis ball to be a planet or a cardboard box to be a house… or a space station on the moon.

To be a genius, you need to think like a child. Pablo Picasso said, “it took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” He also said,

“Every child is an artist, the problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

Picasso was particularly brilliant in divergent thinking. He was able to “see” everyday objects in a very different way. A great example is the way he took the handlebars and seat of a bicycle and combine them to form a bull’s head.

Picasso constructed sculptures of people and animals from scrap and detritus: a toy car becomes a baboon’s head, a basket a child’s torso, some scrap metal magically becomes a goat.

What’s extraordinary about this is not that the sculptures are brilliantly made, it’s that Picasso saw these living forms in inert matter intended for another use. Like a child, he used divergent thinking to play with reality.

See from other perspectives — James Joyce

“I hold this book to be the most important expression which the present age has found.” So said TS Eliot of Ulysses, James Joyce’s Dublin-set novel that revolutionised literature. Ulysses hit the literary world like a bomb.

James Joyce had already proved himself a valuable writer, but his landmark novel is often voted by critics as the greatest for it’s virtuosity and insight into what it is to be human.

Joyce achieved this goal by putting himself as a writer in the shoes of the three main characters: Leopold Bloom, Stephen Daedalus, and Molly Bloom. Leopold is a Jewish advertising executive. Anti-semitism makes Leopold feel a stranger in his own town. Daedalus is an intelligent but lost young man and Molly Bloom is Leopold’s adulterous wife who feels stuck.

Joyce literally writes their thoughts in real time (Ulysses is set in one day) by using a technique called “stream of consciousness”. The last chapter of Ulysses, is entirely made up of the thoughts of Molly Bloom lying awake in bed at night in four gigantic, sprawling sentences. What we called the “monkey mind” of a bout of insomnia is woven into a tapestry of character that is transportive and profoundly moving.

The chapter begins and ends with the word “yes”: an affirmation of a memory. These memories are ones that Joyce fabricated from being with other people, remembering and observing in order to visualise a different experience of the world from his own. “Yes” is a sacred word. Geniuses say “yes” to themselves and “no” to other people’s demands.

Never Settle — Björk Guðmundsdóttir

Björk performing in London in 2018 (source: Wikipedia). Björk is an “auteur” — all kinds of creative fields and media converge to make up her body of work.

When New York’s Museum of Modern Art paid homage to Björk with a museum exhibition, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl trashed it. “And yet,” he wrote, “Björk is unscathed.” Why? Because she is a “restlessly experimental creative force, not a tarnishable brand.”

Mediocrities become a “brand”, they settle into a style and repeat it. Geniuses never settle. That makes them fallible, prone to failure. But no failure is really a failure if it’s panned for even specks of gold that are incorporated into a later success.

Björk has combined styles and genres like no other creative. To call her a musician is an injustice to her output. Her body of work incorporates fashion, performance, film and visual arts, all mixed up of course.

The barriers between these media melt, the difference between “high” and “low” art melts under the relentlessness of Björk’s creative insatiability for different. Today’s pop world is all about multimedia eclecticism, but it’s inconceivable without Björk’s groundbreaking work. “Who can doubt,” wrote the critic Jason Farago, “that Björk is the master of today’s cultural terrain.”

The recipe for Björk’s eclecticism is collaboration. Her list of collaborators reads like a Who’s Who of a 21st century global culture. Björk is what we would now define as an auteur: a director who brings a creative body of work together with many other great practitioners.

Always Question Conventional Wisdom — Socrates

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates. (source: Wikipedia). Socrates was eventually put to death for his relentless questioning of conventional beliefs.

Just because most people think a certain way it doesn’t mean it is right. Conventional wisdom once held that the world was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth.

It’s obvious to say, but it wasn’t until those commonly held beliefs were questioned by a few brave and wise people that they were exposed as false beliefs.

Socrates built a legacy out of asking awkward questions. What we now call the “Socratic method” (“elenchus”) is a process of questioning that draws those questioned to re-examine the truths that they take for granted. In Socrates’s tackled truths that may have even been dangerous to question.

As far as we know, Socrates never wrote his philosophy down. His “work” is recorded by writers — most notably Plato — and consist of dialogues.

Socrates was a cheeky conversationalist who often used irony. When he spoke to the young and wealthy Meno about virtue, he said, “I confess with shame that I know literally nothing about virtue.” What he said was partly true, did he really feel “shame”? It’s doubtful.

The philosopher would claim to be ignorant of a subject matter in almost every “dialogue” he took part in. Instead, by a steady process of questioning the person(s) who hold a particular view, he’d unravel their view and allow them to construct a rational understanding of a subject matter.

Of his own purpose, the philosopher said, “we shall be better, braver, and more active men if we believe it right to look for what we don’t know.” Not only “better, braver and more active”, but somebody who can change the world. A genius has the compulsion to question. Always.

Audacious self belief — Muhammed Ali

Supremely charismatic, Ali was as famous for his deeds out of the ring as he was for his extraordinary talent in it. He became more than a boxer, he became a cultural phenomenon thanks to his audacious self-belief. Ali on the cover of Esquire (source: Wikimedia Commons).

“It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.”

Self belief is essential but it’s not about egoism. Geniuses often express the feeling that something is working through them. There’s a fine line between self-belief and delusion, but that’s the nature of genius. To be a genius is to steer close to the edge of delusion.

Ali was undoubtedly a great boxer, still perhaps The Greatest, as he claimed. But it was his actions out of the boxing ring that made Ali a genius. Ali embodied the social and political transformation of the United States in the tumultuous 1960s.

Ali’s radical self-belief — essential for an athlete, and sharpened by his pre-fight trash talk (which often went too far)— allowed him to tackle social and political taboos head on. His extraordinary charisma, more than his boxing prowess, gave him a pedestal on which to mingle with the most powerful people in the world and tell them what they didn’t want to hear.

Ali went to jail for his beliefs. He came out of retirement to win the title, but had to take an excruciating battering to do so. He risked everything because he couldn’t help himself.

Ali’s political and social pronouncements were not about egoism. To be a genius is to be a vessel for something greater than a “self”. Ali considered himself to be a lightening rod for historical forces, for the tide of transformation, a nexus of change:

“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”

This is what Ali meant when he said it’s hard to be humble. A force had swept him along. To be a genius is to flow. When you get going, it’s hard — if not impossible — to stop.

Thank you for reading. I hope you learned something new.

The lessons of philosophy and history, their practical benefits for your life and work. Feel free to get in touch:

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