THE MacArthur Foundation last week announced its latest crop of “genius grants,” and once again — be honest now — you thought maybe, just maybe, this was your year.
And why not? These days, we’re all geniuses. We might be “marketing geniuses” or “culinary geniuses” or “TV geniuses.” Our children, meanwhile, are all Little Einsteins and Little Mozarts. Soon, even our bathrooms will contain a bit of genius. Oral-B is launching a “smart-toothbrush” called — what else? — the Genius.
We’re living in the Age of Genius Creep. It’s the intellectual equivalent of Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness,” a cheap knockoff so seductive we mistake it for the real thing. We have so diluted “genius” that it’s fast joining the company of “natural” and “mindful,” words rendered inert through overuse and misuse.
Admittedly, the word is tough to nail down. Sometimes we equate genius with raw intelligence. But many of humanity’s greatest breakthroughs were achieved by those with only modest IQs. Richard Feynman, the renowned physicist, scored 125 — respectable, yes, but hardly what you’d expect from the subject of a biography titled “Genius,” and too low to qualify for a study of young geniuses led by Stanford University psychologist William Terman.
Sometimes we think of the genius as someone extremely knowledgeable, but that definition also falls short. During Albert Einstein’s time, other scientists knew more physics than Einstein did, but history doesn’t remember them. That’s because they didn’t deploy that knowledge the way Einstein did. They weren’t able to, as he put it, “regard old questions from a new angle.”
The genius is not a know-it-all but a see-it-all, someone who, working with the material available to all of us, is able to make surprising and useful connections. True genius involves not merely an incremental advance, but a conceptual leap. As philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer put it: Talent hits the target no one else can hit; genius hits the target no one else can see.
We’ve lost sight of this truth, and too often bestow the title of genius on talented people hitting visible targets. A good example is the much-ballyhooed announcement earlier this year that scientists had, for the first time, recorded the sound of two black holes colliding, a billion light-years away. It was a remarkable discovery, no doubt, but it did not represent a seismic shift in how we understand the universe; it merely confirmed Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
As Plato observed, “What is honored in a country is cultivated there.” What do we honor? Digital technology, and the convenience it represents, so naturally we get a Steve Jobs or a Mark Zuckerberg as our “geniuses,” which, in point of fact, they aren’t.
Don’t get me wrong: the iPhone and Facebook are wondrous inventions. In many (though certainly not all) ways, they make our lives a bit easier, a bit more convenient. If anything, though, a true genius makes our lives more difficult, more unsettled. William Shakespeare’s words provide more disquiet than succor, and the world felt a bit more secure before Charles Darwin came along. Zuckerberg and Jobs may have changed our world, but they haven’t yet changed our worldview.
What about the Nobel Prizes awarded each year? Surely they are a mark of genius. Not so fast, says Dean Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis writing in the journal Nature: “Just as athletes can win an Olympic gold medal by beating the world record only by a fraction of a second, scientists can continue to receive Nobel Prizes for improving the explanatory breadth of theories or the preciseness of measurements.”
So, you might ask, if genius is such a slippery concept, why not dispense with it altogether? That’s what the MacArthur Foundation has done. Nowhere does it use the word “genius” in describing the grantees. (Everybody else does; we can’t help ourselves.) Maybe the foundation feels uncomfortable making such a judgment. Maybe its judges know that the “genius” designation bestows not only the gloss of celebrity, but also the weight of expectation.
In any event, it would be a mistake to purge the word from our vocabulary. It’s useful, not only for the lucky few out there who really are geniuses, but for all of us. Genius not only intrigues but inspires. It gives us something to aim for, even if we can’t always see the target.
We need to reclaim genius, and a good place to start is by putting the brakes on Genius Creep. Little Johnnie may be a bright 7-year-old with great promise, but please, please, don’t call him a genius. Not until he’s earned it.