Are Geniuses Real?

Are Geniuses Real?

When I read about people doing great things, I can't but view their life as a matter of destiny - it was all but decided that they would be great. It's disheartening for people that want to do important work. Work that shifts the world and the way people see it. Because if doing great work is pre-decided, and you're not doing it, you likely never will.

There's a wonderful quote by Mark Kac, a mathematician who observed Richard Feynman at Cornell:

There are two kinds of geniuses, the “ordinary” and the “magicians.” An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what they have done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. They are, to use mathematical jargon, in the orthogonal complement of where we are and the working of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible. Even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark. Richard Feynman is a magician of the highest caliber.

History books love to recount the tales of geniuses, but I suspect that very few of them are magicians. If you had the sixteen-year-old Steve Jobs or Elon Musk in school with you, they'd seem impressive, but not totally unlike your other friends. I know a few people that were at school with Musk. Some said he was bright, most didn’t know he was there.

That makes me uncomfortable. Because if those people are more similar to us than we thought, they must have worked exceptionally hard to achieve what they did. And if they were able to do what they did only because of a sprinkle of magic, then it's not our fault if we can't do something as good.

A belief in pure genius provides an excuse - an excuse to be lazy, to back out of the work, and to stop the pursuit of building something great. It's an excuse to say, "Let the geniuses take care of it." But it's not geniuses who built the world - it's everyday people like you and me. If the world is going to continue to progress, sitting around waiting for a genius to appear won't cut it.

Regardless of what you want to do, it's extremely unlikely that you're not good enough. There are exceptions, but in just about everything, you're more than capable, you merely need to do the work.

In Roman religion, the genius is a divine nature, present in every individual person, place, or thing. Much like a guardian angel, the genius would follow each man from the hour of his birth until the day he died. If genius exists in us all, the excuse of waiting for the genius to do the important work is a poor one.

To reiterate what I said above: regardless of what you want to do, it's extremely unlikely that you're not good enough. You merely need to do the work.


I love the idea of living in the same world as magicians. A world where reality can be altered and magicians leave everybody they encounter feeling a mixture of awe and perplexity. I choose to believe magicians exist because a world where people are brought to tears by a piece of art, where the impossible becomes a reality, is beautiful.

But if I ever want to do work that makes people feel something, work that changes the way people see the world, I'd be wise to forget about the existence of genius. Because when a belief provides an excuse for being lazy, you're more likely to produce magic by discarding it.

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