The Genius Myth
A few days ago I had the chance to meet WSJ investigative journalist John Carreyrou, who was in town on a book tour for his new book Bad Blood. If you’re unfamiliar with Carreyrou, he’s the journalist who broke the shocking story of fraud and deception at Theranos, the health technology company that reached a stratospheric valuation of $9 billion in 2014.
Theranos was vaulted to success in part due to the charisma and brilliance of its young CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. Holmes drew comparisons to Silicon Valley titans like Steve Jobs, and countless investors trusted her with their millions.
During his book tour talk, Carreyrou lamented that many people have begun to buy into the hero founder narrative. We fall into the trap of thinking that some founders (Steve Jobs, Elizabeth Holmes, etc.) have been gifted with unexplainable brilliance that makes them virtually untouchable. They are entrepreneurial soothsayers, so we follow them blindly.
In other words, we buy into the genius myth.
The genius myth is the idea that some people (“geniuses”) are in a different league than us, and we will never be able to compete.
This myth is pernicious, and it unfortunately impacts much more than just the world of investing. It permeates the way we relate to others and the way we think about ourselves.
There are two key reasons why we should reject the concept of “genius”:
(1) The genius myth limits our perception of our own potential.
Believing in the genius myth places an upper limit on what we think we can accomplish, as we do not classify ourselves in that upper strata of potential reserved only for the unique class of “geniuses.”
We know we can still achieve success in life, but we mentally reserve the highest levels of attainment for the Einsteins, Michelangelos, and Zuckerbergs of the world.
This belief functions as a false ceiling on our potential. We don’t dream big enough or take the risks necessary to achieve greatness because inside we’re not sure we have what it takes. The myth holds us back.
The myth also lets us off the hook by whispering that we don’t need to compete with the “genius” class.
“Our vanity, our self-love, promotes the cult of the genius. For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking…To call someone ‘divine’ means: ‘here there is no need to compete.’” -Frederich Nietzsche
We all have brilliance inside of us. We just need to exert the time and effort to mine it, which brings us to the second reason…
(2) The genius myth discounts the importance of hard work.
“There’s no talent here, this is hard work. This is an obsession. Talent does not exist, we are all equal as human beings. You could be anyone if you put in the time. You will reach the top, and that is that. I am not talented, I am obsessed.” -Conor McGregor
Chalking up someone else’s success to “genius” is a slap in the face. Terms like that imply the person was born with a gift — they are a fortunate recipient in the genetic lottery. While that may indeed be true (everyone is born with a different level of intelligence and raw ability), millions of decisions after birth determine what each of us will truly become.
Many of the greats throughout history understood this and wanted to be praised for their work ethic rather than their raw talent.
Founding Father Alexander Hamilton was known to have an outsized ego, but he did not hesitate to credit his hard work for his success: “Men give me credit for some genius. All the genius I have lies in this: when I have a subject in hand, I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me.”
Was Hamilton brilliant? Absolutely. But he was also renowned for his prodigious work ethic and ability to spend 6–8 straight hours reading and writing.
Famed inventor Thomas Edison believed “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” There is the tendency to think, “Sure, it’s easy for Edison to say that because he was a freaking genius.”
Yes, Edison was absurdly smart, but he is also known as the man who tried 10,000 different filaments before finding one that could create a commercially viable light bulb.
In a raw moment, Michelangelo shared similar feelings about the work that helped him attain his success: “If people knew how hard I worked to achieve my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.”
Michelangelo’s artistic ability rivals anyone else in history and he undoubtedly was born with a gift. However, we shouldn’t discount the fact that he tirelessly labored to learn new skills and worked until the week of his death at age 88.
Hard work is the mechanism that allows us to tap into brilliance. It opens the floodgates of genius in all of us.
Hard work is also the differentiator between the people whose names grace the pages of our history books and the countless number of equally gifted individuals who didn’t put in the effort to fully realize their talent.
How many other Hamiltons were out there who were insanely brilliant but didn’t devote thousands of hours to reading and writing?
How many other Edisons were out there who couldn’t muster the determination to test the 100th filament, yet alone the 10,000th one?
How many other Michelangelos were out there who tasted early success and thought they had “made it,” so they stopped striving to learn new things?
“Everyone who strives to reach his potential must pay a price — in time, effort, resources, and opportunities missed. Many people fail to pay the price that their potential demands.” -John Maxwell
Behind every “genius” is a mountain of determination, an ocean of sweat, and a lifetime of other missed opportunities.
What are you doing to mine the brilliance inside of you?