Saturday, May 2, 2009



New York Times columnist David Brooks is evolving into my philosophical foil. Almost every article he writes fundamentally contradicts my views on a particular issue. Two days ago, he wrote an editorial about genius and talent called “Genius—The Modern View.” See N.Y. Times, April 30, 2009. In essence, he echoes several modern studies that conclude: (1) “Talent is overrated” because genius depends not on some “otherworldly access to truth” or a “divine spark,” but rather the ability to “practice one’s craft” for many, many hours; and (2) Genius is not “mysterious,” but rather results from “the ability to develop a deliberate, strenuous and boring practice routine” that focuses on technique and weeds out “errors.” In Mr. Brooks’ estimation, anyone can be a genius. They just have to spend all their waking hours perfecting their art.

There is something wrong with this analysis. Hours alone cannot determine genius. There is something intangible about genius that even the most ambitious worker cannot fabricate through a “deliberate, strenuous and boring practice routine.” Obviously not everyone can be Einstein, Shakespeare or Mozart, no matter how much they practice or punish themselves. And there obviously have been millions who have aspired to the heights reached by geniuses. Incessant practice did not aid these forgotten, hard-working millions; we only remember the elite few who had “something more.” Under Mr. Brooks’ calculus, however, anyone can be a genius as long as they have the proper work ethic. Yet this cannot be true. There are millions of people who dedicate their entire waking lives to stockbroking, lawyering, banking, investing and real estate selling. They become unbelievably “good at their games,” yet they are not geniuses; they are average people who make money. There are even millions of people who put their heart and soul into acting, painting, writing, science and other “creative arts,” yet only a few distinguish themselves as “true geniuses.” Practice is essential, but it is not the determining factor. There must be something else at work. “Genius” implies something greater, something transcendent, something unique and something special. To think that any slob with ambition and a clear calendar can become Mozart is simply unjustifiable. Just remember Amadeus: Salieri spent his whole life practicing to be a great musical genius, yet Mozart brushed him aside with his innate, “special gifts.” Both men practiced incessantly. Both had ambition. But we hail only Mozart as the “genius” among the two.

Mr. Brooks’ essay aims to “debunk genius.” It aims to tear down the temples we build around men and women whom we regard with “reverential awe.” But I argue there is a reason we regard genius with “reverential awe:” It is unique and special. While genius may not be supernatural or reflect a “divine spark,” I believe it reflects that some individuals are more dynamic, more creative and more revolutionary than others. Geniuses tend to be rugged individuals who see things differently than the “average man.” Mr. Brooks, on the other hand, tends to think that anyone can “manufacture genius” merely by imitating and copying the techniques employed by others. While a genius always knows what precedes him, he is not content with imitation. Geniuses create and invent; they do not simply follow in others’ footsteps. Einstein mastered the “state of the art” in physics before developing his own unique, brilliant new theories. Shakespeare mastered the classical literary tradition before writing brilliant new works; he added to that tradition with his own unique voice. And Picasso intensely studied classical painting before breaking out to make his own, unique mark on the art world. All these geniuses had something more than the mere ability to practice boring routines. They were unique individuals with something special to offer the world. Combined with their work ethic, that “special something” made them unforgettable and important. I am not afraid to hold these geniuses in “reverential awe.” They had something I do not have. And no measure of practice or dedication will elevate me to their level.

Mr. Brooks’ argument perplexes me because it attempts to “democratize” genius. It also attempts to reconcile genius with the American notion that “hard work” can achieve any goal. Although this may sound elitist, I do not think that genius is “democratic.” One either has the capacity for brilliance or one does not. Anyone can wholly dedicate themselves to a “strenuous, deliberate and boring” practice routine in any life pursuit. In fact, millions of Americans do exactly that. Traditional employment demands huge numbers of waking hours, great endurance, forbearance, humility and discipline. Yet everyone who holds down a job is not a genius. On the other hand, perhaps the ability to focus intently on any sort of activity for “many, many hours” is a species of genius in itself. But it is not true genius; it is studied proto-genius. Salieri is the best example. He had the ambition, drive and time to develop a “strenuous, deliberate and boring” practice routine in music. He devoted his life to music. He hoped for brilliance. His work ethic found him employment, but not brilliance. He was not a true genius; he was a proto-genius. He merely worked hard at a boring practice routine and performed well according to that routine. His work lacked the “divine spark” that Mozart brought to his performances and compositions. It was technically apt, but not memorable. Applying this lesson, we can generalize: According to Mr. Brooks’ “long hours plus routine” formula, men may become “proto-geniuses,” but not “true geniuses.”

Americans do not like the idea that there may be “better people” in the world simply because they have unique talents. They cling to the notion that men are “equal” and have the capacity to become “great and successful” through fanatically hard work. Mr. Brooks’ approach to genius reflects this American discomfort with “innately brilliant individuals.” In his essay, Mr. Brooks downplays IQ as a “reliable predictor of future success.” By making that observation, Mr. Brooks rejects the idea that “innate talent” plays a substantial role in genius. Rather, he stakes his belief in hard work over talent. Taking things a step further, he stakes his belief in hard work and discipline over innate intelligence. In so doing, he conflates the American idea of “success” with genius. According to Mr. Brooks, “geniuses” are just “regular guys” who apply a “strenuous, deliberate and boring” practice routine for 16 hours a day or more. This lifestyle description also applies to the “successful American” who spends all his time working at a boring job. In the end, he makes money and becomes powerful. But geniuses are not always successful. In fact, many fail miserably in life, go insane and die penniless (Mozart, Nietzsche and Kafka come to mind). Why? If they worked hard, as Mr. Brooks prescribes, they should have made it. The reason lies in the fact that “true genius” is not accessible to everyone. Hard work alone does not create it. In fact, geniuses work hard at their own pace. They march to a different drummer than the rest. Put simply, they are more innately intelligent than the rest. And that makes Americans uncomfortable.

In sum, I do not believe that hard work and “boring practice routines” create true genius. Rather, I believe that Mr. Brooks’ essay presents a formula for “proto-genius” analogous to traditional American “success through employment.” In my view, true geniuses are world-changers. They dutifully study and understand the traditions that preceded them, but they are not content merely to master and repeat those traditions. They work extremely hard to perfect their crafts, but they have different motivations than most “average” people. They see things in different ways. If they did not, we would not remember them. True genius creates and revitalizes; proto-genius simply recapitulates and performs. Mozart was a true genius; Salieri was a proto-genius. A true genius spends his time thinking about new and revolutionary ideas; a proto-genius spends his time practicing, imitating and preparing for another technical performance. Proto-geniuses are consummate performers. Their technique is unparalleled. But they create nothing. Hard work and “boring practice routines” may result in masterful technique and performance. Yet without the “divine spark” inherent in true genius, they will make no lasting mark on history. They will be “merely successful” in their chosen field.

I am passionate about genius because I am passionate about individuality. In my view, American life constantly challenges individuality. On the one hand, we learn that we are all unique individuals with “something special” to offer the world. On the other hand, we learn that we must “conform to the success paradigm” in order to survive, and that means sacrificing our unique talents to “hard work, practice and discipline” for some employer. Truly great individuals break that paradigm with genuinely unique ideas and perspectives that we remember. They work hard, but they do not sacrifice their “special something” in the process. It is that “special something” in every individual that contains the “divine spark” to true genius. Hard work develops the craft. But only true genius makes it last beyond the generations. That is why individuality is important, despite all the impulsions to suppress it.

Mr. Brooks fails to comprehend that. In his view, mere work can replace the “special something” that propels true genius. I strongly disagree. Without the “special something,” there is only proto-genius, not true genius. When it comes to true genius, hard work is necessary, but not sufficient.


Tarra Slovan said...

Very interesting. Thanks for posting it! I agree with you and think Mr. Brooks is just yapping for yapping's sake.

SteveW said...

Once again the Oesterhoudt F-16 swoops in to drop 500-lb bombs on David Brooks ant hill. Michael Jordan stood above the rest, because although everyone else in the NBA gives 98% to hone their craft, he gave 99%. Bo Jackson can pick up a golf club and drive the ball 300 yards even though he's never touched a golf club before because, well, whatever.

It is fascinating to see someone doing something they are truly talented at - when they are in their zone, so to speak.

I do believe genius is more common than is typically believed, but not in the Brooks you can create it with hard work way. Rather, I think many of our potential geniuses never find what they are truly good at. How many potential Mozarts dug ditches for a living and were never realized?