In college, one of my housemates—a theater major—had a closet of costumes and racks of hats. Monday, he’d be Hoss from Bonanza. Tuesday he’d go Arab. Wednesday, he’d dress as a flame in red shoes, orange pants, yellow shirt, and the smokiest beret in his collection. At the time, I thought his protean life took courage, but now his flickering appearance looks like desperation. Something steady made him inescapably himself in every role. He wanted out. He sought some deep change costumes couldn’t effect.
When I have laryngitis, I can’t shut up. The novelty of a new voice overtakes me, and I listen to its grinding gears and squeaking axles with secret fascination. I use my new instrument until no sound emerges at all. In a couple of days, the familiar signature returns, and I’m back to being myself… reluctantly.
In the New York Times this week, David Brooks wrote a column about research on genius. Two books, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle; and Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, suggest that genius isn’t as flashy as we think. We like to believe geniuses are genetic freaks we weren’t born to be, but scientists suggest brilliant figures like Mozart and Ben Franklin resulted from practice rather than providence. As Brooks explains it, Mozart put in the requisite 10,000 hours at the piano at an earlier age and Franklin dissected, then imitated, the prose of writers he considered his betters. Like athletes, their continual training at a high level raised them to unbelievable heights.
Other vital ingredients, Brooks says, are “A profound sense of insecurity… fueling a desperate need for success,” and being, “error-focused.” In other words, to be a genius, you shouldn’t be too impressed with yourself. IQ is a poor predictor of success even in chess, Brook reports, and genius takes a relentless effort not to become automatic in your thinking or working:
The mind wants to turn deliberate, newly learned skills into unconscious, automatically performed skills. But the mind is sloppy and will settle for good enough. By practicing slowly, by breaking skills down into tiny parts and repeating, the strenuous student forces the brain to internalize a better pattern of performance.
Turns out being less able (and thus needing to be methodical) has long-term rewards. Part of me crows over this news because it confirms what I see as a teacher—the best learners practice, practice, practice. They satisfy slowest and welcome new demands and challenges. Over my career, I’ve seen hundreds of diligent students pass their more genetically talented classmates, yet the “overachievers”—and what a terrible term that is—get so little credit for what they’ve made of themselves. They have my greatest respect and admiration. They’re inspiring. Yet more naturally gifted students sometimes look down on them… as if scholastic achievement doesn’t count if you must work for it.
Brooks’s report on genius-as-habit isn’t all good news, however. How does someone my age, so worn in familiar paths, keep the automatic at bay? How do I do more than change my clothes… and change myself?
Desire is a start—specifically a perverse desire to suspect success. Anyone who has found a way ought to be looking for another way and might even look in the opposite direction. There’s genius in forgetting everything you’ve ever done. There’s genius in true reinvention.
Throughout his column, Brooks returns to a hypothetical budding novelist to illustrate his thinking. This novelist has lost her parents at a young age, but she has also met an established writer of similar background who helpfully identifies her missteps, someone to stand at her side challenging her. Maybe this someone offers hard-earned praise too, but the goading helps more because success is a moving horizon and you have to keep moving.
I’d love to have a task-master in my life. For someone my age—someone tired—the realization that genius is practice can be as intimidating as born genius. Yet, it’s a better way of seeing things. I’ll never be a genius—it seems I’d know by now if I were one—but, then again, maybe not knowing, disbelieving, is a hopeful beginning.