The Art of Genius

Genius is nothing more than the carrying of idle thoughts to their farthest conclusion. How many people, before Darwin, had pondered the origin of species?

Only one person dared to see the inquiry to its absolute end.

How many wondered about the relationship between time, space, and energy?

Only Einstein spent his life running after peculiar notions and questions no one seemed to answer.

Emerson once said,

“In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”

Every human, being a possessor and product of the most complex object in the Universe, the brain, is capable of ingenuity and innovation. What is rarer than curiosity and invention is the force of will and passionate nonconformity that allows the seeds of genius to be grown into great works and discoveries.

How many ideas have passed through your mind, been left unnurtured, only to be presented later on as the product of someone else’s mind, perhaps to great public esteem and profit?

I hesitate to call the required impetus to action confidence because I doubt confidence in his own genius was Einstein’s or anyone else’s primary motivator. I think rather than being full of aggressive gusto or rebellion, most great thinkers simply ignore the doubting voices that might put halt to their explorations.

Leonardo Da Vinci did not resent his detractors or plot their downfall. More likely he was so busy with his own interests and endeavors that few of the doubters even appeared on his periphery.

To be a genius is to pursue with great energy that which interests you most, and arouses in you an industriousness and competency beyond that of your average capability.

It is not a magical voice in the head or the soul, guiding the hand of a select group and leading them constantly to truth and beauty.

The Mind of a Master

As children, our creativity was bounded only by the duration and depth of our attention at any given moment.

As adults, our creativity is bounded not only by the quality of attention but also our specific evaluation of the worth and personal enjoyment interaction with a system might generate.

To put it simply, adults achieve consistent episodes of childlike creativity in those undertakings which they believe to be appropriate for their competencies, and most of all worthy of extended commitment of time. 

The most helpful deficiency of the immature brain is its inability to schedule and manage time. This removes a distractor and allows for profound engagement with systems that would not even be noticed by someone who had a conception of places to be and important things to accomplish.

A child can spend several hours working on chalk drawings because every child has no reason to doubt their own competence in the art, and the worth of their works. They approach the sidewalk with the same confidence and excitement as the professional adult sculptor goes to the clay.  In this way, the minds of the novice child and the adult master are the same.

In attempting to cultivate states of intense creativity, we must first believe in the value of whatever we might make. Otherwise, hours spent at the canvas will seem a waste of time, and thus those hours will not be spent, making mastery impossible.

 

Myth of the Tortured Artist

The “tortured artist” is one our society’s most toxic cultural archetypes. Not only because it puts forth an unsustainable identity framework for creative achievement, but because that framework isn’t effective for making great creative work possible. 

It is true that abnormally creative individuals are more likely to suffer from dramatic swings in emotion. But to assume that those swings are what makes creativity possible takes away from an artist’s authentic merit.

The tortured artist idea is simply another offshoot of that even more prevalent conception of creativity; that great works are produced in an unconscious, unwilled flash of brilliance, rather than over large amounts of time wherein a huge amount of competency within a medium is established.

The 20th century hosted an abundance of great talent, doomed to die at a young age. These culture heroes fell victim to the modern phenomenon of extreme and quickly cultivated fame, as well as a superabundance of powerful and unstudied drugs. In honoring them, it is important to separate their mistakes from their masterpieces and acknowledge that the lifestyle that destroyed them is not whatsoever what made them great.

In a perverse way, these assumptions actually make producing great works seem easier than it actually is. No one can sustain a flash of brilliance, or a period of profound depression over the amount of time it takes to become a great painter or novelist, or even to produce a single significant work. Most of the time in front of the canvas or blank page will be spent in mind state similar to that of a competent machinist or woodworker. The good work will come from long periods of deep focus and deliberate will. Such periods are not sustainable if one is depressed or manic.

Turbulent emotional spikes will perhaps give you a day of good work, but they will rob you of a lifetime of steady progress and production.

The proof is written in the historical record. With few exceptions, we see that minor talents are usually manic, drug addicted, and obsessed with a conception of creativity that relies on divine inspiration.

On the other hand, we see that the Shakespeares and Da Vincis of the world are highly industrious and of sober mind. This is not to say they were not emotional or sometimes divinely inspired; it is to say that such artists merely ornamented their creative lives with such extremes, and built the rest upon a solid framework of discipline and measured devotion.

 

How to Find Yourself

The art of finding one’s self is not so much constructing a statue, but pulling off a series of overlapping masks. Exhuming a soul from the wreckage of child hood traumas, social and cultural mandates, as well as institutionally imposed fears and expectations, is no easy task.

It is an impossible task if approached in the wrong way. Inaccurate conceptualizations regarding authenticity render any attempts at self-discovery counter intuitive. Instead of mining for precious ore, you will be adding stone to the dig site, making future attempts even more difficult and daunting.

Your truest self is that which exists independent of social and societal enforcements and selects which of those enforcements is good and proper for creating a sustainable and healthy mode of being for one’s self and the society as a whole.

This will be frightening news to many: In order to be worthy of knowing yourself, you must cultivate shrewd critical thinking skills and accurate mental models of how complex systems can function harmoniously. We are all complex systems ourselves, as well as cellular components of larger, nested systems.

No man is an island, and thus one does not discover the authentic self by merely exploring what is bounded by the shore. To actually know and island, to understand how it was formed, how it will degrade, and how it functions, the ocean and the earth must also be understood.

But what of the individual voice?

The individual voice is what speaks when you are not thinking, and not motivated to speak by institutional or social pressures.

It is not whatever chatter sounds in your mind, any more than a musician’s most authentic song would be random finger tappings on a violin.

Perhaps a few of those random taps would form the basis of a melody, which could later be refined into a song. The authentic self is what selects the good and the beautiful out of an infinite amount of possible choices.

It is what creates.

It is what edits.

And it comes to be known by a process of self-sorting; the wheat from the chaff, beautiful from ugly, noble from evil.

But it cannot be known without a correct knowledge of the world outside the self.

Productivity vs. Chaos

Productive use of one’s time is perhaps the primary goal of adult life in our society, yet we find it more difficult than ever to define what productivity actually is. 

Often we act under the assumption that productivity is simply whatever makes us feel productive, though that sort of circular logic fails in that its efficacy is not measured by way of an external result.

It seems to me the simplest, most helpful definition is:

Activities can be regarded as productive in so far that they bring about the desired result.

So is productivity than our true North, the thing by which our lives should be organized?

The answer to that question is contingent on your own trust of the human mind’s ability to determine what is actually worth pursuing.

If the desired results are destructive, can the activities that led to them be considered productive?

Alas, it seems we’ve fallen into a semantic game. The truth of the matter is, your own awareness is all that you can know to exist, and the only thing by which all else is measured. If you cannot trust your rational mind, you trust nothing at all.

Results are generated by right behaviors, and right behaviors are determined by analysis of previous results, which in turn are the data by which we can design systems to achieve desired results.

Easier said than done, though we may still take comfort that paths to success can be defined so simply.

Systems thinking may be our best defense against the chaotic world around us, and the disordered states of mind that arise as our ego scrambles to protect itself.

 

 

Life on Autopilot

Every organism aims at achieving maximum results with minimum energy expenditure.

Humans alone are presented with a conscious choice regarding how much energy they use in a day. Any individual can decide to spend many hours a day in vigorous exercise of the mind or body, or else in sloth and complacency with external forces. Few choose the former, but the ones who do often spend several years in a state of discomfort before achieving an exponential growth in available resources.

Many have marveled at the achievements of such “non-conformists” and attributed their success to a cultivated defiance of what is often called “autopilot” as if the high achieving outliers in our society live in a state of constant resistance to the overwhelming social pressures all around them.

What an exhausting existence that would be.

Rather, our capacity for “autopilot” is as useful to the art of living as it is to landing an aircraft. Every commercial airliner today still uses highly trained human pilots because rigid, structured systems of control are best used in tangent with a highly responsive, creative element. Such it is with our unconscious patterns of behavior, which we in large part control through the decisions of our conscious minds.

The key is not in discarding unconscious patterns altogether, but rather in selecting those patterns after conscious, disciplined consideration of your own goals and predilections.

 

 

How to Not Fool Yourself

We often operate under the false impression that we are born with an unearned understanding of our own talent and potential.

But the truth is, self awareness comes from a retrospective view of our past successes and failures. Only when we have meaningful feedback from the outside world can we understand what we’re good at, and what activities grant us lasting satisfaction.

How many people want to be rock stars or celebrities, never having interacted with a large crowd, or gone without sleep for several nights, or dealt with the scrutiny of an unforgiving general public?

People want to be rock stars, because they don’t understand what the experience of being a rock star actually is.

Its dangerous to pursue something that you don’t love, and that you’re not good at. And its incredible how easily the human mind can deceive itself into doing just that.

Every person who pursues a risky career path wonders at some point or another:

Am I kidding myself? 

The answer to that question isn’t difficult to derive. Action will tell you. Failure will tell you. This is why the idea that failure is a necessary to precursor to success is much more than a glib platitude.

Without failure, we don’t learn our own weak points.

Without success, we have no understanding of our own aptitudes.

The two skills you must possess to answer that terrible question:

Am I kidding myself? 

Are these:

  1. The ability to know failure from success, and stare unflinchingly into the face of either one.
  2. The bravery to deduce your own talents and shortcomings, not from daydreams and intuitions, but concrete evidence from past instances of action taking.