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What if calling someone “a genius” is the worst thing we could do for their creative output?
In this post, we discuss Elizabeth Gilbert’s views on creative genius in Part 2 of Big Magic, the April pick for Best Life Book Club.
Society’s idea of “genius”
Who do you consider a creative genius? Mozart? Prince? Maybe Shakespeare or Toni Morisson? The Beatles? Picasso?
In our society, a genius is a person who displays exceptional intelligence or creativity in a certain skill or field. We use the term genius as the utmost compliment for those who produce riveting, awe-inspring, and life-changing works of art and science.
But as a society, we have for so long glorified geniuses and prodigies and these “natural” talents that we are really doing ourselves a disservice in two ways.
Why our concept of “genius” is problematic
First, I think it makes the rest of us think that if we’re not one of those natural geniuses that can be one of the “greats” some day, why bother?
And second, we impose a crippling amount of pressure on these “greats” themselves by calling them geniuses. Yes, we run the risk of their egos growing so huge that they become arrogant and snobby buffoons. But perhaps more importantly, the pressure to continue to produce at this “genius” level can be too much. In Big Magic, Gilbert mentions the anxiety that bubbled up inside her every time a reporter asked her how she would top the success of Eat Pray Love.
In fact, after Jennifer Lawrence won the Best Actress Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook, a reporter asked her if she was afraid that her career “peaked too early” at age 22. Her answer was a look of terror and a half-joking, “Well, now I am!”
Elizabeth Gilbert proposes an alternative view of genius in Big Magic
Gilbert suggests an alternative theory that can liberate “artists from the confines of their own grandiosity, panic, and ego.”
What is this theory?
According to Elizabeth Gilbert, genius isn’t something we are. It’s something we have.
Gilbert adopts an ancient Greek and Roman belief that geniuses are “external [demons] of creativity” that live around us and are there to help us with our work. Thus, your “genius” is a mystical, fairy-like entity–a separate consciousness. It flits around, visiting us of its own accord, asking if we would like to work with it or not. (Hey, the book isn’t called Big Magic for nothing, am I right?)
This genius is in charge of bringing us ideas. Where we come in is whether or not we decide to listen to the idea and do the work required to bring it into fruition.
Why is Elizabeth Gilbert’s theory of genius better?
What do we gain from adopting the concept of genius Elizabeth Gilbert offers in Big Magic?
If we give up the idea that an exceptionally gifted person is a genius, and instead simply believe that each of us has access to a genius, it distances the creator from their work in psychologically important ways.
First, it will keep the creator’s ego in check and prevent complete narcissism when they experience a wild success because they are only partly responsible for it. After all, the winning idea “came to them” externally. They didn’t come up with it themselves.
Further, because the success can’t completely be attributed to the creator, if inspiration doesn’t strike again in as big a way, it’s not necessarily a comment on the creator. They aren’t “dried up.” They haven’t “lost their spark.” Their genius just hasn’t quite delivered yet.
This separation between creator and work can prevent the crippling pressure to live up to previous work and reputation that can cause creative paralysis, anguish, and even mental illness in so many artists and creative types.
And if you’re more of a viewer than a reader, I’ve got you covered!
Here is Elizabeth Gilbert speaking on genius in a TED Talk.
What do you think about Elizabeth Gilbert’s take on genius?
I think that on some level, we already agree with Gilbert’s views on genius because our language includes phrases like “when inspiration strikes” and “the idea just hit me, out of the blue!”
But what do you think? Is Elizabeth Gilbert’s take on genius too mystical and far-fetched for you? Or do you like it? Let me know in the comments below!