You are a Genius and an Idiot!

Updated: Mar 28, 2021

Hi all,

I had an interesting conversation with a friend at work the other day, which I think might be worth recounting here. Like many of the conversations I have, I can’t remember how it started, but somehow or another, we ended up talking about talent. My friend was adamant that some folks are born with special gifts which enable them to excel. I was positing the position that I raise in the Code that we are all born with equal inherent abilities. However, as we grow up, through the effects of choice and chance, we develop abilities in different areas.

Now, my friend in illustrating his view that some folks are just naturally stronger, faster or more intelligent than others provided me with several examples. The first example was that of a British footballer whose abilities were discovered as a small child by his father. “He had never played before, yet his dad saw he was good, so he nurtured it”. And the second was Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity. My friend asked, “If there was no such thing as genius, how did he come up with that?” Such are the grounds that the conversations at my work range between.

I countered his assault with the following points. Using my four children as an example, I explained how, despite the similarity of their upbringings and obvious genetic similarity, they had all taken different paths and took different amounts of time to learn to walk and in virtually every other milestone. It was not that one was faster, stronger or more talented that led them to walk first, talk first or do anything else better or quicker than the others. It was rather due to the myriad of choices they made and the impact of chance.

Consider that a newborn has no knowledge whatsoever. They are literally a blank slate. As they develop and grow, they encounter or observe things that are effectively chance occurrences to their perspective. As they desire to move, they begin to trial stratagems to propel themselves. Through a process of trial and error, they figure out a stratagem that allows for initial locomotion. In my oldest child’s case, it was rolling, while in my youngest child’s case, it was via making worm-like movements. Depending on the stratagem that works for them, which is itself dependent on the clothes they are wearing, the floor surface, etc., their muscles and brains develop in divergent ways.

This process of divergence happens with every decision they make, every chance occurrence that leads them down one path or another, and is of course affected by that unquantifiable element of temperament. Each and every one of the decisions compounded over subsequent years leads to the development of what we call talents or so-called innate abilities. In this way, both Einstein and the titular footballer can be seen as being essentially the same. Einstein’s choices and chances led his development towards academic and, in particular, logical excellence. The footballer’s conversely led to physical mastery.

Another way of thinking about this is to imagine a line graph. At birth, we start at the origin, and depending on our choices and chances, our trend begins to develop. As is natural in statistics (and life), if this distribution is effectively random (as it will be over a large population) we will tend to end up with a standard distribution. I.e. most of us will end up with abilities that are around the mean. The positive outliers at a personal level will be what we consider our strengths and the negative outliers will be our weaknesses. Those who are considered talented or geniuses are simply those who, through chance and choice, have ended up with abilities in one or more areas that are deviations from the statistical mean. I.e. Einstein in the areas that govern physics competence, and the footballer in those that predicate ability on the field.

The good news is that this divergence is an ongoing process. Through effort and persistence, we can always adjust our trajectories. Just consider how you improve as you practice any skill. Talent is simply the conjunction of choice, chance and hard work. To beg off by ascribing to others’ abilities to natural superiority is to excuse yourself from trying.

It’s never too late or too early to begin. We may not all become Einstein or Renaldo, but we can all become better than we are now. We are never guaranteed more than today. None of us knows when we will die or what disasters may strike us. We know on waking only that, for this day alone, we are alive and able to act in such a way as to benefit our families and our communities.

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