Recently, I came across this list of pointers to help you think ‘like a genius‘. It is all perfectly serviceable advice, though I do recommend reading Denise Shekerjian’s Uncommon Genius for a more usefully contextualised account of what its like to be an uncommon thinker. At the same time, the list is ultimately useless as a means of enabling you to think new thoughts that are not merely new, but have powerful implications. The reason for this is not that the list isn’t true, it’s simply that pursuing your own thought ultimately requires you to follow those thoughts where no-one else has been and there is no way to know whether you are doing it ‘right’. Genius is simply stupidity that eventually pans out.
Do you balk at the word ‘stupidity’? You think, perhaps, that I am stating the case too strongly. We prefer to think of the thing that enables great ideas as dedication, or self-belief, or vision, something with the positive overtones of knowing where you are going to get to and patiently traveling towards that destination. But you don’t know that. As Shekerjian’s book shows, as she is careful to include in her story of uncommon genius, it is lonely to think your own thoughts in your own way for very long without any kind of social recognition. It may simply be that you are thinking yourself into a place where no-one else wants to go, and never will go. You may simply be wrong.
Nevertheless, that is what it means to think your own thoughts. You have to risk being utterly stupid as far as other people are concerned to think the things you want to think. Obviously, this is hedged around with difficulties. What if you are simply uninformed? What if you can’t make the idea work, either through lack of time, resources or technique? On the whole, if you are diligently honing your technique I think you’re unlikely to end up with a complete failure, but it could happen.
One of my earliest experiences with this was in high school physics. Everyone in the class was given an experiment, about which we had to hypothesize. It was a simple question: why do cola drinks fizz when you put ice cubes in them. I did not understand physics class at all. It was always difficult for me to understand what we were supposed to be paying attention to, and what we meant to exclude. I am a global thinker by nature, which made it difficult for me to grasp physics in a classroom where ‘instruction’ consisted of simply giving us very specific exercises to solve from a textbook. Nevertheless, I took to this exercise, because it seemed to me to be about logical thought, in which I was quite skilled. It turned out to be one of the worst learning experiences of my life. Not only was my hypothesis wrong, but the teacher gave a little overview of the things we had suggested and concluded by describing the ‘stupidest’ solution, which was mine, and which the whole class proceeded to laugh about. He wasn’t so cruel as to tell them who had come up with the solution, but it did the job because he knew that I knew I was the idiot, and I sat and listened to the class laugh at me.
I don’t, to this day, really know how ‘stupid’ my idea was, but the experience of having thought something so completely different has stayed with me a long time, and still haunts me when I am working on something that I haven’t seen anyone else say in my own field of professional expertise. Has no one said because its obvious, stupid, banal or genius? As templates for innovation, creativity and ‘genius’ are increasingly offered to us, I wonder how much harder it is to have thoughts that have not been simply pre-arranged by the social conventions we have for recognising some thoughts as genius and others as stupid. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility to imagine that we will soon have rubrics for determining exactly how genius something is.
My preferred definition of genius, if we must use that word, is the capacity for paying deep attention to what we sense and think. It’s the ability to see things clearly, without feeling compelled to put them into an explanatory framework that you have carried in from elsewhere, or to take up the position of wise/foolish in relation to the thing that you are trying to see.
Its important, in other words, to give up the desire to be the uncommon thinker and simply to do it. In this respect, psychological advice that encourages us to work on our strengths and not on our weaknesses isn’t completely crazy. I am still dubious of the moral implications of this advice (something for a later post, perhaps), but it is true that if you find it easier to pay to patterns of physiological differentiation than patterns of narrative, then you should become an anatomist and not worry about the fact you’ll never be a literature scholar. But even once you are an anatomist or a literary critic, you must still preserve the mental space to think your own (stupid) thoughts.