Saturday, October 01, 2005

Dispelling Notions of a Misunderstood Genius

The Harry Potter books are wildly successful throughout the world in large part because the title character with which the reader is intended to identify possesses some tremendous capabilities not yet fully revealed, and surprising even to himself. This foreshadowed greatness, rather than creating a weight of responsibility and expectation of equally great burdens, instead focuses on the "hey, look how awesome it will be" factor.

This taps very directly into a typically under-developed sense of personal potential in the reader. Especially in the United States, where the conflicting cultures of "you can do anything you put your mind to" and the mundane reality of "would you like fries with that" create an unresolved inner belief that one is destined for greater things than "this" (current circumstance); and thus never fully accepting the present reality, but detaching, dissociating, and responding with great frustration until much of it collapses unsupported by daily care and attention.

These impressions of unfettered success waiting to be discovered are compounded and artificially inflated by a national preoccupation with celebrity and the massive success of those already well acquainted with privilege. The inner turmoil arising from an inability to reconcile the reaching for stars with the feet on the ground often lead to the middle-management whining and passive-aggressive behaviors so commonly found in the work place; illustrated be the defining points A.2, A.5 and A.6 from the *DSM-IV (TR):

  • (2) complains of being misunderstood and unappreciated by others
  • (5) expresses envy and resentment toward those apparently more fortunate
  • (6) voices exaggerated and persistent complaints of personal misfortune

These (among the other points in the same text) create a self-reinforcing perspective of buried greatness, the fulfillment of which is continually deferred. Not wanting to be the reason for the perceived failure (amplified in weight disproportionately high even to the exaggerated concepts of potential), the blame (and often proposed impetus for resolution) is pushed firmly on to others. In its most developed form, any attempted aspiration is also sabotaged by the aspirer in order to maintain the un-happy status quo wherein the identity now lay, and responsibility is still firmly beyond the horizon.

This post is about the mythical genius though, so I'll get back to that.

This desire then, to see oneself as phenomenal (even if unfulfilled or unsupported by evidence, and if not descending into the passive-aggressive behavior pattern) can cause an incompetence expressed in the confidence of the individual so-believing. This person is then unable to see the possible drawbacks of his or her proposed plans of action, feels exempted from the mundane rules (created for "others" to follow), and finds ways of twisting perception of nearly any outcome into a success - which measure of success may often in reality come "in spite of" rather than "because of" the decisions which were made. Give them a little financial backing or relationships to a few connections in "the biz" (whichever "the biz" it my be) and voila: incompetent leadership in prominent and visible positions reinforcing the lot of the stereotypes outlined here (to which I will also add the belief that one need not actually do anything / exert effort to achieve such success).

Genuine successes do exist, with examples of astounding capability untempered by formal training: musical genius of previous centuries (Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky [less recognized in this capacity because he was celebrated somewhat in his own life time, but this can be discussed later]), touted contemporary intelligence in science (Sagan, Eintstein, Hawking), the celebrated savant (a la "Rainman") where supposedly latent mental capacity is brought to light. These extremely rare circumstances do exist.

However, mistaking desire for capacity, and uninhibited confidence for success, do not a savant make. I do firmly believe that most success is as a result of the hard work of those who achieve it, over many many long years of toil. I also believe one must know and recognize inherent limitations and struggle to overcome the same as opposed to deferring to another path still intent on finding that buried genius (for example, believing that some other easy path of little resistence will still yield the unbridled capacity for greatness).

I need to recognize and remember this as much as anyone. Much of my life I've not had to work hard at the acquisition of talent - the environment in which I was raised presented ample opportunity for self-actualization with exposure to sciences, the arts, good literature, and imagination. However, this will only carry me so far - the extents to which I have become much better acquainted in recent years. I'd rather not be satisfied with the limitations as I've encountered them, but I will not be able to easily dismiss or circumvent them. I must better myself through concerted effort in formal education to advance and improve one small step at a time until the hurdles are overcome and I can stand victorious. Much patience, much time and effort. Hopefully with great return.

Wiser people than I have made mistakes I should be learning from - otherwise I, and most all the world, will at best be gifted amateurs.

*p.791 - "Research criteria for passive-aggressive personality disorder": American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 2000.

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