The older I get, the more fascinated I am by genius. The word itself brings to mind all kinds of images and ideas and likely preconceived prejudices. Is it simply a number? Does that number change?
More importantly, how hard is it to conduct your life if you are a genius?
What started me thinking about this is that there is a new series on the National Geographic Channel about Albert Einstein, called Genius. Einstein undoubtedly deserved to be called a genius and yet his private life was really chaotic. He was a lowly patent clerk and he changed the world. This is the blurb from IMDB:
"A series which explores how patent clerk Einstein could not get a teaching job or doctorate in his early life, yet managed to go on to develop the theory of relativity."
This book explores his letters, which illustrate his personal life struggles. "Albert Einstein's genius did not extend to his own love life, which was full of messy affairs, bumpy marriages and bitter endings, as judged by his letters to the women in his life."
This is a "making of" about the National Geo show:
I also recently watched a movie called Genius, about the author Thomas Wolfe, who was undoubtedly a genius and who also had a very messy private life. After he died, the New York Times wrote: "His was one of the most confident young voices in contemporary American literature, a vibrant, full-toned voice which it is hard to believe could be so suddenly stilled. The stamp of genius was upon him, though it was an undisciplined and unpredictable genius.... There was within him an unspent energy, an untiring force, an unappeasable hunger for life and for expression which might have carried him to the heights and might equally have torn him down."
I don't have any profound statements to make about being a genius but I do want to offer an observation.
When I was about 15 years old, I had been studying voice for a while with a retired music teacher and vocal coach in Knoxville, Pop Hamilton. I loved Pop. He was a huge man and he had a huge basso voice, which I heard many times when he would sing something for me. What he said to me has stayed with me now for more than thirty years and it's worth pondering. When I went in to warm up, and the accompanist was playing vocal exercises for me, we always started out low and went higher. It took a while because I had a huge voice, about 3-4 octaves. Pop would listen carefully while I ran through the gamut of vocal exercises, and finally he would say "You an Alto or a Soprano?" (I could sing tenor, too, but it's not a part most women sing.)
What he said to me was this: Dee, you have a huge voice. It's hard to control, your voice. Someone who can only sing one octave has a much easier time. You have to work much harder because you have a much bigger instrument.
Genius has to be the same way. If your IQ is very high, your mind can go in many different directions and you have to control it. My mother, who is a genius, told me the other day that her mind always has at least two things going on and sometimes three or four. When she was in high school she was sitting in class one day reading a book and the teacher noticed it and said "Miss Hasty since you are reading, why don't you tell me what I just told the class?" (or words to that effect). Mother repeated verbatim what the woman had just been saying in the lecture.
Einstein and Wolfe had huge intellects, huge gifts. How much harder is it to control your thoughts and ideas when they are so vast? How much harder is it to modulate yourself down to the level of the ordinary, and keep step with people whose intellects are tiny, compared to yours?
Handling being a genius is hard enough for men, who generally are much more able to control their lives, less at the mercy of biology and societal expectations. Imagine how much harder it is for women.
There's a new movie called Gifted, which explores that.
I've been thinking a good bit about this lately because my son is a genius. He doesn't believe it but it's true. I offer a couple of reasons why I think this. He came to America ten years ago knowing maybe 10 words of English, in May 2007. By Fall 2008 he was able to skip a grade in school. He was always bored in school, so it didn't appeal to him. After his sophomore year in high school I got him into a program called Gateway to College, which allowed him to take college classes and get high school AND college credit. Unfortunately, the program was shut down. Michael was very upset. He didn't want to return to high school and I didn't blame him, but there wasn't another choice, we thought. One of his Gateway professors suggested he just take the GED and see if he could pass. Without any preparation at all and after only 2 full years of high school, he took it and passed it on the first try.
Michael has an amazing intellect. He's never taken a formal IQ test but he did a little online test and tested at 150. I suspect it's probably a bit off, but I know he's smarter than I am and mine is 134.
It's much harder to control a huge brain. I know. My mother knows. My brother knows. That's why we all read, a lot. It's why I write.
I've never done well on standardized tests, though. I don't have a standardized brain.
Faith helps. I have a strong faith that God is beside me every step of my life, and it comforts and strengthens me.
Maybe as a society we need to spend some resources helping people who are geniuses fulfill their true potential, instead of trying to keep them on short leashes, in lockstep with the ordinary. Maybe then their private lives would be happy, instead of tortured. Maybe then geniuses could really fulfill their true potential, and change the world for the better.
It's an idea worth considering, right?