the anti-genius game

Nobody likes genius, the idea, anymore. I have read more criticisms of the basic idea of genius more times than I can count, in long form and in short. Here’s one, and here’s one, and here’s one. Agnes Callard attacks the concept of genius by saying it’s bad for the geniuses and the people around them. (Coming out against genius is one of those things where the people who make the argument all act as though they are a lone voice crying out in the wilderness when a Google search should quickly disabuse them of that notion.) Certainly anyone still arguing that genius exists is at risk of the accusation that they only believe in genius because they secretly believe they are one.

Here is what I would like people to consider.

I hope everyone would agree that some people are very, very good at things. Some people are in fact so good at things that it amazes us, to the point that the way that they became so good at something takes on a kind of mystical quality, or at least an inscrutable one. If you’re like me, you sometimes feel almost shamed by how good some people are at some things, given your paucity of any special intelligence or skill. And it might be basketball or it might be math or it might be poker.

Now what are the possibilities here? One possibility is that these incredible talents seem preternatural because they are, because they emerge from shadowy origins and bestow themselves onto the few through processes we can’t describe or control. That is one possibility.

The other possibility is the one that Malcolm Gladwell and, well, the entirety of our culture want you to believe: that it’s all just hard work. People who seem incredibly talented simply worked hard and had perseverance. And specifically they worked harder and had more perseverance than you. If individual talent is a hoax and that all that is required to excel is the expression of will, that may be a more just world in some useless Platonic sense, and a world of more open possibility. But God, it is also a bleak world, one where all of us ordinary people are not just punished through our lack of access to supreme talent, but where we deserve it, where we not only fail to accrue the tangible benefits and psychic rewards of genius, we are presumptuous to ask for them thanks to our failures of will. Is this better?

Well, there’s no need to be consequentialist: I think some people are just good at things for reasons we can’t comprehend, that they have won a cosmic lottery and enjoy the fruits. I don’t think we live in a tidy moral universe where cause follows effect so simply or with such moral convenience. The people I’m critiquing would no doubt agree that our lives are everywhere buffeted by chance, but they can’t take that last crucial step. They can’t see that we get lucky and unlucky literally as we are being made.

This is at the core of everything, certainly a central idea of my book, and it’s why some people, such as Nathan Robinson, react so violently against it: they are unable to countenance the idea that we are not in control of our own lives, most certainly including our own selves. The idea of genius intrudes on a culture that insists again and again and again that our life outcomes are purely a function of our will, an idea beloved by right and left alike, and says: no. No, you do not control your destiny, and being lucky is as arbitrary and fickle as being unlucky. You never had a chance. Almost none of us did.

It’s a harsh world to believe in. But, you know. Life’s not fair.