A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell published a theory which, to quote Douglas Adams, “quite caught the public imagination at the time”, and it was this: Genius does not exist.
There is not, it is said, some secret gene for outstanding talent. People at the very top of their field or profession only get there one way: practice.
Setting aside for a moment the sticky question of whether or not some people are born with an innate determination and desire to work hard toward a goal that the rest of us simply don’t have, I want to contend that the premise as a whole is a “tissue of fibs” (Blackadder that time!).
Of course, it all sounds very good, and there have been numerous studies showing that the most significant factor in becoming a top musician, dancer, sportsman or businesswoman is persistent, consistent hard work, but those people aren’t usually the ones we mean when we talk about genius.
Mozart wasn’t writing and playing music at the age of 5 because he had decided to devote 10,000 hours to learning the skills; he was an unusually gifted individual.
Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing didn’t make their world-changing discoveries and innovations just by working hard – though they certainly did that; they were/are unusually gifted individuals.
Anyone working at Bletchley Park during WWII would tell you that the men and women breaking the Germans’ fiendishly difficult – ostensibly unbreakable – codes, were far from normal people who just worked hard at finding patterns in random strings of letters.
And Douglas Adams didn’t come up with the manically brilliant, multi-dimensional hilarity of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by getting up early and applying himself to the mastery of his craft. By all accounts he spent far more time taking baths and enjoying the sound of deadlines whooshing past than actually hammering at a keyboard or sketching out a tricky bit of plot.
This is genius; this ability to conjure from thin air – or from a jumble of chemicals, musical notes or mathematical formulae – the connections and patterns and beautiful, elegant solutions that have eluded the best minds and defeated the most diligent workers for decades.
To say that these people are nothing special, to suggest that given time and application you or I could have come up with Don Giovanni, the theory of relativity or the “small, yellow, leech-like” Babel fish is to diminish the towering achievements of such men.
More than that, it is to elevate humanity to a position it is not fit to occupy.
It means that the only person responsible for your success is you. The only thing standing between you and anything you want to achieve or become is you. You are the master of your own fate; or to put it another way, you are a god.
The ’10,000 hours theory’ isn’t just a nice concept that says ‘don’t worry if you don’t feel gifted – no-one is; just work hard and you can do anything’. It is a philosophy that says ‘No-one is gifted because a gift implies a giver. Talents and abilities are not bestowed upon some disproportionately to others, for that implies a bestower.’
Our culture resists the idea that anything outside of ourselves exists. We can do anything we put our minds to, for we are the only gods we need.
The new song, however, recognises that ‘every good and perfect gift is from above’ and rejoices in the genius of others knowing that to do so is to rejoice in the benevolence of an ingenious God.