Geniuses aren’t like everyone else.
They just do it and, um, think different.
Can they, though, have something in common? Is it possible that they don’t just snap their fingers while drinking a schnapps or a Napa Sauvignon Blanc and encounter eureka?
Mason Curry wondered if that was the case too. So he wrote Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.
In it, he tries to identify common factors among the likes of Franz Kafka and Frank Zappa.
Ah, wait. Zappa didn’t make the cut. But Karl Marx, Woody Allen, Pablo Picasso, and Twyla Tharp did. So did Andy Warhol and Jane Austen.
Now that would be a dinner party.
Curry offers a lot of anecdotes. The Harvard Business Review then wondered how many threads it could find that bound these geniuses together. What a list.
1. They like going for long walks.
These people were all prone to the constitutional. They believed that it cleared their brains. Many of them, though, operated before the long walk was replaced by the StairMaster, the elliptical machine, and the, um, hike. It’s understandable, therefore, that walking was one of their few options for exercise. It’s known that Steve Jobs was and Mark Zuckerberg is partial to walks (and perhaps one of these two qualifies as a genius). But wouldn’t it be lovely if there could be a few more beautifully sculpted geniuses for us to look up to?
2. They stop when they’re on a roll.
This is profoundly un-American. Surely, you might think, they’d want more and more of their genius to pour out while they were feeling geniusy. But, no. They always want to leave something in reserve, perhaps to help them get on a roll the following day. The exception to this was Mozart, who apparently just couldn’t help himself.
3. They enjoy quantifying their output.
Apparently, Ernest Hemingway was a word-counter. How complicated that must have been when you’re writing on a typewriter and you literally have to count, one guesses, with your finger. Especially when you’re a renowned drunk. (He was more into absinthe than mojitos, by the by.) Still, he wasn’t the only one who liked to put a number to his achievements. Anthony Trollope was a little like that. I worry. It’s a little like the high schooler who says he’s crammed for 12 hours the night before a test. One is tempted to suggest: So what?
4. They enjoy a quiet place to work.
This isn’t easily achieved. Especially in today’s world where we’re all expected to, oh, share (translation: open offices are cheaper). Thinking straight is hard enough. Thinking like a genius may require astonishing silence. Graham Greene apparently had a very simple idea: He just didn’t tell anyone where his secret office was. Yes, just like El Chapo Guzman. It does seem fairly logical, though, that silence might help.
5. They don’t have much of a social life.
I’ve never understood those who like to be terribly social. The whole thing seems fake, especially in places like New York where being social means talking about yourself very loudly to as many people as you can. How tiring. Picasso and his girlfriend Fernande Olivier would see people only on Sundays. Proust just withdrew from society. If you’ve ever read any Proust, you’d understand that society might have been grateful for that. Still, it seems frightfully logical that an energy-sapping social life is just one more distraction. Why bother, when your goal is to have everyone in society remember you for ever?
6. They ruthlessly separate administration from real work.
This seems a fairly obvious one too. Don’t we all try to do this? Perhaps we aren’t genius enough at it. Of course, in the days when most of these geniuses did their best, there were only letters to deal with. There was only the mail system. There wasn’t the constant barrage of electronic nonsense battering at their minds and souls from 20 directions. Many are the current soi-disant geniuses who are genuinely bothered by something a mindless youth in underwear has said about him on Twitter. The geniuses of times gone by didn’t have this worry. They could stick to just being brilliant. It sounds like a wonderful life, doesn’t it?
7. They have a loving partner who tolerates their every whim.
My picaresque experience of life tells me that there aren’t too many geniuses who operate entirely alone. To maintain not only their life administration, but also some fine level of mental equilibrium, they have lovers who believe in them, understand them, and, most crucially, tolerate them. And when the tolerance runs out, the genius is clever (or famous) enough to find another tolerant lover. Currey offers this of Sigmund Freud’s wife, Martha: “She laid out his clothes, chose his handkerchiefs, and even put toothpaste on his toothbrush.” And this was the man who claimed to know so much about the human mind. Doesn’t he sound like another manipulative, controlling old cove? Perhaps he should have talked to his shrink about it.
Ultimately, I suspect, not every genius knows that he’s a genius. Geniuses do things that they find absorbing. They work hard at doing something genuinely new. But who appoints them genius? Often, it’s some strange committee of academics or media people after the genius is dead.
An exception to this observation is, of course, Kanye West.
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