A target no one else can see: Some thoughts on genius

It’s 2017 and I’m listening to assembled members of the press talk to Jack Harrison, the rising young star of New York City’s MLS team. They’re asking him about a particular move and pass he made, one that elicited a gasp of shock and awe from the cognoscenti, one that made the well-traveled professional marking him look like a rank amateur, one that resulted in, among other things, a goal.

“How did you see the open man?” they ask. “How did you know when to place the ball there?” “How did you know the defender would react the way he did?” “How did you know to be there at that time?” “How did you do it all in one simple movement?” Harrison, who at the time of this story, was maybe 20 years old, looks at them as if they all had severe head wounds. “How? How else would I have done?” he asks them.

And at this moment, I understood something about genius.

I understood that the general perception that genius is a sort of lightning bolt illumination, a clarifying moment of insight or understanding that reveals the true nature of the thing at hand, a “Eureka” moment like the one Archimedes had — is probably terribly wrong.

Which was disappointing because that view of genius has been oddly comforting to me. There was a sort of democratizing aspect to it that I found reassuring. The idea that at any moment, some great insight could come thundering down on my slippery little lizard brain, like a dove from on-high, and anoint me with the kind of rare and remarkable understanding that would change the world — or at the very least, improve my bank account.

But standing there, listening to Jack Harrison, I realized that was probably not right at all.

Because Jack’s bewilderment was sincere. He literally could not understand why the reporters were asking him what they were asking. And that’s because Jack has only ever been Jack. Which means he’s only ever been able to think about the game the way he does. And only ever been able to do the things on the pitch that he does. He literally does not have the frame of reference that the reporters do — because he’s never been those reporters. In a sense, he’s never not been able to do what he does.

What Jack did only seemed remarkable to the reporters — and the fans who oohed and ah’d over it — because they could not do it. The reporters’ questions — as legitimate and illuminating as they may have been to the rest of us — simply demonstrate that they do not have Jack’s genius. A genius that Jack himself cannot recognize, because in order for him to see it, he would somehow have to inhabit someone else’s body and mind. Or said another way, maybe Einstein wasn’t “Holy Shit! It all makes sense now! E EQUALS M-C FUCKING SQUARED!”, because that would mean he was being shocked by the way his mind was thinking. Maybe Einstein was more like “Um, yeah, E= MC squared — duh.” Because that’s the only way he had ever thought.

Which may also explain, by the way, why geniuses tend to be, well, dicks. For how could they be otherwise? What they can do is as natural to them as turning on a television is to the rest of us. Now imagine someone asking you about that. “So, how did you know to point the remote at the TV?” “What were you thinking when you pointed the remote at the TV?” “How did you know that the TV would actually turn on, when you pointed the remote at the TV?” “Have you and the TV and the remote been working on this ‘turning on’ thing a lot in practice?” If someone asked you that every time you turned on the damn television, you’d start to think that they were all morons, right? And I think that’s how geniuses feel about the rest of us. Not so much that they are elevated, but that the rest of us are somehow debased. Lacking either in this thing that they perceive to be fundamental to being a human, or, unwilling to spend the time cultivating it. Either way, from their perspective, that makes us the assholes, not them

And it also may explain why geniuses never think their genius will end. Why would it? Will blinking your eyes end? For as far as they can tell, it’s just as fundamental to being a human. Or at rather, it’s as fundamental to them being a human, and what other perspective do they have?

So maybe genius isn’t as democratic as I once thought. Maybe not just any moron walking down the street can be struck by that thunderbolt and understand some secret of the universe. Maybe it’s only a select few.

Or maybe, weirdly, it’s even more democratic.

Because maybe the lesson here is that for us to understand what makes us uniquely brilliant, we need the perspective of others, whose talents shine differently, to ask us the kinds of questions that remind us that not everyone can do what we do.

And that, equally importantly, we can’t do what they can either.

And that only by this constant exchange, this friction of our geniuses bumping against each other, do we see how remarkable we really are.