Geniuses are NOT Superhuman

I have a profound envy for geniuses. I always wish that I was as smart as characters on T. V. shows, like House or Sherlock. Whenever I watch them, I often say that I want to be so incredibly smart, even if it makes me an antisocial asshole, like those characters.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that I wouldn’t want to pay the price of being a depressed drug addict for the reward of profound intelligence. I’m obsessed with getting smarter, but even though I’m talking about fiction, it seems like geniuses are inexorably flawed.

I finally read the original Sherlock Holmes stories recently. I love them because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle constructs cases so complex that I have to read the narratives at least twice to understand them. I also like the fact that even in the 1800s, when the stories were written, Sherlock is a drug addict, who loves cocaine, tobacco, and opium.

These are aspects that have been copied and expanded on in the recent iteration of the show, called Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and Martin Freeman. The former played Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate, Doctor Strange in the movie with the same name, and the voice of Smaug, the dragon in the Hobbit movies, among many other roles. Freeman played Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit movies, and had parts in several other films. I love the phenomenally complex plots in the episodes, some of which are only loosely based on the original stories. But what I enjoy more about the show than the stories is the way in which the characters have been expanded. We gradually learn a lot more about the psychology of Sherlock and John Watson, and the former’s history. Also, the roles of people like Moriarty, Sherlock’s super-genius arch enemy, Mycroft Holmes, who is Sherlock’s brother, Mary, who becomes John’s wife, and Molly Hooper, the coroner, are much larger than what Conan Doyle wrote.

Without revealing too much, one aspect that I like the most about the newest season of Sherlock is that he becomes so addicted to drugs that he comes very close to death. Without discussing his motivations for this, I appreciate this portrayal because it shows that even geniuses can be fundamentally flawed. One of the themes carried over from the stories is that Holmes is a junkie who solves crimes as an alternative to getting high.

Another aspect of the new season of the show that I love is that it reveals the flaws of emotionless rationality. Mrs. Hudson, who is Sherlock’s landlord, calls Mycroft an idiot for trying to be all about reason, with no emotion. This is in spite of the fact that on the show, he is portrayed as even more intelligent than Sherlock. Mrs. Hudson points this out because Mycroft can’t see the obvious emotional problems that Sherlock is having. Hudson also highlights the fact that Sherlock claims to be rational, but he is actually emotional. He shoots his wall with a gun when he’s mad, and pieces of paper explaining cases he can’t solve get stabbed with a knife. Another character highlights the blind spots Sherlock has due to emotionally detaching from cases so he can use his cold, powerful reason. Whenever emotional context is applied to someone he cares about or trusts, he blindly accepts claims without question. To me, this underscores the fact that none of us are as emotionless as we think we are, or might want to be.

We can learn a lot from fiction, but some excellent examples of the misconceptions of genius in real people are Einstein, Mozart, and Picasso. Neither I, nor anyone else, knows what these admirable figures were actually like, and I don’t know much about the history of any of them. But I heard the other day that the reason we know Einstein’s name is more due to his persistence than his genius. He almost certainly was extremely intelligent. But maybe his dedication to solving scientific problems, doing calculations, and telling people about his results were what gained him fame. Perhaps Einstein’s persistence in this pursuit is much more of the reason for his association with intelligence than his actual abilities. If he had come up with so many monumental scientific theories and not told anyone about them, then maybe no one would have heard of him today.

This also applies to Mozart and Picasso. It is highlighted by Bryan Callen and Hunter Maats in their podcast called Mixed Mental Arts. The podcast brings a wide variety of smart people together to discuss and teach others about interesting and controversial ideas. On one of the episodes, Maats and Callen were talking about how geniuses like Picasso and Mozart were not simply magical unicorns to whom no one could imagine measuring up. They were just persistent. It seems highly likely that they had a large degree of natural ability, but the volume of work they produced is what lifted them to the status of mastery. It was more quantity than quality that caused us to worship their talents. That doesn’t mean that any idiot with a crayon could paint like Picasso if they just do it a thousand times. They wouldn’t do as well without that genetic skill. But this cliche is true to a certain extent: Practice makes perfect. I don’t think perfection is possible, but a ton of practice can make you really good at almost anything.

Mozart and Picasso apparently produced hundreds and hundreds of pieces of work that everyone, including themselves, hated. This blew my mind! It seems obvious in retrospect, but it made me think about how mastery is more of a process than an innate ability. So I think that for artists, or anyone who wants to get good at anything, you just have to practice a lot. It makes me think about what Malcolm Gladwell said in his book called The Tipping Point about how it takes 10 000 hours to achieve mastery. That number has been refuted by some scientists and others, but I think the principle is true. This is that you have to practice something a hell of a lot to gain a high level of skill in it. Who knows? It it weren’t for their persistence, maybe we would never have heard of geniuses like Picasso and Mozart.

It’s easy to look at geniuses like unicorns with magic powers, but they are human, just like the rest of us. People who are really skilled in one domain might be completely dysfunctional in others. Is it worth being a genius if the cost is being a junkie asshole with no friends? My answer to that question used to be yes, but it has changed, now that I am learning about the importance of emotion, and don’t put characters like Sherlock Holmes up on a pedestal. (Well, maybe just a tiny pedestal.) I also understand better than I used to that an enormous factor in achieving mastery, and being seen as a genius, is persistence. So whenever you feel like such a dumb failure that you’re part of a less evolved species than geniuses, remember this: Geniuses can be dysfunctional and miserable, and even Mozart and Picasso did a lot of work that everyone hated. Geniuses are not superhuman. They are flawed human beings, just like the rest of us.

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