How to Be a Lone Genius
...or be at your aspiring lone genius best.
Posted Dec 17, 2020
“That’s cultural appropriation!” is an accusation tossed around these days. Those making this accusation are under the assumption that borrowing from another's culture is a bad thing.
But cultural appropriation—and appropriation of ideas from other humans around us or around the globe—is actually one of the main motors of human advancement. It involves combining ideas and practices into better ideas and practices so humans collectively benefit.
We tend not to understand how necessary this is for human progress.
Psychology professor and researcher Steve Stewart-Williams writes about what I call “the myth of lone geniuses” in his book The Ape that Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve:
We routinely describe our species’ cultural achievements to lone-wolf geniuses – super-bright freaks of nature who invented science and technology for the rest of us. ... It's a myth because most ideas and most technologies come about not through Eureka moments of solitary geniuses but through the hard slog of large armies of individuals, each making—at best—a tiny step or two forward.
Stewart-Williams reminds us that new ideas typically don’t come out of nowhere, but from “the recombination of old ideas—from ideas having sex, as Matt Ridley puts it.” Most of culture, in fact, “is just a remix":
The birth of new technology, for instance, usually involves recombining existing elements in novel ways. As L.T.C. Rolt observed, "the motorcar was sired by the bicycle out of the horse carriage." similarly, as Ridley reports in his book 'The Rational Optimist,' the Internet was born from the marriage of the computer in the phone, and the camera pill was born of a conversation between a gastroenterologist and a guided missile designer. Perhaps the fairest summary of the situation is that most of our cultural achievements come not from super-bright freaks, but from cumulative culture, aided and abetted by some reasonably bright semi-freaks. In this way, our culture become smarter than we are.
The model for this, for combining forces so we can be greater, is helpful on a smaller scale, too—for each of us personally.
For example, Joshua Wolf-Shenk’s book, Powers of Two: How Relationships Drive Creativity, lays out how Apple became Apple not because of Steve Jobs, but because Jobs plus Steve Wozniak, as a team, were far greater and more powerful than they would have been alone.
We tend to think there’s something wrong with us, that we’re not quite enough, if we don’t “do it alone.” But that’s just not realistic, and if you understand and accept that, you can not only be at your best, but go beyond whatever that is.
I’ll give you an example of how I apply this thinking in my own life. I write applied science—scientific research I vet and translate into ordinary language so it's understandable to all of us. I then use the findings to generate practical, scientifically-driven advice.
The wording that's completely understandable to me in the moment I write it can come off all “Huh? What?” to another person. So I hire an editor to go over all of my book and column writing. Their job is to tell me I’m unclear, unfunny, and a disorganized mess—so I know where I need to do better.
My writing is vastly better, clearer, funnier, and better organized because I ask for input. But there's a caveat: I pay for the opinion of someone whose mind and literary judgment I respect; I don’t take advice from just any rando who wants to give it.
I also expand this model to other areas of my life. I’m quick to call upon people I respect to tell them what I’m working on and hear any ideas or challenges to my ideas that they might have to add. And when you do this, others turn to you in the same way, and it makes for an exciting life of problem-solving and helping make others better in the same ways they do for you.