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Genius: The Right Mix of Rebel

Genius means the right mix of submissiveness and rebellion.

The most rebellious minds aren't the ones who change the world. Utterly submissive ones don't either. The highly rebellious and highly submissive can be equally unoriginal. A true original thinker usually manages some mix of those two styles.

A genius--on the one hand--does need to be a bit dutiful or submissive. She needs to be able to honor and digest the voices that existed before her. Picasso, for example, spent a lot of energy learning realism before he dove into abstraction. And Darwin thought deeply about Lamarckian inheritance before he hypothesized Survival of the Fittest. In other words, an original mind does need some obedience to authority--or to what other people named "the rules" before she herself had a role in naming them.

That said, she also needs the egoism to step wildly outside the box when there's a door of opportunity. She needs the fierce independence to create something radically new when she can.

In 1998, psychologists Gregory Feist and Michael Gorman published a still-foundational article on the personalities of successful scientists, concluding that "eminent-creative scientists" contain the following personality characteristics: dominance, arrogance, hostility, self-confidence, ambitiousness, focus on achievement, autonomy, introversion, independence, openness to experience, and flexibility in behavior and thought.

That list seems a bit funny to me. After all, it's rare to find someone who shows remarkably high "arrogance [and] hostility" alongside remarkably high "openness to experience and flexibility."

But to be that sort of genius who changes history, you probably do need a delicate, odd mix of the two--of independence and dependence. You need to be the sort of person who's invested in learning all that's happened so far, and then equally anxious to change it.

There is, after all, a difference between more and less useful rebellion. Useful rebellion tends to come from someone who's committed to a community. (Picasso was committed to art history; Darwin was committed to science.) A productive original mind has spent a lot of time digesting the scene she's in and feels invested in it. She is deeply curious about the world, and part of her own identity is tied up in her community. She might, of course, rip down old ideas out of some innate rebelliousness. (An independent thinker often has a personality style that likes to kick against the pricks.) But--more importantly--she has also yoked that personal rebellion to the goals of a larger community.

Purely selfish rebellion tends to be shallow and less productive. Think of someone who is just entering a field and doesn't yet have a commitment to it. She wants fame for fame's sake. (She doesn't feel comfortable about her place in the world, and so can't love things in the world. Think of the original but non-social Unibomber. Think of anyone who's prone to destructive, rather than useful, eccentricity.) Overpowered by self-interest, she is a reactionary rebel--she rebels without digesting previous ideas, without committing to some society. That sort of rebellion tends to be quickly won and quickly overcome by the bigger forces of social concern.

Right now, I'm actually thinking of genius through the analogy of what happens in a university classroom. I teach writing to college freshmen. Some students hate authority of any sort--and some of those students speak up a lot in class, making frequent comments, expressing their independence and ability to make judgments. They can do it without deeply considering the opinions already circulating in the class. Those are relatively selfish rebels. They like the effect of rebellion but haven't stitched that rebellion into the larger needs of the community.

Others speak up more hesitantly--many of them are still original, but the originality is tempered by a sense of the community. They've digested ideas from our textbooks and from other students, and they speak in relation to what's come before.

The first type is an original thinker whose energy is still self-serving, whose ideas have a relatively shallow foothold. The second is an original thinker who is similarly driven by independence but has learned the history and direction of her community. Her comments answer to deep needs of the world around her and often deal with multiple problems at once.

So, that's one big characteristic of successful inventive thinkers: They learn the past in order to create a relevant new future. They have a mix of conformity and rebelliousness. Each of us can foster this personal style in ourselves by cultivating humility at the same time as we cultivate rebelliousness. Each is a blessing when the two come in tandem.

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