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How to be a genius.

Whenever I see an article or book entitled "how to be… something…" the obvious question is how successful is the author in following their own advice? You only have to walk into any bookshop to see that the secret to being rich is to write a book about the secrets of being rich. Quite often all the author needs to accomplish is a good title.

I used to regularly purchase books on the strength of a good title. You have to think that if they came up with such a good title that there is an expectation for some decent chapter headings. Maybe even moderately competent prose?  But, alas, this rarely seems to be the case.

But then again do you really need to be an adherent of your own advice? After all, the old adage is that teachers teach because they cannot do. My wife is a teacher and she would insist that teaching is doing, but that is another story.

Even great thinkers suffer from the "do as I say, not as I do" syndrome. For example neither Schopenhauer or Nietzsche espoused their ideals of the kinds of lives that people should live, but neither seemed to particularly feel that their ideals applied to themselves. William Blake proposed that sexual liberation was the natural state of humanity and yet he himself probably remained perfectly monogamous (and probably virtually celibate).

Does mean that even great thinkers are hypocrites? I don’t think so. For me this demonstrates an ability to transcend beyond the physical limitations, the society, the religion, the age and the species through the process of thought. Is this what defines a genius? Perhaps there is an element of that. But in every case where a great thinker differs in thought and action it is the thought that is real and important and the physical condition that is irrelevant.

I have opted to avoid the accusation of hypocrisy by simply picking an "how to" subject in an area that I have already achieved indisputable mastery. After all, for example, an essay on how to get rich from a rich guy will always have more credibility than a book on how to get rich from Joe Nobody. This is in spite of the fact that we all know that the rich guy inherited all of his wealth, and that in all likelihood he would not have a clue about how to get there if he started from the meager position of his erstwhile readers.  

In any event, and being aware of the highly litigious society that we are, and to avoid the risk of being sued for what little remains of my self respect, I must state up front that it obviously impossible to become a genius from reading this one little essay. It usually takes two or three books to achieve this. However what my essay may help you to achieve is to carry the perception of being a genius (and in actuality isn’t this the same thing anyway?) Is a true genius born or made? Who knows? But the cult of genius is definitely manufactured, and is more of a marketing exercise than an intellectual imperative.

Finally I must admit that it will become obvious as you read this book this it is not, in itself, a work of genius. Clarity is the enemy of genius and I have made no attempt to obscurify this work. Occasionally I cannot resist the unsolicited use of a couple of meaningless terms and statements, but this is usually for ironic effect rather than a deliberate attempt to obfuscate the idea or concept that I am espousing.  I only invent the occasion word (like obscurify) because writing is basically a pretty boring task and every so often I think of something funny and I just have to include it in the text. No, not particularly subtle.

The Nature of Genius

I propose that humans are essentially vain, egotistical and self-centered creatures. This being the case it seems somewhat anathematic to human existence that there is a general consensus to  recognize that certain individuals transcend the dearth of mediocrity to be deigned as a genius. Personal vanity should generally prevent us from acknowledging that there exists other beings in this universe that may be better than us in some way.  But seemingly perversely it is these very traits of ego and conceit that are integral to the proliferation of the cult of genius.

When we hold an individual up as a genius it says a lot more about ourselves then it does about the subjects of our admiration. The types of people we deify reflect our own insecurities, inadequacies and underlying vanity. And in the end it is not really a matter of elevating the status of the individual in question as much as it is a matter of deluding ourselves that we have an affinity or a connection with them. We are personally somehow better because we recognize and appreciate the talents of the nominated genius.

When you really stop to think how is it possible for a person to recognize that another person is smarter than they are? What is their point of reference? Obviously a smart person should be able to recognize a dumb person, as they can determine how much they know and how they think, and can logically deduce that they know more and think more. But how can a dumb person recognize an intelligent person? If the dumb person takes the time to learn what the smart person knows, then as they now know what the intelligent person knows is the dumb person no longer dumber?

Of course I am being facetious (in the unlikely case that there happens to be dumb people reading this!). But seriously, the major problem here is that how can one genuinely recognize a genius without actually being one? Therefore we must rely on geniuses to tell us who the geniuses are. Obviously this does not create a cult of genius, but is more likely to result in a bunch of mutually sycophantic prats running around telling everyone how good they are. These creatures are called politicians, and are not generally held to be members of a genius class.   

The way it really works is like this.

As a vain and conceited human being I believe that I am an intelligent human being. Whether in fact this is actually the case or not I will never actually know, because even though I may be able to grasp my own limitations I naturally impose those same limitations on every on else I meet. When I do happen meet someone of whom I do not understand I may come to the uncomfortable realization that this may be due to the fact that they are smarter than I am. As I know that I am extremely intelligent then they must be a genius!

An alternate scenario is similar but subtlety and significantly different. If I meet someone who is better at something than I am, and I have spent a significant amount of time and effort trying to master that particular skill then they must be a genius.

The reason why the concept of a genius is appealing to the fragile human ego is that the term denotes some sort of special talent or skill, so the ego does not really have to feel diminished as a result of a direct comparison. The term “genius” is not as threatening to our egos as “smarter”, “better”, “brighter” etc, etc, etc...

It is particularly interesting to note that the mantle of genius is lavishly bestowed on individuals whose particular talent is offset by some sort of great tragedy or weakness. This satisfies the ego’s requirement to self justify by deluding itself that it is somehow better to be happily mediocre rather than a tortured genius. There are numerous examples of this phenomenon throughout history, to name just a few; Van Gogh, madness, self mutilation and suicide, Mozart, tragically ill, died young, Beethoven, deafness, manic, Caravaggio, short violent life, tragic death, Blake, pauper and outcast. Need I go on?

We delude ourselves when we link madness and tragedy to genius by justifying that it is the triumph of the individual genius that transcends tragedy. Or possibly that madness is an intrinsic side effect of having an intellectual talent. Both propositions are idiotic. The link between tragedy and genius is based on the fact that we select individuals to be ranked as a genius because we do not feel any jealousy for their lives because of their horrible circumstances. For the insane they are doubly attractive targets as they are usually incomprehensible as well (remembering that incomprehensibility is pretty much a prerequisite).

In general a genius should also be dead. Living people have the ugly tendency to shatter the illusion by doing dumb things. With a dead person you can nicely compartmentalize their entire lives and works. Hopefully just enough is publicly known about the person to enhance our imposed perceptions on them, but not too much to deny us this pleasure. I will give you one anecdote as an example for your amusement.

Towards the end of William Blake’s life he attracted the attention and adoration of a group of young artists who called themselves "the ancients". They were fascinated by his painted imagery, his poetry and his supposed visions. One of the group used to call on Blake regularly, but soon became disillusioned and stopped the visits. He explained that at first everything that Blake said was fascinating but after a while he realized that Blake had a tendency to ramble on in conversation and become boringly repetitive.

Now in hindsight we may actually recognize this aspect of Blake’s personality as the ultimate strength of his genius. His entire genius lies in this obsession with the vision and the singular manner in which he relentlessly pursued this, in spite of poverty, ridicule, ostracism and the almost universal dismissal of his work by contemporaries and peers. But just imagine living with it!   

Another troubling aspect of genius is the tendency to classify them with a particular type of genius, narrowly categorizing the talent in a certain way. For example when we think of Leonardo we think of a painter or, say, when we think of Einstein we think of him as a physicist. Of course this is not true, as Leonardo was an exceptional scientist and inventor and Einstein was a talented musician (violinist).

In fact the very nature of genius and the way in which the human brain works dictates that it is virtually impossible to be exceptional in a small narrow field and to be normal or underdeveloped in other areas. The brain links and categorizes everything it learns, so developing any one particular area will help to improve abilities in other seemingly unrelated areas. When we classify a genius with a narrow intellectual focus we imply it is to the exclusion of other areas, which is simply not true.       

Every Genius has an Age

Every genius may have their age but it is not necessarily in their own time. The common explanation for this phenomenon is that they the genius is ahead of their time, and that it is society that needs to catch up before the genius can be fully understood. This explanation is obviously convenient, and serves to satisfy any cursory thought on the subject, but unfortunately this is just another myth that simply exacerbates the cult of genius.   

There are probably two reasonable explanations why a genius may be recognized and lauded post existence while remaining misunderstood and denigrated throughout their lives. The first reason involves individuals who have some minor degree of recognition and adulation while they were alive and this has simply continued after their death. If their thinking gains enough acceptance then this may simply be a case of society developing to fit the thinking rather than any evidence the individual genius anticipating the future. The more that society accept the espoused ideas the more revered these ideas become. Some ideas just find a natural appeal in the society in which they are introduced.

For example Descartes really kicked of the concept of the individual. Prior to Descartes the concept of the individual did not really exist in western culture, and it is still largely irrelevant in eastern cultures. The more western society developed a value for the individual the more profound Descartes appeared. This is not to say that Descartes was ever theoretically correct, and not that it even matters. Did Descartes anticipate the future, did he drive these new concepts into popular use, or was it just coincidence? Maybe partially all three.

Another example is Darwin. With evolution being the accepted theory of life then every supporting argument just adds weight to Darwin’s credibility. Once again this is not because the theory is necessarily correct or verifiable, but the social development of the society in which the ideas were introduced had evolved to the point where the ideas become acceptable. 

The best evidence for this phenomenon is the frequent occurrence of  simultaneous discovery, where the same ideas are discovered by different people who have no relationship to each other. Inevitably society reflects popular ideas rather than the originator of those ideas having some sort of mystical precognition about the future. Does this detract from the discovery, or should the idea simply be attributed to the inevitable progress of society rather than being the unique achievement of an individual genius?

The second scenario involves the “discovered” genius that was ignored during their lifetime. Only after many years does an appreciation for the undiscovered ideas come into being. One explanation for this situation is that the past contains such a vast repository of ideas that no matter what way mankind progresses it will find material in the past to support the current popular trends. It may be more accurate to say that some ideas may have an age in which they find acceptance, and the individual who is most closely associated with that idea will appear to be a genius with supernatural powers of precognition. The more banal explanation is that contemporary proponents of ideas will look to the past to find a precedent, in which case it is inevitable that some arbitrary historical thinker will get free publicity to promote their cause.

One of the keys to being classed as a genius is to have acolytes that promote your cause. Acolytes do not even have to understand what the original argument was, as long as it can be subsumed to their agenda. One of the most notorious cases of this is the way that the Nazi's used Nietzsche's concept of the will to power and the "uberman" to justify their racist agendas. In actual fact Nietzsche despised German imperialism and detested the anti-Semitic diatribe of the prevailing aristocracy of the time, and most certainly would have been appalled at the later Nazi perversion of his philosophy.

In many cases the latter ideas completely and irrevocably obliterate the original ideas, although the individual may be forever associated with the contemporary interpretation. So not only is the original genius misunderstood, they would probably be the first to argue against the ideas that they are associated with. All the better reason to ensure that the object of our adulation is safely deceased.  

The Golden rules of Obfuscation

Clarity is the antithesis of genius. However the perception of logic or simplicity is vital, to need to provide enough information so that a casual consideration of the topic at hand will seem to anticipate profound insight. A prospective genius must ensure that everything they write and say is incomprehensible. A word of caution though; be aware that there is a fine line between incomprehensibility and idiocy.

The perfect level of incomprehensibility would be to give a speech in front of fifty people and have every one of them give a totally different interpretation about what the underlying point of the speech was about. This is actually a very difficult result to achieve. Half a dozen or so is normal, even from the most prosaic messages. However, if you can surpass fifteen to twenty different accounts then you will be doing extremely well.    

These are the golden rules to incomprehensibility if you want to make yourself look intelligent rather than moronic;

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It cannot be pure gibberish. Although strategic use of gibberish is a standard ploy if there is a danger that your audience may start believing that they understand what you are talking about.

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It cannot be pure cliché. Take particular to avoid using clichés that are in common use, ie anything used by  politicians or celebrities in the last ten years should be avoided like the plague.

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Use metaphor sparingly.

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Use literary allusion liberally. The best bet is to draw from other incomprehensible writers. Emily Dickinson seems to be the favorite of white American aspirants. Europeans have a much deeper vein to mine.

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Every statement should have an underlying ironic intent. (Yes, that statement did indeed apply this rule. So did that one)

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Jargon is fine. However if you want serious, long term, intergenerational, historical recognition of your genius then jargon that is too integral to a particular school or trend will make you look dated. Anyway jargon is probably a poor ploy, it is far too common and the moronic find it too easy to use. 

Always remember that the aim of the exercise is not to be totally and utterly incomprehensible. You must intersperse your arguments with perfectly reasonable and logical statements if you want to attract people to your ideas. Think of logic and sense as a strong seasoning, if you use too much the dish will be ruined, but if you do not use any then you will be insipid and dull. Be aware if you are totally obscure this has the tendency to alienate potential acolytes. They must feel that they are within grasping reach of your ideas, so that they can spread them with their own interpretation of what they perceive to be comprehension.

Putting it all together

 So if you really want to be a genius and you remain undeterred then the formula is pretty simple.

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Be prolific

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Be obscure

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Have a consistent theme

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Find acolytes to champion your cause

Finally when you have your manifesto you simply wait for as long as it takes. The best bet is to plan for the mantle to be assigned posthumously. Don't expect it to happen while you are still around to enjoy the adulation, that would be too much for your potential admirers egos to bear. 

 

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