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A Study of Genius

January 20, 2010

As I studied the works of Leonardo da Vinci and his contemporaries, mentors, and students, I found my thoughts turning inward.  What have I accomplished?  What is the meaning of my work and my life?  Have I touched and influenced the hearts and minds of others as Leonardo’s is now touching mine?  Will my accomplishments and works be worthy of remembrance in a mere hundred years from now, let alone six hundred years or a thousand? 

I thought about my own works and endeavors: the story I’ve worked on this past month, the book I’ve been writing and rewriting for however many years.  Would I ever finish this book?  Would any of my writings see publication?  Does that even matter?  I thought about my career, my MBA, my indecision about a PhD, my family.  I wondered if I’ll be able to make something of myself in my career that will be of any lasting value to the organizations I work for, or especially to my family.  I worry, frequently, that I won’t figure out what I want to do with my career or that I won’t be able to fully support my family (and the clock is ticking on that; I graduate in just over a year, and will need to have figured out how to leverage my MBA by then).  I was simultaneously awed, humbled and, to a certain degree, jealous of the natural (and unduplicatable) talents of those geniuses on display. 

At the end of the exhibit was an installation that meditated on the nature of genius.  It asked questions like “What are the qualities of a genius?”, “Who is a genius?”, and “Can anyone be a genius?”  It included videos of responses from prominent locals answering those and other questions, a wall of answers to those questions from visitors to the exhibit, and a wall of quotes from famous people – many of them geniuses in their own right – from throughout history.    I was struck by a few things from this part of the exhibit that reinformed my previous thoughts and suggested something positive.  One was a quote by Edgar Allan Poe: “The true genius shudders at incompleteness…”  Another were some of the responses of various visitors to the exhibit (although, oddly, I found the answers of prominent and successful locals to be rather uncompelling and uninspired).  

These suggested to me two thoughts about genius, and the nature of our gifts and talents: one was that a genius is someone who, through talent, hard work, and perseverance, has a positive and lasting impact on the lives of others.  That the magnitude of the genius might be measured by the number of lives impacted and the degree to which they were impacted is perhaps irrelevant to the question of the existence of genius in an individual.  While true that many people may live out their lives in anonymity and perchance squander the opportunities before them to improve their surroundings and their fellow man, this need not be so and, indeed, is not so for countless others, myself included, if we but strive to apply what talents we do have for the betterment of others.  In my way, while I hope to one day say that my written fiction will be had for the betterment of its readers (if only by way of entertaining them), the more immediate concern is the betterment of my family and, to a lesser degree, my employer.   That I must strive to help my wife succeed in whatever ventures she embarks (be that motherhood or career or, as the case may be, both), to teach my child (or children) good lessons so that he, too, may succeed, and to leave my employer each day with some meaningful measure of value each day is the lesson here.  To the degree that I am not succeeding in any of these activities, much less that my written work may or may not be of any value as yet, then I must rededicate myself to these goals and find ways of achieving them that are consistent with my values. 

The second thought is this: that this work of “genius” can be achieved, but only by the means of applying effort to completion. I won’t succeed at any of these goals unless I actively pursue them.  “Incompleteness” is a child of sloth, but also of misdirected action.  To achieve these goals, I need to make sure that how I spend my time each day, week, and month is aligned with my goals.  Where I am spending time on fruitless activities, that is an opportunity to reexamine what I am doing and redirect myself toward something with higher rewards.  This requires real introspection.

Tomorrow, I conclude my thoughts on the Da Vinci exhibit.

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