On the Meaning of the Word ‘Genius’

IMG_8837.JPG    In Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear she describes her creative process and shares her perspective on the nature of inspiration. The whole book has been captivating thus far, but one part stood out to me in particular. Gilbert writes about the original definition of the word genius, and the way we use it differently today. She says:

“The Greeks and the Romans both believed in the idea of an external daemon of creativity- a sort of house elf, if you will, who lived within the walls of your home and sometimes aided you in your labors. The Romans had a specific term for that helpful house elf. They called it your genius- your guardian deity, the conduit of your inspiration. Which is to say, that the Romans didn’t believe an exceptionally gifted person was a genius; they believed that an exceptionally gifted person had a genius.”

There is a subtle but meaningful difference between being versus having. Psychologically speaking, it makes all the difference. If you have an external genius, you are not totally responsible for your work. If it is a success, you are obliged to thank your genius for showing up to help, keeping your ego in check and protecting you from falling into the trap of narcissism. And if you your work is a failure, it’s not completely your fault. You can blame your genius for not showing up to work that day. You can say, “Hey, it’s not my fault my genius keeps irregular hours!” Either way, the fragile human psyche is protected– protected from the perversive influence of praise and the destructive influence of shame.

Why, then, did society start calling people geniuses? Gilbert explains that during the Renaissance, a more human-centered, rational view of life emerged, stripping the world of all unexplainable, intangible phenomena.  Artists were then venerated as geniuses themselves, elevated to a higher class of creators. They had to carefully balance atop their pedestals, and all too often came crashing down under the pressure.  Gilbert lists countless artists who cracked under the pressure of being a genius. One such example is Harper Lee, acclaimed author of the American classic To Kill a Mockingbird. She was so pinned under the heavy boulder of her own reputation that she never published another book during her life time, and only after death was the sequel Go Set A Watchman published. Just think of the many stories she could have gifted the world with if she hadn’t taken her genius so seriously.

Gilbert happens to have personal experience with this issue, her book Eat Pray Love having graced the New York Times Bestseller list for more than three years. She said people would ask her how she continued to write, as if her success was a curse, not a blessing. But she never stopped writing, because writing for her was about the love of creating, not the outcome. She believes her work is a gift from her genius to herself, and if others happen to enjoy it as well, great! If not, also great! Because in the end, it’s not up to her.

What do you think? Can we learn from Gilbert’s words? Please share your thoughts in the comments below! As an aspiring writer myself, I can glean a lot from her work as I prepare to enter the professional world. Have a great day friends!

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