2 Key Ingredients To Becoming A Genius

People constantly do outlandishly amazing things. I went to the opening night of the Berkeley Symphony a couple of months ago, and saw Jennifer Koh perform a Sibelius Violin Concerto.

And it is truly that: a performace. This girl doesn’t just play. It’s almost other-worldly.

I’m sure different kinds of music have different effects on different people (we can argue the genius of Drake if you want, I’m listening). Classical music is not everyone’s cup of tea, I feel you not-amused-guy.

But there was something about watching Koh perform that made a sense of awe completely wash over me. To me, something like that almost reaches the point of impossibility. How could anyone reach that level of creative expression and, quite simply, get their arms and fingers to move across the strings that quickly?

Before you recommend the book Outliers to me, let me say that I completely understand and agree with good ol’ Gladwell. The way we grow up and spend our lives means everything to who we become. You just have to start with an hour of practice and go from there.

For those of you that haven’t read the book, Outliers asks the question: what makes high achievers different from the rest of us? Gladwell’s answer is that it’s not just who they are, but where they came from. We focus too much on how to mix all the right ingredients to make genius and success happen, but in reality what you do with your time is a bigger player in this game. And not just how you spend your time now, but how you spent your time when you were 4.

But not all of us have the luxury of having begun our passions when we were 4. I don’t have time to get in my 10,000 hours of violin lessons, I’m already 30.

The problem with this mode of thinking is that is eliminates so many possibilities. Sure, learning is more effective at a young age when our brains are all receptive and growing. That’s why Muzzy for kids exists. They call it “the early advantage”. If you just show your kids these videos while their brains are forming new ideas for the first time, they’ll be speaking French at the dinner table and making you look dumb in now time.

That’s not a call to in-action. That’s not an excuse to do nothing about your passions because they look like mountains by the time you are old enough to have a full-time job. That’s a reason to start now.

You just have to start chiseling away at the gigantic hunk of ice, and slowly over time you’re going to have a piece of art in the form of ice sculpture. And you’re allowed to make ice sculptures at any point in your life.

If you’re interested in learning the violin after being dumbfounded by Koh, lesson number 1 comes from this 4-year-old:

If you’re interested in learning the guitar, lesson number 1 comes from Taylor Swift teaching then bf Zac Efron how to play guitar on the Ellen Show:

I understand that learning a few chords is not the same as Jennifer Koh blazing through a ridiculous concerto. I bought this t-shirt for my brother for Christmas a couple years back to illustrate this point:

But it’s amazing how much you can learn in a few minutes. Give yourself an hour once in a while and you’ll be achieving your dreams in a few days. I know it sounds ridiculous, but the impossibility that is Jennifer Koh, or Rachmaninoff, or those guys who just climbed El Capitan.

Another good read that touches on this is Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. Somewhat unfortunately, this book was withdrawn from publication in July 2012 when it was proven that the author falsified some quotes from Bob Dylan and others. While that discredits the integrity of the book in many ways, the discussions in it are still inspiring.

Since reading this book I have thought about the way I think in new ways (think-inception…). Lehrer’s main point is that creativity and innovation arise when we freely mingle within diverse ideas. He talks about the science of that out-of-the-blue AH-HA! feeling you get when you solve something that’s been bugging you for a while.

Basically, if you have the correct set up and foundation, if you’ve put in the work, go play a game of ping pong and the solution is much more likely to come to you. This has a lot to do with alpha waves. It’s just science.

The book also spends a lot of time talking about Yo-Yo-Ma, who is probably not the first person you would think to invite to a party, but who in fact has a lot of fantastic ideas about letting go. The people that you usually think of as being “perfectionists” only got that way because of the hours they put in, and after that point the only way they can give a good performance is to let go and glide through it. You have to pretend the audience doesn’t exist and that you’re a kid again.

Runners have a phrase for this kind of gliding. “The hay is in the barn.” It means you’ve already gone through the grueling process of training, and there’s a week until your marathon so you should just chill and take it easy until the start line is in front of you.

I once wrote an entire essay on this concept applied to musicianship and performance. While attending this school of music during a summer many moons ago, one of the most influential pieces of advice during my music career (if you could call it that). My piano studio instructor noticed that I was carrying a lot of tension in my body while practicing. His profound piece of advice? “Relax your jaw.” Even when I had a passage of music down, I couldn’t relax and be creative with it. I didn’t even notice I was tense. Even when the hay was in the barn, I couldn’t let go. As soon as I did, the music I was playing changed.

Everyone’s favorite show, Boy Meets World, brings this concept to us with the “Eric Matthews Fool-proof Study System” in which he takes the tension off of college finals by making everyone go to the movies with whoever finds their left shoe. Unfortunately, Mr. Feeny has to remind Eric that before the relaxing can commence, the reading and absorption of class material is key.

So what’s the theme here? Lay your foundations strong, and relax.

Those are two of the most important ingredients to success. There are a lot of people that have one or the other, but it’s when you can combine the two that you find the golden ticket.

Actionable takeaways:

Next time you find yourself staring at the same computer screen for the fifth hour in a row, go for a walk. Even if you feel like you’re not working to solve the problem, your brain is thinking about the problem differently. So, basically, you’re actually working harder.

Next time you find yourself doing a cross word puzzle on a cruise ship to pass the time (or binge-watching that seventh episode of Freaks and Geeks in a row), take one hour of your time and make the first chip in your ice sculpture. Take the first step in laying your foundation.


Originally published at blog.lendlayer.com on February 11, 2015.

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