ReflectionAugust 14, 20131Unleash The Genius In You

We all have some genius in us. Here's how to find it.

A friend once told me I was a genius. When I demurred, he added, “Genius is about see­ing pat­terns where oth­ers see only chaos – and you’re real­ly good at that.”

In the years since, I’ve seen sim­i­lar def­i­n­i­tions.  My favorite is by the lit­er­ary crit­ic and author Mal­colm Cow­ley, in his intro­duc­tion to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:

Genius is vision, often involv­ing the gift of find­ing pat­terns where oth­ers see noth­ing but a chance col­lec­tion of objects.

So: if a core ele­ment of genius is an unusu­al capa­bil­i­ty for pat­tern recog­ni­tion — can we cul­ti­vate that?

First, let’s talk about why it’s so use­ful. Even before we talk about genius, it’s impor­tant to rec­og­nize that being able to see the pat­terns in our expe­ri­ence is the key cat­a­lyst for learn­ing. My almost-three-year-old grand­daugh­ter is relent­less in find­ing and using pat­terns.  For instance, after try­ing a vari­ety of approach­es (includ­ing demand­ing and fake cry­ing) she’s learned that say­ing “please” will almost always get her what she wants. So “please” is quick­ly becom­ing a stan­dard item in her vocabulary.

Take that basic human learn­ing tool and ramp it up to “see­ing pat­terns where oth­ers see noth­ing but a chance col­lec­tion of objects,” and you have the core of all inno­va­tion and new under­stand­ing – what peo­ple call genius. It’s also an essen­tial qual­i­ty of good leaders.

And yes, we can get bet­ter at it. Here are three sim­ple tools for stretch­ing those muscles:

Get curi­ous: Curios­i­ty is that deep inter­nal impulse to inves­ti­gate. We all have it in abun­dance as chil­dren: it’s the source of their end­less “why?” and “then what?” ques­tions. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, by the time we get to be adults, it’s been large­ly social­ized out of us; we think we’re sup­posed to know every­thing and it’s seen as either rude or naïve to be too curi­ous.  But if you want to access and devel­op your innate abil­i­ty to see pat­terns, you have to first re-ignite your curios­i­ty.  One great way to do it is to con­scious­ly ask “Why is that hap­pen­ing?” or “How does that work?” in day-to-day sit­u­a­tions that you’ve come to take for grant­ed.  For instance, I recent­ly encour­aged a client to reflect on why her rela­tion­ship with an employ­ee had got­ten strained.  She came back to me a cou­ple of weeks lat­er, say­ing that once she start­ed look­ing at what had changed, she real­ized that she had fall­en into the habit of dis­agree­ing with his ideas in meet­ings because his way of pre­sent­ing those ideas was irri­tat­ing to her – and that she was both ignor­ing some poten­tial­ly use­ful ideas and hurt­ing their rela­tion­ship as a result.  Voila – pat­tern recog­ni­tion! 

Be objec­tive.  My client’s recog­ni­tion of that unhelp­ful pat­tern – and her part in it – required not only curios­i­ty but also objec­tiv­i­ty, which is the abil­i­ty to look at all sides of a sit­u­a­tion with open­ness and dis­pas­sion. If you go into a sit­u­a­tion with deeply held pre-con­ceived ideas about what you’ll find, it’s unlike­ly that you’ll see any­thing new.  The key to being objec­tive is to cul­ti­vate the skill of being a Fair Wit­ness, which I’ve blogged about reg­u­lar­ly. The essence of being a fair wit­ness is to observe your own self-talk (your inter­nal mono­logue) to see whether what you’re say­ing to your­self about a sit­u­a­tion is neu­tral and accu­rate.  And if it’s not, to change it.  For exam­ple, if my client had got­ten curi­ous but not objec­tive about the sit­u­a­tion – with slant­ed self-talk that sup­port­ed her pre-exist­ing beliefs, she might have come to the con­clu­sion that her employ­ee was sim­ply an irri­tat­ing guy, and that there was noth­ing she could do to improve the rela­tion­ship. Being a fair wit­ness quite often allows you to see things in new and unex­pect­ed ways, as my client expe­ri­enced, to her benefit.

Pull back the cam­era.  Once you’ve got­ten curi­ous and put your­self into an objec­tive, fair wit­ness mind­set, it’s crit­i­cal to step back men­tal­ly from the sit­u­a­tion so that you can see the whole: that’s when pat­terns emerge. Years ago, I was at MOMA in New York.  When I walked into the room where Monet’s sin­gle-pan­el Water Lilies hangs, I was first struck by its size:  it’s over six feet high and almost twen­ty feet long.  You have to stand across the room to take it all in at once; from a dis­tance, you can see how won­der­ful­ly Mon­et cap­tured the tran­quil­i­ty of light-suf­fused water, float­ing Japan­ese lilies, clouds over­head.  But when you move in close to the paint­ing, the pat­tern dis­solves, and all you see is a col­lec­tion of seem­ing­ly ran­dom brush strokes, in a vari­ety of col­ors: your ‘cam­era’ is pulled in too close to make sense of it.

If you ‘get caught in the brush strokes’ it’s near­ly impos­si­ble to access your own genius. For instance, let’s say that sales are down at a par­tic­u­lar com­pa­ny, and the head of sales is des­per­ate to fig­ure out why.  If she ‘pulls in the cam­era too close,’ she might focus, for instance, only on one or two for­mer­ly high-per­form­ing sales­peo­ple who are miss­ing their tar­gets. Just look­ing at that one part of the sit­u­a­tion, she could assume any num­ber of things: that they’ve some­how lost their edge or are slack­ing off; that fir­ing them will solve the prob­lem; or, con­verse­ly, that if she real­ly leans on them, they’ll get bet­ter.  Based on those assump­tions, she might let them go, offer them train­ing, read them the riot act, etc. – but nev­er see the whole pic­ture and the real pat­terns inher­ent in it.

If, instead, she “pulls back the cam­era,” she might (for instance) find that an impor­tant new prod­uct line isn’t per­form­ing as promised because there’s a slight man­u­fac­tur­ing glitch. The high return lev­el is affect­ing both cur­rent sales num­bers and cus­tomers’ will­ing­ness to reorder. The broad­er view gives a very dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, and will almost def­i­nite­ly lead her to a dif­fer­ent, more effec­tive, more genius-like response.

The beau­ty of these approach­es – get­ting curi­ous, being more objec­tive, pulling back the cam­era – is that they’re all prac­ti­cal, devel­opable skills.  In oth­er words, you have genius in you…it’s time to let it out.

One comment

  • Boghos L. Artinian MD

    January 7, 2024 at 11:23 am

    I would rather wait for posthu­mous recog­ni­tion than drum for my recog­ni­tion today.
    Boghos L. Artinian


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