We’ve all heard it:
The misunderstood lone genius working on their formulas, manuscripts, or discoveries in a candlelit castle tower somewhere or in the back of a crowded study piled with books.
Nobody really understands them, but it’s clear this man or woman is brilliant, gifted, and special.
They’re a lone genius, ahead of their time and socially maladjusted, and often lonely or tragically isolated.
There’s a key problem with the myth of the lone genius, one we need to break apart in order to become more empowered, intelligent human beings.
We stand on the shoulders of giants
The key problem with the myth of the lone genius is that it’s not true and it leads many of us to fall short of our potential.
Myths can be inspiring, strange, fascinating, and disturbing, but the myth of the lone genius is simply not accurate.
We all stand on the shoulders of giants.
The iPhone wasn’t just the brainchild of Steve Jobs, but also of his colleagues and of all those who came before him developing mobile technology and the components that went into the new product.
Albert Einstein didn’t come along and suddenly discover the secrets of the universe out of the blue.
He did so standing on the shoulders of the mathematical and scientific geniuses who came before him.
Civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks made her stand for racial justice on a bus in the South during segregation, but she wasn’t alone. She was part of an organized campaign to end systematic racism.
Going further back in history we see a much different picture of the geniuses and heroes of our past.
They matter, absolutely, but the idea that they are far beyond the rest of us or arose like sudden shooting stars is untrue.
They were products of team efforts, bright and dedicated individuals who took the next steps in a staircase which was already under construction.
Does this lessen the accomplishments of heroes, geniuses, and extraordinary figures in the human pantheon?
However, what it does do is establish a hypothesis: we’re all connected and all part of an evolving tapestry.
This is important because by realizing it we can begin to realize that we are all part of humanity’s growth, not just random bystanders.
Even great minds work together and need the collective
Great minds and creators certainly do have sudden inspiration, bouts of intense creation, and innovation.
But they also live, love, and struggle in the world like all the rest of us.
The interactions, problems, triumphs, romantic experiences, injustices, triumphs, sex lives, and collaborations of our great icons of history are all related to the collective, the society they live in.
The conversations and engagements they have with those around them including in their creative and professional life help form their concepts, creations, and innovations.
In the middle ages trade guilds such as the freemasons, hatters, masons and bakers were places that stood up for the rights of their workers but also where tradespeople could congregate, socialize and enjoy the company and insights of those in their field.
Many great inventions, including in architecture and construction were the result of group collaboration, professional associations, and inspiration from the past.
The men and women who made the final leaps in innovation and progress get their names in the history books, but all those thousands who helped build the framework and collaborated often get left behind.
As Fernando Teixeira and Izabela Cardozo note for BBC:
“The ‘lone genius’ myth perpetuates the idea that the world’s greatest minds accomplished their feats solo.
But in many cases, collaborating with others was key.”
The myth is debunked by ‘lone geniuses’ themselves
Lone geniuses themselves debunk the idea that they are some kind of anomaly who should be regarded as different, special, or set apart.
Vincent van Gogh famously told his brother Theo that his paintings weren’t something he owned and that the creative process was part of the human experience and creation as a whole, not just one man.
This is the thing:
Many so-called lone geniuses do go through periods of feeling intensely misunderstood, alone, or let down, but they also tend to be searching for ways to link humans together and translate, beautify and elevate the human experience.
Some geniuses get rich from inventing new technology or building on existing tech…
Some geniuses paint or create art that makes us laugh, cry or stand in stunned awe…
Some geniuses pen music or literature that changes the entire world, causes revolutions, helps bring peace, or changes our belief about the nature of God and reality…
Whether they are rich, poor, ugly, beautiful, loved, or hated, the genius is never just random.
The genius is a product of his or her time, an individual who brings gifts and insights that build on what humanity has already accomplished and helps people connect to each other and their world in new ways.
This isn’t the work of a loner, it’s the work of a communicator, healer, a receptive soul who can read the winds.
Take the case of Martin Chalfie, for example, the 2008 winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
He initially gave up on a science career due to how he felt he was expected to be some kind of lone genius. It turned out he was, indeed, a genius. He was just also someone who needed to collaborate and have comrades he could work with together.
As Chalfie said, “I felt that I had to do everything on my own because asking for help was a sign that I was not intelligent enough.
I now see how destructive this attitude was, but then I assumed that this was what I had to do.”
Researchers back up the communal nature of genius and progress
Sociological researchers Ronald Purser and Alfonso Montuori of Loyola University of Chicago and Notre Dame College, respectively, deeply undermined the myth of the lone genius in their academic work.
In the mid-90s they found that the idea we have of geniuses being anomalies who come up way ahead of their times and don’t have much relation to those around them is false and misleading.
In fact, they found that the idea was deeply embedded into a white ethnocentric and male-dominated way of looking at the world that prioritized stories which reinforced this narrative while ignoring those that didn’t.
In fact, Montuori and Purser found that many of humanity’s greatest discoveries and leaps forward were the product of group effort and societal progress as a whole, not a lone spark of brilliance in a dark night.
Their psychological and sociological research found that many of the greatest figures in scientific, artistic, and political history were not lone geniuses but instead masters of communication and collaboration who built great things in conjunction with others.
Michelangelo didn’t manage to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel without a lot of help!
This myth harms humanity
If the lone genius myth was just a tragically romantic ideal that made people get the feels it would be fine.
But it’s harmful to humanity because it makes us feel more alone and often feels we can’t change “the way things are.”
Only geniuses and special once-in-a-century people can do that.
But the fact is each of us has far more influence and power than we realize, even in the small areas of our lives, work, and creations.
And the truth is also that we all rely on each other and even the most famous and brilliant people collaborate and have sponsors, teams, and friends (and enemies!) to shoot around ideas with and debate…
As the late famed American composer Aaron Copland put it:
“It doesn’t matter how many times we tell the familiar story of Bach writing each week for the honest burghers [townsfolk] of Leipzig, or Mozart’s relations with the courtly musical patrons of his day;
“Audiences still prefer to think of the musical creator as a man closeted with his idea, unsullied by the rough and tumble of the world around him.”
Let’s check ourselves when we find ourselves buying into the lone hero genius narrative.
Let’s start noticing our own potential and adopting a mindset of yes I can.
If it was easy everyone would do it
This idea has killed so much potential and ended so many dreams.
It builds on the idea of the lone genius and makes people believe that those who order them around or seem more important than them exist in some kind of special holy or sinister aura.
They don’t. They’re people just like us.
Did powerful politicians, inventors, musicians, and creators work hard as hell to get to where they are and do what they do? 100%.
But are they special species who we can only look up to? Not at all.
Don’t ordinary people work hard? Don’t ordinary people have great ideas and cool friends and things they’d love to change?
Yes, we can.
Yes, we will.
And in the process of discovery and progress, there’s a hell of a lot we’re going to find out that we never thought we would.
The myth of the lone genius is harming humanity.
It divides us into a false hierarchy and disempowers the “average” person into feeling ineffective and powerless.
Don’t get me wrong:
Having heroes and role models is excellent and inspiring. But never make the mistake of forgetting about the many men and women who surround every great figure of history.
We’re all in this together, and the actions and contributions of each of us matter.