Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Unappreciated Genius

I wonder how often people go through life thinking that they are a genius and feeling underappreciated when they are really just ordinary... or even subpar. Underappreciated genius is so rare as to be nearly nonexistent. The grandiose delusion of undiscovered genius leading to feelings of underappreciation is so common it should be listed as a separate personality disorder in the DSM IV.

Unappreciated Genius
It's a fine line between stupid and clever.

David St. Hubbins, Spinal Tap
No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.

It's impossible to tell the difference between someone infinitely ahead of you and someone infinitely behind you. We only reasonably calibrate people whose skill levels are close to our own.

As I read Unappreciated Genius' comment on Delayed Appreciation Sunday (OK, he or she actually left the comment anonymously, so I thought it would be nice to assign her a nom de plume), I was struck by the rich set of emotionally held beliefs wrapped up in one small comment that seemed only tangentially associated with the post that inspired it. As I thought about them, it occurred to me that perhaps it would be fun to play with them a bit.

Busy People
The first phrase that caught my attention was, go through life thinking. My thought was that to go through life thinking anything in particular would probably qualify as some form of dysfunction. I think the formal term in the DSM IV would be stuck. I've never actually known anyone who went through life thinking about anything in particular, but I have known some people who would get caught up in thinking, discussing, lamenting and rehashing ideas and situations for weeks and even months at a time.

For people who persist in thinking about and discussing the same stuff over and over, I believe the prescription found in the DSM IV is to get over it or as Faith explained it once, Just Stop It!. I've always thought that perseverating on anything was simply a side-effect of having nothing much to do and the best solution is to start actually doing something. Busy people never perseverate.

The second phrase to catch my attention was when they are really just ordinary... or even subpar. Ahhh... where to start. I guess I'll start with the idea that someone is really anything in particular. The idea that you're really this or really that is kind of like taking a snapshot, waving it about and calling the result a movie. Each of us is constantly changing, growing and morphing into someone new.

There are of course the perennial seekers of "the real me" and spiritual questions regarding who it is that observes when you see yourself doing something, but the idea that there is this static definition of you that you may embrace or flirt with or deny is just kind of silly and certainly not very useful. In any moment, you can be this and in the next you can be that; baggage is optional.

Beyond believing that there is this real you that you can deny, Unappreciated Genius goes on to say that the real you can be summed up to a single net value that can be compared to the real net sums of others. I don't know if Unappreciated would go so far as to prescribe an exact distribution of values across the general population, but he does seem to imply something of a bell curve with true unappreciated genius residing somewhere in the four- or five-sigma range.

There are so many parameters that you could use to quantify you that it seems unreasonable to believe you could net it out to above-par, par or sub-par. I guess you might be able to do it within a category, but unless the category were narrowly defined it would be meaningless. For example, musicians would be too general. Guitar players? Electric guitar players? Electric guitars players who specialize in blues? ? Electric guitars players who specialize in blues between 1940 and 1950? Electric guitars players who specialize in blues between 1940 and 1950 who composed their own music?

Even if you sufficiently narrowed the domain, everything would be in flux.

And of course, there is the more obvious question: Even if you came up with a narrowly defined and specific quantitative metric, so what?

OK, just a couple of more. Here's a fun one: The grandiose delusion of undiscovered genius.... Ahh... if only more people would see themselves so grandiosely and then strive to fulfill it.

Yesterday, as Faith and I discussed her business plan, we Q-and-A'd our way to the root cause of her recent bouts of ambivalence. Lately, as she's shared her plan with others she's received advice that's run the gamete: Start fast and run with your intuition... Take your time and plan... You need to raise capital... You can run this without any additional funds... How do you know this going to work? Why are you so hesitant?

As I listened to Faith I mentioned to her that great entrepreneurs, inventors, composers, artists and writers are necessarily arrogant; they believe they can accomplish something that no one else has accomplished and they do so despite a loud consensus of contrary opinion. Unfortunately, the test genius is not unlike the old testament test of a prophet. A prophet is a true prophet if what she professed happened, i.e., false until proven otherwise.

Of course, with genius, you still never know. As one of my friends often said, "Better lucky than smart."

Since it's all delusional anyway, the question is more one of what delusion will better serve you, the one that suggests you're a genius or the one that suggests otherwise?

OK, here's the last one: leading to feelings of underappreciation is so common it should be listed as a separate personality disorder in the DSM IV.

I would have to say that there is probably not a person on the planet who is not under-appreciated. Very few of us appreciate what we ourselves have to offer let alone what others have to offer: delusional indeed.

If there is any dysfunction to speak of, it would be 'negative' feelings associated with being unappreciated. When we make being unappreciated a bad thing, we shift our specialness from our genius to our being misunderstood or ignored or scorned. In the pursuit of genius, my question would be, "Well duh... what did you expect?"

However, more generally, since every person on the planet goes largely unappreciated, why would being unappreciated (or under-appreciated) make you special?

Further Appreciation Tuesday
So, in honor of Unappreciated Genius (whoever you are), I'd like to declare today Further Appreciation Tuesday. To celebrate Further Appreciation Tuesday find a partner with whom you interact regularly, sit down together with a cup of tea, a glass of wine or a mug of beer and write down a list of things that you do that go largely unappreciated (even by you and even if it doesn't bother you that they're unappreciated). Share your lists with one another and then celebrate all those beautiful unappreciated skills, talents and activities.

Happy Further Appreciation Tuesday!


  1. @Unappreciated genius: Thank you for reminding me that we all look at the world through our own glasses. We may be friends, family or neighbors, or live in the same country. This doesn’t mean that we think the same way and interpreted the world the same way.
    I cannot remember the last time I met an “ordinary or even subpar person”. I cannot even imagine how such a person would look like or act. To me people seem all unique individuals, nothing ordinary about them. With some I relate a lot, and others I totally don’t understand. Some persons do things the way I would do them, others totally not.
    You seem to think a different way then me. Does that make you or me ordinary? I would say: it makes us unique. And do we appreciate people for their uniqueness? I believe we don’t! So, I want to thank you for your words in this blog, as a reminder that we are all unique.

    @Mark: I appreciate you writing this article after I didn’t come through with my draft yesterday. I don’t think that people who read this blog, but not write for the blog, understand what a due diligence it takes to write such fabulous stimulating stuff on such a regular basis. I am in awe about your persistence and talent in this area and I hope to enjoy your writings for a long time to come.

    1. Super comment, Iris. Nature would not ever let anyone or anything to be the same. Our world changes in its every instant, so are we, and in the most unthinkable ways. We have this strange "ability" to see what we see with Great Crudeness, and therefore we are putting things and individual living beings in our man-made categories, as "the same" non-existing, collective prototypes. However, the most precious gift everyone of us possesses is our uniqueness, whether we manage to "fit" man-made categories or not.

      Our human society is recycling its mentality for millennia, trying to categorize "things" we still do not understand.

      vera nova

  2. Very very cool, Iris. The ability to see each person as unique & interesting means that the world holds infinite fascination, that life is just scream-from-the-rooftops joyful and fun every day.

    As for Tef's ability to write stimulating stuff so regularly - it absolutely awes me, but as I mentioned before, I'm working hard on not letting the awe make it difficult. And he's certainly under-appreciated; if I were to express my appreciation each time, I'd sound like a broken record :-).

  3. Sree, thank you!

    For some reason, I thought of another quote from Spinal Tap. A discussion between the lead singer and the bass player.

    Derek Smalls: We're lucky.
    David St. Hubbins: Yeah.
    Derek Smalls: I mean, people should be envying us, you know.
    David St. Hubbins: I envy us.
    Derek Smalls: Yeah.
    David St. Hubbins: I do.
    Derek Smalls: Me too.

  4. :-)

    And I thought of this one, from the movie 'Zorba the Greek':

    A man needs a little madness, or else...he never dares cut the rope and be free.


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