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As far as I can tell, true genius is a fairly simple affair. What geniuses do is straightforward enough—they recognize their gifts, and then they fully and completely embrace their craft.
By this I mean that they live it, twenty-four hours a day, for most of their adult life. The stories abound. Rumor has it that the English painter Lucien Freud rarely leaves his London studio, except to visit the National Museum during his favorite off-hours, between 11 P.M. and 5 A.M. To prepare for a role, the actor Daniel Day-Lewis will do things like live in a small box for days to recreate the physical limitations of a character with cerebral palsy. The great soprano Marilyn Horne does not speak while on tour, not even a word, until each night's concert has been given. The painter Andrew Wyeth does not wear a watch, for fear that any sort of schedule will interrupt the flow of his painting.
Surrendering Fully and Completely to Creativity
These people have achieved success because they surrendered fully and completely to their passion. Their first and utmost priority in their life is their work, and they give themselves to it without question. Geniuses do not wake up some days and "just not feel like it"; long ago they passed the threshold where one is controlled by such fleeting thoughts. Their work is the love of their life, a pull they are physically unable to resist.
This is how Beethoven composed the Ninth Symphony when he was stone deaf. This is how Monet painted his garden with his paintbrushes strapped to hands crippled with arthritis. This is how Matisse, in the final, most incredible phase of his career, created masterpieces of color and simplicity from his sickbed as an invalid. What the genius knows is out-and-out surrender to creativity.
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Once success begins, there is also the issue of responsibility. Geniuses will keep creating on a certain level because it is expected of them. But they also recognize the sacredness of the creative process and so remain authentic to the call. Consider the Nobel Prize-winning Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe, who quit writing fiction at the height of his popularity in Japan and around the world. Or, who in his novels wrote almost exclusively about his brain damaged son, felt he'd said everything he had to say in his fiction. And so he stopped, with the same bravery and total respect for honesty that had made him a success in the first place.
There are similar stories about the legendary airplane designer Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson, who founded Lockheed's underground technology think tank, the Skunk Works. In their book "Organizing Genius", authors Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman cite one Johnson story in which he returned millions of dollars to the Air Force after deciding his team could not build a hydrogen-powered plane. Johnson did this freely, despite the considerable financial loss such a move meant for Lockheed.
Genius Surrendering to the Emotional Demands of Work
A genius will also surrender to all the emotional demands of his work, no matter how frightening or challenging they may be, even if they entail public excoriation. Orson Welles will always be considered a genius, and Citizen Kane will always be one of the great movies of all time, but not because either was polite, well-liked, or properly socialized. In fact, Citizen Kane (which was a scathing, thinly-veiled portrayal of William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies) was screened only briefly after it was made and won only one Oscar (for best screenplay). The movie was hidden away in the RKO vault for more than a decade because the studio was afraid to fully release it.
And as for Welles, he was openly booed at the 1941 Oscars each time his name was mentioned, and he retained semi-pariah status for the rest of his career. Yet when you look at Citizen Kane even today, it is almost overpowering in its freshness. It remains a unique, haunting portrait of a character that, like the best of Shakespeare, simply refuses to go away.
The story is the same throughout history. Look at how impressionism began: Manet, Monet, Renoir, and Degas first showed their vision to the world outside the Academy in Paris, in a tent bearing the sign "Salon des Refusés" (Exhibit of the Rejects), after Academy officials refused to exhibit their work.
Parisian crowds laughed at the paintings and were particularly scandalized by Manet's Olympia, a portrait of a common woman, most likely a prostitute, painted utterly realistically to mock the Academy's neoclassical "divine maidens". In fact, Olympia had to be hung high, so to be kept safe from the walking sticks and umbrellas people hurled in its direction. Yet today these works are among the most beloved of all paintings, while neoclassicism long ago stopped drawing huge crowds.
Surrendering to the Touch of Genius Without Ourselves
Genius is brash and audacious. It smashes convention with delight and refuses to be ignored. It defies the social animal in all of us that's trained to be polite, clever, and adorable, and it chooses the path of raw veracity every time. Genius exists for itself and the sheer joy of its release into the world, and yet it exists for us as well. We need its power and its roughness, just as we need the tranquility of the everyday.
Geniuses have genius because they simply have no choice. Their gift is prodigious enough that they won't have a moment's peace until they have ridden its wild horses straight into the sun.
And all of us, in fact, have a touch of this genius. Whether our gift is baking bread, assessing environmental hazards, teaching children, or powerhouse investing, it's never going to be enough to just dabble a little here and a little there. If you wish for full satisfaction, you must give yourself completely to this work, 100 percent.
Now, this does not mean that you have to quit your day job and go live on the street while you pursue your goal. Nor does it mean you must live like a hermit and eschew normality. Rather, when you are able to work, you must dive into your pursuit with bravery, gusto, and out-and-out abandon. And above all else, you must work!
Do not hold back or quibble over details. Do not doubt your process or be afraid. Open the floodgates and let yourself disappear into your vision. Turn yourself inside out and risk complete exposure. Dig into the raw material before you as if it were raw clay craving your touch. No matter what you do, do it as fully and completely as you can. And like so much butterfat, the work which has the highest concentration of "you" will rise to the surface first, crying out to be tasted.
No one has ever celebrated a genius who took things only halfway. Indeed, the world looks to them not just for vision and inspiration but to take comfort in the pure dare of celebrating life as fully as possible. This is the province of true creative genius, a place of no boundaries, no restraints, and no taboos.
How Big Are You Willing To Be?
Not how big are you going to be, but how big are you willing to be, emphasis on the word willing.
The power with which you waltz through this life is absolutely and completely in your own hands, and it can be tremendous. Your mind can access infinite wisdom and prosperity, and your body can produce extraordinary health and strength. They will do this for you, but only if you are willing.
If you aren't, what you get is what many of us have: substantial debt, bad backs, annoying children, excruciating jobs. And with that comes a passer of longing for other people's homes, lawns, jobs, lives, kids, and credit ratings. In this country, especially, we believe in the power of more money to lubricate the wounds. We see a larger house as the panacea to a stultifying marriage. We imagine a big vacation to be the thing that will finally bond our families. Yet all of those problems are quite solvable within the confines of our too-small, inadequate homes behind lawns crawling with crabgrass. All it requires is for us to give up being small and whiney, and finally to start to get big.
The Process Begins With A Question
The process begins with a question: What is it that you get from your current arrangement? And believe me, you're definitely getting something. Inadequate jobs are excellent places to hide. Lousy marriages are wonderful protectors of the soft part of your heart. (God forbid that you are actually with someone who means something to you—you might get hurt!) And having no money relieves one of all those nasty adult responsibilities, like paying taxes, investing in IRAs, and saving for college tuitions.
The mind is wonderfully literate this way, for it truly will produce whatever it is that you want, and by this I don't mean surface desires but those which dwell in that deep place far within. Here is the seat of your power, a place accessed by visualizations, prayers, mantes, dreams, and the subconscious.
And while I do not know exactly where this big black place is, I know when I'm in touch with it.
Then my desires run as clear and unimpeded as water in a stream. They're not weighted down with the freight of a million doubting thoughts. They're not scrambling over a mountain of mental logistics. They simply are. I want to lead workshops. I want to write novels. I want to have a wonderful marriage. I want a son and a daughter.
They are simple moments of truth that we take possession of, know in our soul, and don't let go of, no matter what. And they are forces that drive us through thick and thin and past obstacle after obstacle. They are, in fact, that still, small voice that never, ever gives up.
Don't Think You're Worth It?
So why aren't we all walking about like the sturdily bastions of power we actually are?
Simple. We don't think we're worth it.
We stick ourselves in so-so jobs because this is all we assume we can handle. We believe the ho-hum salary that goes along with it is all we deserve. Like anorexics, we refuse to allow ourselves more than just barely enough money, or health, or love, or sex, or creativity because deep down inside we are ashamed. We figure we are guilty of a thousand unmentionable sins, so why even bother trying to emerge?
Furthermore, we are afraid. Our power is like a huge and unnatural tool to us—a roaring chainsaw, when we're accustomed to using a nail file. Yet the things that chainsaw can and will do for us are amazing when applied with care and precision. All that is required is that we wake up, open our eyes, and start taking responsibility.
We must allow ourselves to actually see what is in front of us and not merely ride along on the old, popular interpretation. We have to listen to what people say around us, putting our concentration into what's coming out of their mouths instead of what's about to come out of ours. We must constantly assess and evaluate from a place of deeper clarity, a place unaware of politics, favors, trends, or the ephemeral workings of coolness. It's those old first-grade rules for crossing the street: Stop, Look, and Listen. All of these are things we were designed to do.
Acting Deliberately, Honestly, and Intuitively
Our power also demands that we act deliberately, for it has no time for sidestepping. We must be unafraid to be utterly honest, to honor our gut feelings on things, and to say and do the unpopular when necessary. We have to give up our addiction to other people's opinions and surrender to the freedom of acting with strength and courage. There will be detractors, just like there always have been. That won't change. What does change when you start to live from your power is that you care progressively less and less.
You will start to see the humor in all their petty concerns. You will actually begin to delight in people's taunting names for you or in the lacerations of the press. Then it will all be so relative it will be scary, because along with power comes massive amounts of perspective and commitment. Another person's snipes and snideness will become a sad projection of their own weak character. Your ability to empathize will be heightened, and little that anyone says or does will hurt you.
Hard-Wired for Power: Living At Your Maximum Potential
Your power will carry you through whatever you undertake, just like Luke Skywalker's protective "Force". And while you may not always succeed, you will remain relatively unscathed in the process. Your projects may "fail" on a public level, not eliciting many sales or becoming critical hits, but for you they will always be sacred—that thing you did which you truly believed in and loved. And behind that failure will still be substantial joy and pride.
Best of all, you will know you are living as you were meant to live, at your maximum potential. The nagging thoughts of "I should" and "I really ought" will dry up and disappear as you move deeper and deeper into your correct place on earth. The work that lies ahead will no longer seem intimidating but something you look forward to ripping into with your chainsaw. And as you merrily smash conventions and see the ripple effect of your power at play, you will connect once again with that core happiness that has to do with your place on earth.
Whether you realize it or not, you were hard-wired for power long ago. And plugging into that power requires no more than simply letting go of the fear, deciding you're worth it, and doing that which comes naturally.
The small voice will tell you what to do—all you have to do is listen. Whether you know it or not, the Force is already with you.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Beyond Words Publishing. http://www.beyondword.com
How Much Joy Can You Stand? A Creative Guide to Facing Your Fears and Making Your Dreams Come True
by Suzanne Falter-Barns.
(Newer paperback edition, different cover)
Discover how to ignite the fire in your belly and get your creative juices flowing; when to run from helpful advice; whether talent really matters; and how to stick with your work even in the face of couch-potato attacks and complete creative meltdown. Hands-on exercises follow each short, pungent chapter to put you back on track toward achieving your goals--and realizing your dreams!
New book by this Author: The Extremely Busy Woman's Guide to Self-Care: Do Less, Achieve More, and Live the Life You Want
About The Author
SUZANNE FALTER is a novelist and writer of inspirational books. She is the author of a novel, Doin' the Box Step. Her articles and essays have appeared in Self, Fitness, Adweek, and The New York Times Op-Ed page. Suzanne Falter-Barns is also available as a public speaker and consultant. For more information and a schedule of workshops and appearances, please visit the "How Much Joy Can You Stand?" website at SuzanneFalter.com/blog/