Man rose out of the dust of Africa slower, weaker, and smaller than his prey. Modern depictions of early survival tend to show our ancestors surviving through ingenuity. They often show hunting scenes with cavemen using projectile weapons like bows, slingshots, or spears. But in reality, the invention of projectiles was an enormous feat that occurred relatively late in our history. Instead, a more representative depiction of our survival would involve persistence hunting – the tracking and chasing of animals until their body gave out – which is still practiced and likely was the dominant form of hunting in many areas for much longer than the use of projectile weapons.
Using genius as an explanation for things we don’t know extends to our understanding of successful ideas as well. In general, we tend to focus on the genius of the ideators rather than on the effort they expended to get things done. I call this bias the cult of genius. Many famous business peoples’ biographies are slanted along these lines. With regard to the self-made industrialists and inventors of the 1800s praising genius often made sense as everyone except the very rich worked long hours and it was crucial to have strokes of insight to overcome the barrier of poverty. It also fit in well with the prevailing Great Man theory of history popularized by Thomas Carlyle. However, genius alone as an explanation is less satisfactory in the current environment with fewer working hours and greater financial security. Too many of us can look around and see very smart, very unsuccessful people or very dumb and very successful people for this explanation to hold much weight.
Another reason the cult of genius is inaccurate is that the quality of a successful idea is generally different than what we perceive it to be. Most big ideas aren’t actually that big. Recently, incremental ideas, rather than the profound, have revolutionized how we live. For instance, Steve Jobs, the consummate genius in modern business literature, was much more of an incrementalist than people like to admit. Jobs got his start by borrowing the Graphical User Interface and mouse from Xerox and making improvements to them. Then he essentially borrowed and improved the ideas of the iPod, the smartphone, and tablet computer. His foil, Bill Gates, is much the same. As Steve Jobs said within Walter Isaacson’s biography of him, “Bill is basically unimaginative and has never invented anything … He just shamelessly ripped off other people’s ideas.” Fortunately, there’s nothing wrong with what either individual did – just our cultural understanding of it – and they will be recognized in history as two of the most successful people to ever live.
In fact, not only are many successful ideas more incremental than we traditionally think, they are often not even unique. Instead, many inventions and discoveries are made at approximately the same time by two or more completely unconnected people as was the case for the telephone, the automobile, and calculus.
So, if successful ideas are both smaller in magnitude and less unique than we think, how many of them actually required genius and how many were created through other means? Unfortunately, the continued belief in the genius of creators is pervasive and paralytic. By celebrating other people’s genius we make what they did seem almost mystical. We create a wall of difference between creators or inventors and ordinary people based on the unchangeable difference of intelligence. The message we perpetuate is that these people succeeded because they were irrevocably different than us. So the problem with the cult of genius isn’t just that it’s wrong, or at the very least overstated, it’s that by overestimating the quality of ideas we need to be successful we keep a lot of people from trying. But, we actually need to be encouraging as many innovators as we can, because the rate of entrepreneurship is declining in the U.S.
Of course, I think a large part of that has to do with how we explain success. If we want to have a nation of innovators and makers, we have to abandon the cult of genius. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that there is an adequate understanding of what actually makes innovation happen at the moment. Perhaps persistence is a better starting point than genius. You could certainly make a case it’s what sets humans apart. After all it wasn’t too long ago we had a 70 year old towing 70 rowboats behind him. The problem, of course, is if we don’t know in what manner to be persistent it won’t help. What we can definitively say, though, is that we won’t find a good framework if we keep propounding the broken one we currently use.