A Time for Genius

Fifty years ago, I designed my first learning experience for executives who aspired to advance in their professional careers. It was called The Creative Genius Within. Its premise, simply stated, was that each of us was born a genius and that potential is still there – constrained to be sure but ready to be re-awakened.

The unprecedented, uncertain and grave circumstances we face today constitute a time for liberating that genius, individually as well as collectively. The world has changed in a matter of weeks. So we need to get “beyond the box” of our normal routines, the comfort zones we’ve built, our self-interest and the expectations we have of one another.

I was born just after the 2nd world war and have not known the hardship nor the self-sacrifice of those on whose shoulders I now stand. As a teacher of (and practitioner in) the concepts of risk and innovation, early last week I made an executive decision that was soon followed by others. At the time, I said to family members “I have never lived through a war but we are now in one.” And we need to summon our inner genius to combat an invading pathogen and win.

So, with a half century of experience under my belt and a desire to learn more every day about how we endeavour to deal with unknowns and strive to figure out the ever-changing complexities of life, these are my current thoughts about what that process of self-discovery and liberation actually means.

Genius thrives on unknowns. It lives outside the comfort of the familiar and transforms adversity or discomfort into curiosity. When we possess a willingness to tolerate and explore ambiguity, we’re forced to adapt and evolve. Hardship is the fuel that drives our creativity. It enables our inner genius to view complexity as an opportunity for change and a platform for growth.

No journey, especially the one towards our uncertain future, is a straight line. First, we make a lot of assumptions about what might happen. Some are validated, some eviscerated. But genius requires us to be open to improbabilities and failure. When we realize our plan is flawed, we must have the courage to change it.

Our ideas will always being judged; it goes with the territory of proposing something different. Genius looks for the inherent value and ignores the disparagement. The risk of negative judgements is integral to the quest for brilliance. If necessity is the mother of invention, genius is the union of uncertainty and possibility.

Without acceptance, ideas perish. But criticism is just feedback and feedback is useful data. To ignore it is to let our ego get in the way of our objective. Ego is real – acknowledge it but don’t allow it to impede action. Rejection is not a dead end; it’s simply an obstacle. It means try harder, consider a different direction, integrate the wisdom of lessons learned, and kick-start a new wave of creative thought. Learn to harness it as inspiration rather than allow it to cause anxiety or pain. Reframe it: ask “how does this help us get better?”

Genius starts with the kinds of questions others don’t ask. When we eliminate questions, we stifle enquiry. When asked by a group of journalists how long it would take to solve the greatest problem facing humanity, Einstein said this: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended upon it, I’d spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the right question to ask, for once I knew the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” At this time, we need to find the right questions.

Genius loves mistakes and mystery. Uncertainty propels it forward. It’s not about avoiding failure; it’s about recovering from error. It’s not about why it happened; it’s about what we do next. Genius knows we can sometimes look like idiots and that experimentation begets failure. That results in iteration and spurs the imagination. We can’t unleash our collective genius unless we challenge conventional wisdom about our constrains – we are especially programmed to be biased about certitude and risk. Innovation cannot occur when every variable, outcome and permutation must be known, tested and validated beforehand. Risk is the currency of progress.

Genius thinks more about the process (how we get there) than the outcome (what it might look like). No one can predict the future. So our common goal must be based on determination and endurance. There’s always another day. By the steps we take, we either add value or we subtract it. When we make a contribution to the betterment of others, what do we do next? We go “back at it” tomorrow. And the day after that. We must survive before we can thrive. Though we may never fully achieve it, we must aim for better. There’s always room for improvement.

Life is an endless process of unpredictable events and, in consequence, improbable new discoveries. But, by nature, we are worriers. We panic easily. Fear is an over-analysis of consequences yet to occur. Genius depends entirely on the ability to stay focused on what we need to learn. Resilience is the essence of our strength. This is now being tested.

“The path forward” has never been an easy one; life is full of surprises, some painful. Nor is it just; the meek will never inherit the earth. John Gardner said: “Life is tumultuous – an endless losing and regaining of balance, a continuous struggle, never an assured victory.” The world is moved by genius. We need to call upon that indomitable quality of mind – the one that enables us to face uncertainty and, with every ounce of our courage, prevail.