by Jennifer Paros
I believe that mediocrity is self-inflicted and that genius is self-bestowed.
~ Walter Russell
Geniuses are often perceived as having special brains, but the truth is that without the determination to give full attention to their internal drives and passions, there could be no such thing as genius. This determined personal focus is available to all of us, though societal expectations sometimes mark it as noncompliant and problematic. In actuality, an intense bias for one’s inner life may be an indicator of a brilliant system hard at work, striving to establish its unique creative drive.
Jake Barnett is currently fifteen, finishing his Ph.D. in Mathematics and Astrophysics, and considered an inevitable contender for a Nobel Peace Prize. He’s been termed a genius; he was also diagnosed as autistic at age two. At the time, his parents were told he would never speak or read and even the acquisition of skills like tying his shoes was uncertain. So, they provided him with all the recommended, extensive therapies. After a time, however, feeling the care was detrimentally centered on what he couldn’t do rather than what he could, against expert advice, Jake’s mother Kristine stopped the therapies.
Instead of judging his fixations, she encouraged the determined interest behind the behaviors—behaviors like spinning himself and others, creating elaborate string webs across rooms, and staring at water in glasses and patterns of light. She joined him in his world, loved him unconditionally, and created a bridge he could gradually cross to pursue his passions and thrive in this reality, not only in his internal life. In a year, he started talking again and soon his love for and advanced knowledge of astronomy made itself known. Kristine writes about Jake’s journey and her understanding of nurturing genius in her memoir, The Spark.
Kristine Barnett’s instinct and the trajectory of Jake’s development ask us to look at what we call “genius,” what we label “disorder” or “dysfunction,” and how we make these determinations. Jake’s “dysfunctional” behaviors later proved to be reflections of his germinating interests and intelligence. Perhaps in our formulating of how to learn and how it’s normal to be, we’re not perceiving human potential and development accurately. Jake’s example can cue our attention to characteristics and impulses that lie within each of us, which when allowed to become our central focus, grow in the way all genius grows: through fervent attention and exultation in the process.
In its purest form, Jake Barnett’s story is an example of trusting an inborn system of intelligence, a part of us that guides, directs, and supports. This is actually the original derivation of the word genius: a guardian spirit born to each of us. Every person’s genius will not necessarily lead to a career in astrophysics and mathematics, or to prestigious awards. But those are singular expressions of intelligence and passion in a world that thrives on variety. We all might thrive, as Jake Barnett does in his rich fulfillment of self, with achievement as the natural outcome but by no means the goal, nor the greatest value.
Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.
~ Albert Einstein
The intensely self-focused characteristic of autism, the behaviors of which often alarm us, may hold relevance in understanding the nature of genius and the role of nonconformity in our ability to thrive. It’s possible behaviors labeled odd and wrong are ignored or pathologized because of a lack of clear understanding. If we’re misunderstanding what we’re seeing, we’re misjudging it—and from there we can only act in misguided ways. With an understanding of the bigger picture, what appears monstrous under the microscope can be understood as an unbroken part of a healthy whole.
Geniuses are about singularity and intensity of focus. These are people who instinctively, determinedly pursue their interests, regardless. They do not conform to the usual way people develop or societal expectations and that is how they exceed those expectations. They exceed others’ expectations by ignoring them.
If we open ourselves to a new definition of what it means to be intelligent, if genius is the given rather than that which is to be proven, we will recognize its signs more often. We might be more respectful and curious about what expresses and encourages it, allowing it space, time, and love, rather than trying to direct it into a familiar pattern of development.
To my mind, genius is the given; it’s the gift of focus we’ve all been given, that when applied to what we love, grows beyond anyone’s expectations. And it is you.
Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at www.jenniferparos.com.