What Brilliance Looks Like

The world needs brilliance, and it always has. It’s rare and powerful, and when it has a chance to reach its full potential in just the right circumstances, we are all better off for it.

But brilliance can be a challenge. Those among us who march to the beat of a different drummer can be intimidating, or even strange. They don’t do small talk very well. You might not invite them to your next dinner party. They are not standard in any way.

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In fact, brilliance has never looked standard and can even appear to be broken. Albert Einstein didn’t speak until he was 4. Thomas Jefferson had an inability to relate to others. Nikola Tesla had intense sensitivity to light and sound. Sir Isaac Newton was quiet, not good at small talk, had extreme focus and would even forget to eat when he had too much to think about.

Today, Einstein would likely be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Jefferson is suspected to have had attention deficit disorder. Tesla possibly had mania. Sir Isaac Newton’s symptoms sound like a social anxiety disorder. We tend to label what we don’t really understand. We have certainly done that today to try and explain many of the very qualities that throughout history have been critical signposts and evidence of brilliance.

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Just think about Thomas Edison for a minute. What if you were one of his neighbors? Would you think he was crazy? He was always going in and out of his laboratory, sometimes staying there for days on end. It was rumored that he was so obsessive that he might not bathe or change clothes for days while he was on the hunt for something no one had ever thought of before. Ten thousand experiments to invent the light bulb? No problem. Creating the recording industry all by himself? A piece of cake. But the regular routines of life had to wait. He lived with few distractions on purpose because he had more important work to do.

 

Ten thousand experiments to invent the light bulb? No problem. Creating the recording industry all by himself? A piece of cake. But the regular routines of life had to wait.

 

Not surprisingly, there was a time when Edison’s mother had to rescue him. He was so far out of the educational norms of his day that she received a note one day that essentially said he was unteachable and unwelcome in the classroom. Edison was expelled because the system found him unworthy. His mother famously told him that the note said that he was really special and smart—too smart, in fact, to be in the regular school with the other kids who were certainly not his equal. So she home-schooled him, and he became a great inventor who transformed society. She is an unsung hero. Young Edison didn’t fit into the system, and neither do most brilliant people that we revere.

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I’ve studied tens of thousands of brilliant people, read their biographies, gotten to “know” them as much as I have been able to. And I have discovered this pattern: All of these geniuses were not like the rest of the world at all. But they are all very similar to each other. Each have had their own unique quirks and issues, and yet those very issues, and how they coped with them, are part of what made them amazing.

Let’s face it: The average person rolls along through life just trying to get from one day to the other. Brilliant people can’t imagine living their lives that way. In fact, they don’t know how. Their creative motor is always running, and they are just fine with that. Elon Musk is taking us to Mars! He can’t watch TV all day and still pull that off.

The truth is, we don’t need these people to be normal or standard in any way. We need them to try and fail 10,000 times to invent the next light bulb, or figure out a way to fly, or go to Mars, or improve our lives in some way that we would never have thought of or predicted. Why? Because they are brilliant and they always have been, even when the rest of the world is not quite sure what to make of them.

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Alex Charfen

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