Geniuses Aren’t Born – They’re Made

By David

December 4, 2013   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

Books like The Da Vinci Curse by Leonardo Lospennato do a good job of summing up a problem of our
time: that anyone striving to be a universal genius will inevitably fail.

Because today, unlike in Da Vinci’s
time, there’s so much competition out there in every field that only people who devote themselves to
one subject are successful. Anyone who wants to be a professional high flyer, the “Father of the Year,” a
star violinist, a globetrotter and an art connoisseur all at once should either rethink his priorities or feel
satisfied about being incredibly mediocre in each of these fields. After all, it’s rare for a genius to be an

The secret trick: lots of practice and even more mistakes

Alleged geniuses like Mozart, Goethe and Picasso are not famous the world over for their unique inborn
gifts: they were simply lucky enough to be born with a certain amount of talent that they could then
cultivate with a whole lot of hard work and dedication.

Anyone who wants to emulate a genius should take note of the fact that neither Mozart nor Einstein
changed his profession every couple of years. One reason why Steve Jobs was so successful was that he
put all his energy into one thing – and in the process sacrificed his chance of ever winning the “Father of
the Year” award. It’s not to say that this path doesn’t have potholes, traffic and detours, but instead that
only people who experiment without fear of failure and accept that they can learn from it are bound to
produce great things.

Napoleon and the light bulb: getting rich by thinking?

Over 100 years ago, Napoleon Hill asked himself whether the success of outstanding personalities could
be explained by a formula. Did they all use the same toothpaste? Did they all follow the same traveling
priest? Hill’s answer, which he used as the basis for his book Think and Grow Rich, was far more
rudimentary: for him, success and wealth were the consequence of having a clear goal and a burning
desire to achieve it. And so, we can reinforce what we already knew about Mozart, Einstein and Jobs:
they all worked hard and were ready to accept mistakes and failures.

Even after more than 10,000 failed experiments, Thomas Edison was not discouraged from achieving his goal of inventing an electric light source. He was driven by the desire to make his dream a reality. After years of hard work, he finally succeeded with the invention of the light bulb. Writer Fannie Hurst’s story is similar: she had to cope with over 36 rejections before a single short story was published in a newspaper. Once that happened, her career as a successful novelist and playwright took off. Her burning desire was stronger than the frustration she felt about various rejections – and she was ultimately rewarded with success.

But all this raises a new question: if the path to success is so obvious, why are there so few people who
take it?

Keeping all your options open is the road to mediocrity

Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational talks broadly about why we human beings use our gift of rational
thinking and decision-making so infrequently. Or, to give a concrete example, why we promise ourselves
we’ll stop eating sweets so we can look good in a bathing suit, yet, as soon as we’ve filled our shopping
carts with fruits and vegetables at the supermarket, we still break down and throw in a chocolate bar on
our way to the cash register. Or why, once we’ve fulfilled our dream of having a Porsche, we want a
Ferrari. Or, finally, why we put off making decisions and keep all other options open in the meantime,
even if it means taking the road to mediocrity or, worse, to a state of constant dissatisfaction.

People are obsessed with keeping their options open, even when it hurts them in the long run. We humans try to keep our options open as much as possible: in our education, our careers and our choice of romantic partner. Some might say that, in an uncertain world, it makes sense to leave open as many avenues as possible, but not making a decision also carries consequences. A person indecisive between two career paths, say architecture and IT engineering, may not whole-heartedly pursue either, and hence end up a mediocre architect or programmer.

Which, in turn, raises the question of how to solve this dilemma. Although countless books have an
answer to this question, at the moment we’d like to focus on one classic and one recent bestseller.

Efficiency vs. effectiveness: a small, but subtle difference

Stephen R. Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a classic in the advice and productivity
genre. Like Napoleon Hill, Covey investigated what it is that makes people who have made extraordinary
achievements different from others. The book relies on mantras such as “first thing’s first” and “sharpen
the saw,” i.e., it encourages readers to prioritize and keep themselves balanced. He argues that, in order
to have enough time to do so, you have to understand the difference between efficiency and

Many people work towards meaningless goals. They simply worry about being efficient rather than effective. Being efficient, i.e getting the maximum amount done in the shortest amount of time, is pointless if you don’t know why you’re doing it. Not knowing what’s really important to you and what you’re working towards is like climbing a ladder which is set against the wrong wall. To avoid this, it is important to first be clear about your long-term goals. To this end, it can be useful to ask yourself the Funeral-Questions: What do I want people to say about me at my funeral? What sort of person do I want to be remembered as? What do I want to be remembered for?

That’s why answering these (admittedly somewhat morbid) questions shouldn’t be too difficult for
anyone who wants to put Leo Babauta’s The Power of Less into practice.

Productive minimalism, or: why less is more

In just a few years, Babauta has become a guru of productive minimalism. Babauta – once an unhappy,
overweight, chain-smoking “Jack of all trades, master of none” – is now a living paradigm of minimalism,
practicing yoga, eating healthily, writing, and spending time with his family. His success speaks for itself,
and happiness seems to literally ooze out of him. His advice sounds as simple as it does plausible:

Living without restrictions is like shopping without a credit limit. Because the only way we end up concentrating on what’s truly important is when we’re forced to budget. In short, budgeting helps us stop wasting time and energy on things that aren’t actually worth it. By consciously limiting ourselves, we create space for important things and get rid of the unimportant ones. For example, by not taking on unimportant projects, we give ourselves time to spend with our loved ones.

In summary, we recognize that people can only truly be geniuses or achieve success if they work hard
and consciously choose certain options over others. Veering off the paths of mediocrity and taking
drastic measures is worth it, as Ariely describes in his book Predictably Irrational:

In 210 BC, after the Chinese commander Xiang Yu had ferried his army across the Yangtze River, he set fire to his own ships. He did this to show his troops that retreat was not an option. In response, they fought so ferociously that they won nine battles consecutively.

Think about it, have you ever made such a gutsy, all-or-nothing decision or do you know someone who
has? If so, we’d love to hear about it in the comments. Your story just might inspire someone else to take

Written on 12/4/2013 by Sebastian Klein. Sebastian Klein is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of He lives in Berlin and holds a Master degree in psychology with a focus on teaching psychology. Sebastian has invented “blinks” – a made for mobile format to learn the most important insights from non-fiction books on-the-go and he’s dedicating his time to think of new ways of presenting content that better fits into today’s reading habits.

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