Recovering your genius

How presence shapes history and innovation

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Wake up, check Instagram, then email, coffee, headphones in, what’s the news?, Twitter, head to work, Slack, meeting, coffee, Zoom, lunch at your desk, coffee number three, Slack, gym, Instagram, finish that podcast, check your email, check it again, dinner, Netflix, Instagram while watching Netflix, a little dessert, read a few pages of your book, email in bed to make sure there are no last minute emergencies, lay awake and briefly allow yourself to feel the crushing gravity of your eventual death, go to sleep.

Most of our days are a series of short, choppy beats like this. A succession of events, one after the next. There’s no momentum building in the distance. There’s no bigger goal that we’re heading towards. Which makes those final seconds of the day—the ones where we actually contemplate our purpose on planet earth—so utterly crushing.

Instead of being awash with purpose, it feels as if we’re cramming each minute of each day, with another activity, another distraction. And this has degraded more than just our quality of life, it has degraded our genius.

How is it that, one man, could lay the foundation for civil engineering, chemistry, geology, geometry, hydrodynamics, mathematics, optics, physics, and zoology? How one man—an artist, no less—could make such profound contributions to so many disparate fields of science?

I recall being told a story of a summer trip Leonardo Da Vinci took to Milan. During his idle time, wandering the city’s streets, he became enamored with an unsuspecting creature. One he—and everyone else in the city, for that matter— had happened upon countless times.

It was his fascination with the lowly pigeon that beckoned his empty mind. He watched as their heads wobbled a few inches forward and back, with each step they took. He marveled at the first few beats their wings took, fighting gravity, achieving lift. He noticed how each feather was gentle in its own right, but if overlapped in just the right way, formed a flexible, water-tight armor.

A moment of quiet intentionality, a moment of presence, sparked an obsession that would last decades.

A simple walk—undistracted by conversation, or books, or news—lead to some of our most foundational understandings of avian and human anatomy. The fruits of which are credited as giving us one of the earliest known designs for human flight.

Through this method, Da Vinci became a pioneer in a multitude of scientific disciplines. He was not a genius, no. Rather, with the eye of an artist, he was able to see everyday things in a way that the rest of us could not.

His ability to sit undistracted, for hours at a time: Tinkering, touching, and studying a subject, its nuance, its curves and features. His mind was completely present. This presence—not his technical ability to paint—is why we’re still talking about him with incredible reverence, five hundred years after his death.

It’s tempting to believe that intelligence is the pathway to genius; when in fact, it’s those who have cultivated the ability to take notice. It’s this presence, this attentiveness, that creates the stratum between the merely knowledgable and the truly wise. By harnessing the ability to find nuance in the seemingly mundane, ordinary people, no smarter than you or I, have been able to shape the course of history.

Take for instance Noble Laureate, Jennifer Doudna. She didn’t toil away in a laboratory for years, architecting some unique way to edit DNA. No, instead she spent an entire career observing how bacteria have naturally been doing it for over a thousand millennia. Then with an acute set of skills, she was able to harness that very same machinery for her own purposes.

Through focused observation, she emulated the genius of nature, in much of the same way Da Vinci did with his flying machines. Neither created anything new per say, instead they wisely copied—and adapted—designs that were already in plain sight.

All great inventors, entrepreneurs, and pioneers have this one thing in common; they notice what others do not.

It was in the garden of Woolsthorpe Manor, that Sir Isaac Newton, witnessed something he had seen countless times before. An apple, falling down, always down, towards the earth. It was in his bathtub, quietly, undistracted, where Archimedes had his eureka moment, observing how water spilled over the side as he entered. In was on the dairy-farm, where Edward Jenner realized that milkmaids seemed to be the only people immune to smallpox. Could he harness this immunity, and give it to others?

It was not intelligence that set them apart; rather, it was their ability to sit alone, undistracted, and watch. Therefore, the most critical skill any of us can cultivate is our power of attention.

But we are beset on all sides by a chorus of distractions. Distractions designed to do one thing: eradicate boredom. And we’re shockingly close to reaching that end. The problem with this, however, is that with the disappearance of boredom comes the disappearance of thoughtful observation. Boredom, in its strange way, is pure and distilled presence.

You cannot simultaneously be creative and curious, while also being force fed media. You can’t witness the machinery of gene editing, if you’re consumed by literally anything other than a microscope. You can’t notice the wings of a pigeon, if you’re too caught up in today’s breaking news.


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