Are You a Genius or a Fraud?

Many people are crippled by deciding how to grade their skills and value.

One time, when I was a small child, I saw Hank Aaron go to bat. He had already hit his 500th home run. I was looking forward to seeing this genius do his thing. I was devastated when he struck out. Some genius, I recall thinking. As an eight-year-old, my first thought was that I could have done exactly what he did.

Of course, Hank knew something that I, at the time, did not. Genius is about averages, not every time at bat. If every time you strike out, you imagine that you might be a fraud, you will make yourself insane.

The best ball player I knew as a kid dropped out because he couldn’t handle the constant seesawing between being loved and hated by teammates and the crowd, depending on the last play. One minute, team members are carrying you around as a hero, and the parents are cheering. The next play had to be great yet again else everyone would be devastated and disappointed. You would be shunned. No victory lasts. It’s just part of the game, but this kid wanted out and eventually went into a profession where the pressure wasn’t so intense.

And yet, the problem of constantly deciding whether we are great or terrible at what we do, toying with the belief that we are geniuses just before worrying that we will be exposed as frauds, is just part of life.

Your Post Is Stupid

Some people are crippled by the fear of getting it wrong and never say anything. You can experience this on social media any day. You research a topic, develop a solid opinion on it, post it, only to have people point out your abysmal ignorance minutes later. Oddly, our critics are often right about us: there is a point we didn’t know or we overlooked. Maybe it doesn’t change the outcome of our opinion, but we surely should have known this before posting.

Some people are crippled by the fear of getting it wrong and never say anything. Some people become enormously accomplished but never quite believe it. They are victims of what is called the Imposter Syndrome, which is the belief that every achievement is really just a lucky break or a benefit from the ignorance of one’s peers or that we have temporarily pulled the wool over people’s eyes.

In my experience, it is more common that people toggle between belief that they are great and then terrible, great then terrible, over and over again, before finally settling into a belief that we are all something in between.

Am I a Star or a Fraud?

A good example comes from an account of a man who competed as a pianist in the amatuer Van Cliburn contest in the 1990s. In his account,

I haven't felt this nervous before any recital and tell myself that I should be confident, having already made it through the previous rounds. But I can't shake the fear that I'm a fraud who lucked into the finals while all the other finalists are pros, even if they're called amateurs. An extra degree of scrutiny directed at me is attributable to the conspicuous nature of my profession [journalist], which is no consolation at the moment. Reverse psychology – I'm not a fraud, I'm a star – doesn't help, either. Star, fraud – the only thing I conclude is that I should be focusing on the music.

That article appeared in 1999, and the passage above is the one that stood out to me. It signifies that search that all of us make to define a sense of precisely who we are based on our skill level and, in turn, what to expect from others in their treatment of us. Mostly, however, it works in the opposite direction. We extract information from what others around us say about us and infuse that sense into our self-perceptions.

Just like in little league baseball, this happens to everyone throughout life. You do something amazing, and everyone sings your praises. But now you have a new problem: expectations are newly high for your performance. This is especially true if you have won or received a promotion or raise: now you have to get out there and kill it every time, else you will be seen as undeserving.

There’s an added problem to being perceived as a genius. Others will want to tear you down and revel in your fall. Envy is the most hidden but most deeply dangerous of the deadly sins. Those whom envy victimizes are almost always surprised because they were expecting their achievement to be followed by accolades and promotion, not resentment and nefarious plots. But the only way fully to avoid envy is intolerable: never be excellent.

Ignore Everyone

One solution is to do your best to shut out external stimula. Michael Scott of The Office is, as usual, wrong. He says, “Don't listen to your critics, only listen to your fans.” That’s classic Scott: arrogant, obtuse, unself-aware of the absurdity of what he is saying.

A priest friend of mine gave better advice. He told me to listen to my critics, not my fans. The second part about not listening to fans is essential to not having an inflated and unsustainable perception of yourself as a genius. It also keeps you humble. The first part about listening to your critics, however, can be demoralizing if you take it too far – especially if you are active on Twitter.

We have a bad habit of believing that greatness is embodied in one actor, one mind, one life. Here, the priest is echoing St. Augustine: “It’s easy enough to think about grandeur, easy enough to enjoy honors, easy enough to give our ears to yes-men and flatterers. To put up with abuse, to listen patiently to reproaches, to pray for the insolent, this is the Lord’s cup, this is sharing the Lord’s table.”

Another solution strikes me as balanced. What if all of us are both geniuses in some respects and frauds in other respects? What if all of us are a mix of both? This strikes me as an answer that is consistent with the observation of F.A. Hayek that true genius is both individual and social. They are mutually dependent and inextricably linked. In the same way, the perception that we are frauds is nothing but the sudden realization of the imperfectability of the human personality in the face of the kaleidic uncertainty of time. Both are true.

No One Mind

On the point about genius, we have a bad habit of believing that greatness is embodied in one actor, one mind, one life. But Thomas Carlyle was just wrong: no man is so great as to earn him the right to rule his fellows.

Nor do we find unique geniuses in the history of invention. Despite the high reputations of the Wright Brothers, Alexander Graham Bell, and Eli Whitney, there is in fact an ongoing dispute about who was first in flight, who invented the telephone, and whether the cotton gin was actually improved much at all by Whitney’s machine.

Historians of invention have yet to discover any innovations that were genuinely the product of a single mind. What we find again and again is the phenomenon of Multiple Discovery, with many people competing for the title of the first. It is for this reason that Nobel Prizes are increasingly given to teams of researchers. It seems more accurate to say that genius is in the air and perceived by many different people in different places, even if they have never had contact with each other.

We keep looking for the prophets, the soothsayers, the fortune-tellers, and we pay them a healthy sum when they have the right scientific credentials.  There are grave dangers associated with attributing the title of genius to anyone. Remember how after 2008 there was a hunt to find out who “predicted the crisis” and then follow their stock picks? We should have done the opposite, found the people who predicted it and then ignored everything they said afterwards. They were almost universally wrong about the follow-up. It can be hard to distinguish the perfect prediction from the broken clock that is correct twice a day.

I recall having almost perfectly predicted the date on which the Bitcoin price would hit $1,000. A wise person called me and said: “Don’t ever try this trick again. You can predict a price or a date but never both.” Sure enough, Bitcoin soon fell to $350. No, I didn’t predict that. Was I a genius or a fraud? Maybe, just like everyone else, I had some perceptive insight and then didn’t successfully or reliably repeat it.

All Certainty Is Fraudulent

Anyone who wants to define genius as a perfect prediction concerning the future will be forever disappointed. No one has yet come up with a way to know what is around the corner in the circuitous trajectory of time. We keep looking for the prophets, the soothsayers, the fortune-tellers, and we pay them a healthy sum when they have the right scientific credentials. But give it time: even the most vaunted know-it-all will be proven to be mortal in time.

Hayek showed us that individual genius is not necessary. The highest forms of intelligence do not live in individuals’ minds but in social processes and institutions that no single human mind can fully conceptualize. The result is an order that no man can accurately comprehend or describe, much less design. This is precisely the core of his defense of freedom: we need this process to be adaptable to become ever smarter and more reflective of a multitude of intelligences that emerge from human action.

Where does that leave us as individuals? All we can hope to do is precisely what the pianist quoted above says: “I should be focusing on the music.” That is to say, do the best we can on the task in which we are engaged. You will have moments of genius and moments of failure, sometimes home runs and sometimes strikeouts, good performances and bad. Knowing this is neither a complex nor a syndrome; it is the stuff of life.

The most successful musicians I've known are not the best; it's just that they work harder to become successful. The "natural talents" among us rarely blossom because they don't have to work at it. At the same time, seeming disabilities become abilities because they motivate us to overcome them. 

Be quick and excited to recognize the genius you find in others. You know what I personally believe is the best way to avoid this angst-filled toggling between exaggerations on both ends of the psychological spectrum? Be happy to improve yourself and the world around you in whatever way you can every day. Stop comparing yourself against the phony impressions others give of their lives on social media.

Be quick and excited to recognize the genius you find in others. We are all made of the same stuff with the same capacity for high achievement in some realms and failures in others. Working together, we can’t make ourselves and the world perfect, but we can make them better and more beautiful.

That should be enough.

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