Genius seems to be a concept in decline. The MacArthur Foundation, which awards fellowships famously known as “genius grants,” won’t mention the word because, in its own words, “[genius] connotes a singular character of intellectual prowess [whereas] the people we seek to support express many other important qualities.” The Google n-gram for genius shows a steady decline in its use over the past 200 years. Academics regularly proclaim it as dead.
At the same time, there is a burgeoning industry selling the message that there is genius in each of us—and we’re buying. Amazon lists about 200 books and baubles concerning “inner genius,” gurus like Laura Garnett give TED lectures about “Your Zone of Genius,” and we debate whether 10,000 hours is indeed enough to make us exceptionally good in any field. For an idea on its way out, genius is staging a strong final act.
It is a powerful concept, after all, because it draws a dotted line around that which is best in us. But what, exactly, is best in us, and how should we react if we find it, not just in individual people, but in crowds, animals, and machines?
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