10/19/2013 12:29 pm ET | Updated Dec 19, 2013

The Real Genius of Genius Isn't the Genius

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Genius doesn't usually interest or impress me. My work in performance psychology has frequently exposed me to child prodigies and assorted other geniuses in academia, sports, and the performing arts, so perhaps I have become inured to the experience of people born with special gifts.

Also, I think genius is often overrated. I have known people who reached extraordinary heights despite seeming quite ordinary. They obviously had something special, but it wasn't any innate propensity toward greatness in their chosen area.

I have also met unfulfilled genius, people who had tremendous gifts, yet failed to fully realize those gifts. Why? Some never knew they had a genius because they were never exposed to the area in which their genius lay.

Others never really connected with their gift, thus having no sense of ownership of it. That's one problem with genius; geniuses often feel like it's not truly theirs because they didn't do anything to get it. Without this ownership, there is often no passion for the genius and there is little interest or incentive to take advantage of the genius.

Still others find that genius is more a cross to bear than a gift. For example, it causes them social ostracism by their peers or their parents turn the genius into a "weighted shackles" of expectation in which nothing is ever good enough. And they spend their lives trying to exorcise the genius from their souls.

I also don't like to talk about genius because they didn't earn their gifts. They got lucky and won the genetic lottery; good for them. Geniuses start out at the head of line early in life, giving them great advantage over us less fortunate mortals. But, as the saying goes, "life is a marathon, not a sprint," and where you start doesn't say always say much about where you finish.

I prefer to focus on aspects of their genius over which they have control. Do they possess the other attributes, such as passion, discipline, focus, and joy, that are necessary to see that genetic gift reach fruition? And let's be realistic; geniuses are already ahead in the game, so, even if they don't fully realize their gift, they will probably do just fine in life.

And I am even more concerned with the existential benefits of that genius, namely, whether and how they use their gift to enrich their own life and the lives of others. This is where Derek Paravicini comes in and where my real appreciation for genius lies.

Born three-and-half months premature, Derek was behind the eight ball from day one of his life. He was lost his sight shortly after birth and, as his parents learned later, he was also severely autistic. His chances of "making it" in life were a statistical improbability. Yet, Derek demonstrated an early talent for the piano and has become a world-renowned pianist.

I would argue that Derek's experience of life, though seemingly vastly different than us normal folks, differs really as a matter of degree, not kind. -- Dr. Jim Taylor

This is where genius gets interesting. What fascinates me about Derek is not that he was born with this special talent to play the piano. Instead, that there was something -- was it also genetic or was it communicated to him by his parents? -- that pushed him to own his gift and to devote himself to developing it to its extraordinary conclusion. In doing so, Derek found meaning, satisfaction, and joy in a life that was, in the beginning, heading toward a life quite the opposite.

Also, autistic people have significant difficulties connecting with others because they lack the capacity to express their own emotions normally or read emotions in others. Yet, Derek used his music to express his own emotions and to elicit emotions, such pleasure, wonder, and hope, from other people. In doing so, he developed relationships with others that few so-called normal people could equal.

I would argue that Derek's experience of life, though seemingly vastly different than us normal folks, differs really as a matter of degree, not kind. So what can those of us who lie closer to the center of that continuum of experience -- I mean that both positively (most of us don't have his challenges) and negatively (most of us don't have his gifts) -- learn from Derek?

Well, it doesn't really matter what challenges we have (we all have some to varying degrees) or what gifts we have (and we all have some of those too). What matters is what we choose to do with them. We can surrender to our challenges and, in doing so, to life itself. Or we can confront those challenges, accept them, and do our best to surmount them.

We can also not seek out and embrace our own personal genius and, in doing so, miss out on the potential richness of our life. Or, we can acknowledge our own personal gifts, however mundane or extraordinary they may be, and pursue their fruition with gusto. From that process -- not the gifts themselves -- will we, like Derek, find meaning, satisfaction, joy, and connection in life. That, I believe, is the true genius of Derek and it is a genius that we all possess.

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