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Ted Harro Headshot

Four Marks of Lasting Genius

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I recently wrote a eulogy to a remarkable black bear named Yellow Yellow. She was the unusually resourceful bear who beat virtually every bear canister in her efforts to mooch food from campers in the Adirondack mountains. She was so ingenious that bear canister companies used her as a four-legged test lab for their designs.

We know Yellow Yellow was a genius. What will only become clear with time is whether she was more than a genius. Was she also a teacher? Every couple of years, Yellow Yellow had cubs. Now that she has gone the way of all flesh, we'll find out just how much she passed on to her cubs.

If Yellow Yellow was just a genius, it's only a matter of time before Adirondack hikers will be dealing with average bears using average tactics to steal food. But if Yellow Yellow was a teacher as well as a genius... well, watch out. She may just have permanently raised the level of play for bears in the area. This would be very bad news for hikers and very good news for anyone who can invent and patent an effective next-generation bear canister.

If Yellow Yellow is like most geniuses, I'm putting my money on the return of the average bear: persistent, sometimes aggressive, but not particularly clever. Most geniuses are lousy teachers precisely because they're geniuses. They're naturals. They see things the rest of us can't. They do things the rest of us can only dream of doing. And they're often impatient with normal people. For that reason, their organizational impact tends to die out not long after they leave the scene. We wistfully look back and say, "Remember the good old days when Joe was here? He was so brilliant!"

I worked in a company once that was started by a genius. He was a creative whirlwind. He mesmerized groups with his storytelling and insights. He attracted other remarkable people. The company never felt the same after his departure. Whereas it used to churn out ideas that clients enthusiastically embraced during the founder's days, very few of the company's own concepts flew very far once he had gone. Most commercially successful projects in the post-founder days came from partnering with outside geniuses. Whether it was intentional or not, the company essentially became a sales force for other people's ideas. That was quite a come-down for those who had enjoyed the genius years.

What would it take for Yellow Yellow to be not just a genius but a teaching genius?

  • She would have to create enough space in her territory for other brilliant bears to hang around. That means she would have to sacrifice a little bit of spotlight and food today for the sake of the longer-term goal of permanently changing the way bears and hikers interact.
  • She would have to attract those bears.
  • She would have to slow down and think about things that seemed natural to her - and then figure out ways to share those things with others. Even harder, she'd have to figure out what unconscious habits make it possible for her to find those insights.
  • She would have to figure out which of those habits normal or merely brilliant bears could successfully incorporate into daily life.
All of that requires patience and humility - two traits rarely found in geniuses - and an organization that is smart enough to extract the lessons from their genius's behavior.

Maybe we should ask ourselves a few questions about how we handle the extraordinary people in our lives:

  • Are you a genius? Really? I know everyone thinks they're well above average, but are you in the Yellow Yellow category? If so, what's your unique gift? And when's the last time you felt and expressed gratitude for this undeserved gift you received?
  • If you're a genius, what kind of genius are you? Are you a run-of-the-mill genius who does remarkable work or are you also able to transfer that genius to others in your organization? If you're not sure, look at the faces of those around you. If they look awestruck and intimidated by your brilliance, you're a normal genius. If they look intrigued and engaged and like they believe that they just might be able to do some of what you do, you're a more extraordinary genius. Find teachable people around you and ask them to help you find the transferable skills and pull them out of you.
  • Are you in a company that has a genius? What are you doing to go beyond stroking that person's ego - to actually take the transferable parts of that person's thought process and embed them in how the company thinks and acts?
  • Does your organization seem to lack that genius? Well, I suppose you could hunt for one outside the company and try to get them to join you. But I'd bet there's a certain kind of genius hiding somewhere in your organization. Somewhere there's someone doing something extraordinary waiting to be found out. Just look for the place where things are going better than expected and see how those people are beating the odds. There might be a Yellow Yellow in the brush if you look carefully.

Be bright.