You’re Not a Genius

February 22, 2012

Your most self-destructive impulse: believing that thing it took you two seconds to come up with was a genius idea. That you’re some creative mastermind who can brainstorm gold. Get over it. The first thing that pops into your head is not revolutionary. It wasn’t, it couldn’t be. So we hold ourselves back when we fall in love with the narrative that we will walk into a room full of people who have done this longer than we have and dazzle them with our ideas. Or not even ideas, but dazzle them while spitballing.

I wish it was cool like that, but it never seems to be.

No. Contributions come from taking the time to develop a deep understanding of everything at play and more often than not, coming up with gradual improvements and suggestions. They come from the rigor and discipline of really knowing something. Half your ideas get thrown away. More than half deserve to be thrown away. Maybe there is some vaunted genius out there whose every thought is mind-blowing but that person is not you.

This bitter little pill does not change another hard reality, however: most people accepted ‘the way things have always been done’ with equal flippancy. Whatever is wrong or broken about the field you’re working in probably will be incredibly and instantly obvious. That is, you are not a genius but most people and practices are really dumb. When you can wrap your head around that paradox, you’ll have the whole package.

The key to doing it is this: trust your instincts as you survey what’s wrong, ignore them as soon as what they tell you starts to make you feel superior. Make your evaluations but shut your mouth. Why replace flippantly accepted ideas with new flippantly created ideas? Think about your idea for more than two seconds. Don’t fall in love with the image of you as the artist or the wunderkind or the hired gun or intuitive expert. These are chimeras.

What you can be is the person who gets things done, the person whose ideas are better. And changes people’s minds, slowly, over time.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

40 responses to You’re Not a Genius

  1. Sounds like Ryan has been dealing with some cocky punks, the ones that are sure they are right, and everyone else is incompetent.

    • Or maybe I was the cocky punk for a long time?

      • Here’s what I like about your blog. Pretty much everywhere it’s ‘what the others are doing wrong and what they should be doing instead because it’s that simple.’ I think every post on here is about something you’re dealing with and that’s refreshing.

        My head was spinning too fast with ‘brilliant’ ideas earlier today. Thanks for keeping me grounded.

      • Reasonable point, and now, possibly like Montaigne, you are in ‘self-examination’ mode resulting in a series of essays derived from long hours of thinking about yourself.

        But two posts in a row of rather pointed “let me take you down a notch” seems like you are either dealing with someone who has been testing your patience, or your are in a depressive position, having just come down from a schizophrenic position. Either way, keep the posts coming, they have been helpful in my own pursuits. Keep it up.

        • Dude, the last post was precisely the opposite of taking anyone down a notch. If you’re referring to the post below that, which is a month old, all I can say is welcome to the world of doing things at a high level. The people suck. Look at the opening line of the Meditations. It’s been this was for thousands of years.

          The stuff on this blog is rarely, if ever, a reaction to any immediate or current issue. I don’t get paid enough to post about things in real time and I don’t get anything out of saying anything before I’ve had the time to think it through a million different ways.

      • Yeah. From the first, I’ve taken Ryan’s blog as advice mostly meant for himself. He’s lecturing his past self or something. I could be way off.

        • I second that. Marcus Aurelius has his own “ Meditations on strategy and life”; so does Ryan. Marcus wrote the Meditations for himself, for his own self-improvement. Just as we can learn valuable things from Marcus’s introspection, we can also learn valuable ones from Ryan’s.

          The book recommendations are the obvious exception that proves the rule. There are plenty more. His posts can be (and are) both for himself and for us. He has the knowledge that people will read these posts, that he has an audience greater than one, whereas Marcus did not.

          Still, the power of the posts comes (as I perceive it) not from transformative advice, per se — after all, we’ve heard these things before — but a tumultuous and brave internal dialogue (and a Rortian/Proustian/Nietzschean capacity for redescription).

  2. You’re killin me, Smalls. When’s the book out?

  3. Reminds of Ron Suskind’s book “Confidence Men”. Have you read it?

  4. I think this is a part of what being young is about, over-estimating your potential impact and how people view you. As you get older you start to see the subtleties of life and you’re not so quick to say that you have the solution.

    And then the cycle repeats itself, you’re older and you see people entering your field saying they have the solution.

    At least that’s my guess.

    • Just because it happens to be something that young people do (or all people for that matter), doesn’t mean that it’s what life is about. Or that it is the way that things should be.

      It may be a common cycle, but it is a stupid, wasteful and needless one. I’m explaining how to opt out of it.

      • I didn’t word that properly. I didn’t mean that as a ‘well, that’s just how it goes and you shouldn’t try and change it’ argument, I just thought it might be funny for older people having learned and gone through it themselves to see the exact same mistakes being made by younger people.

        I hope to opt out of it as well.

  5. This one cut deep. I have to admit the propensity to walk into a room or meeting and acting like the “the wunderkind or the hired gun or intuitive expert”. However, I am consistently amazed at how horrible the existing “experts” are at their job. More and more I have come to realize that it takes no real skill or intelligence to actually make it to the top. It just seems to take some random combination of dumb luck and ruthlessness.

  6. Ryan, how well of a job do you consider yourself to do with the ideas you present on this site?

    I know it is hard to consciously/unconsciously handle all of these things day in and day out, I was just curious how the man posting the ideas himself turns up at the end of the day?

  7. I respectfully disagree with you. And, would suggest that, perhaps, on this note, you may have too quickly fell prey to your own sense of “superiority.” Because, sometimes, what you discount as someone’s idea as brash and helplessly flawed, it may be you who is wrong…not them. Their ideas may not need refinement. You might just not get it.

    Ryan, may you keep with you the eyes and the passion of a child, all the days of your life. And, when you encounter those who have that vigorous inclination toward ideas that you don’t agree with, or that do not resonate with you – wish them success, wish them the fortune to find others who believe in what they believe, wish that they prove you wrong and do indeed bring about a revolutionary new concept.

    We should absolutely pursue our ideas (which are in essence our dreams) with absolute vigor, and with full belief until someone proves us wrong. I am not saying that all of our ideas will reveal themselves to be revolutionary concepts, but some will. You may pursue 27…or a 100…or a 1,000, before you discover one that is indeed revolutionary. However, you should approach each and every time with full belief in your brilliance. I am old enough to have been proven wrong many many a time, and fortunate enough to have been proven right on a few choice spectacular occasions.

    Over analysis and the in-take of too much external input, does not necessarily lead to better ideas. Frequently, it leads too many to abandon great ideas because they over-analyzed it and beat it to death. It’s easier to discount an idea, than to put in the work necessary to bring brilliant ideas into fruition.

    Absolutely, do your analysis. But, don’t be quiet. Ask questions, lots and lots of questions. Be inspirational in your passion and the pursuit of your realization of your ideas. Find those who believe in them as passionately as you do. Go at it head on, and full-throttle. You will be wrong many times, but you will also be right many times.

    Invention and revolutionary change do not come from sitting back and analyzing. They come from knowledge, action and unfaltering belief in your pursuits. Ideas do not emerge from nowhere, they are born from the recesses of our minds. They are the distillation of the knowledge and experiences that we have acquired throughout our lives, coming together in a single magical moment. They are the birth of concepts that have been silently simmering within us.

    It may be an odd reference, but there was an old HP commercial that illustrates my point well.

    “People might think you can turn creativity on and off, but it’s not like that. It just kind of comes out – A mash up of all these things you collect in your mind. You never know when it’s gonna happen, but when it does…it’s like magic. It’s just that simple; and it’s just that hard.” – Gwen Stefani

    Justin points out that this outlook is the beauty of youth. And, I agree with him. However, I urge you to not leave it for the young (as I no longer count in that category), but to keep the eyes and the passion of youth with you all the days of your life. Never give that up.

    On a daily basis, I hear people’s new and revolutionary ideas. At that point, 1 of 2 things happen: 1. I also fall in love with the idea, and join a team of people committed to birthing that concept. I commit my entire self, my team, my passion to their passion – from inception to distribution. Or, 2. I don’t fall in love with it, and I decline to participate. I offer them what perspective, analysis and advice I have and wish them the best of luck.

    Here’s the thing. I would love to say that I am always right, and that all of the people who I declined were idiots who should have kept their mouths shut, and waited to form a better idea. In some cases, that is totally true. But, not always.

    Sometimes, the very logical, rational and instinctive reasons which lead me to decline participation prove to have been inconsequential to the success of the concept. I got it wrong. And, had they taken my reasoning too much to heart, they would have by-passed the opportunity to bring their ideas and dreams to life. I love being wrong.

    I have been that person. I have had those ideas that logic would tell you to avoid. I have had spreadsheets upon spreadsheets of contrary analysis put in front of me. I have had extended discussions with more experienced people who have told me that I wasn’t as bright as I thought I was. And, I took in every objection and either 1. proved it wrong. Or, 2. Logged it as a risk that needed to be mitigated completely, or addresses should it arise. But, no way, as long as my belief was still there, was I going to wait or be quiet. And, sometimes, I was right!

    Don’t ever wait when ideas strike. Pursue them with vigor. Scream to the heavens on high with wonder and belief. Analyze as you move. Stay nimble and flexible. Bend when needed. Shift and change-direction when required. Seek the counsel of those who both agree and disagree with you, but do not stop. Lean on those who believe with the same vehemence that you own during times of challenge and tribulation. But, run at it, as hard and as fast as you can. Because your idea is not born in 2 seconds. It is born at a single moment in a lifetime of moments.

    I pass on to my children, the same advice that my mom passed to me when we moved to the United States. “I want you raised in America, because here you can do anything. There is nowhere else in the world with more opportunity. Don’t ever let anyone stop you. If you want something, go get it. That is why we all sacrificed so much to bring you to this country.”

    And, all of the great things that I have wanted to go get…all started with an idea. And, I could have been talked out of each and every one of those wondrous ideas if I had sat and listened to other people for too long.

    Again, may you keep with you the eyes and the passion of a child, all the days of your life. And, when you encounter those who have that vigorous inclination toward ideas that you don’t agree with, or that do not resonate with you – wish them success, wish them the fortune to find others who believe in what they believe, wish that they prove you wrong and do indeed bring about a revolutionary new concept.

    • If your comment is longer than my post, you missed the point.

      • Or you did. I hope that some day you have the pleasure of seeing someone who is quick to exclaim and pursue an idea you feel is lacking in brilliance, go on to do amazing things with that very idea. Ideas do not come about in 2 seconds, they simmer in our minds and emerge in wondrous moments.

    • This was truly one of the more confusing, rambling messes of a reply. I’m almost sad I read the whole thing. There’s no maybe. You missed his point. And if you really think all ideas are equal, and that you should pursue 27…100…1000 all with equal enthusiasm, then you are a fool. I’m sure your reply will be that I’m missing your point, but I assure you I’m not. I get it. You’re just wrong. Man was made with reason so we if we look at and evaluate our ideas (which you even suggested doing later, contradicting your earlier point) we’ll realize that many of our ideas are not the shiny new amazing thing in the world. We’re not geniuses. And even if you are a genius, not every idea is a masterpiece.

      May you grow the eyes of a reasonable and logical person, not beholden to your base emotions. Your wish for a child’s eyes is cute, but it should be noted that children have a tendency to do ridiculous things, like walk into traffic, touch hot stoves, and take candy from strangers.

  8. Great observation, Ryan. Love the way your posts take a lot of fantasies people have and extend their consequences to the real world.

    • Great post 🙂 I chanced upon this after spending half an hour looking at my “achievement list” today. The article is a refreshing bucket of water 🙂

      • Yeah, it’s comprehensible when there is so much success in someone’s life, thanks god that here is Ryan to save the day so you can keep going with the awesomeness.

  9. I’ve noticed people oppose ideas strictly because they didn’t suggest them, just out of a love to contradict.

    Enjoyed this post. Valuable thoughts for keeping a strong internal drive in check. Especially since you point out the alternative mindset that needs pursued instead.

    • Oh yeah, that’s another reason to keep your mouth shut. Sometimes your first idea IS genius but you need some time to think about the best way to sell/present it.

  10. I read this as an indictment of arrogance. A wise man told me years ago that there is no place in this world for arrogance. There’s no upside in any circumstance. To assume your idea is genius is to implicitly place it far above other ideas about the same topic. Nothing to be gained by that.

    And this is something that anyone who is successful has to always keep in mind. Arrogance creeps in, even with the humblest of souls.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  11. Great post! It’s way too easy to get caught up in daydreams of grandeur. I think there are times when people can have amazing ideas, without fully understanding the “behind-the-scenes” of it all, but these times should always be viewed as 100% luck. Never let your ego get fed by success!

  12. Admitting that we really know nothing is something we all must remind ourselves to do. Each idea that we generate, in my opinion, is the product of all beliefs you’ve developed since birth (though some may not be relevant). That idea or “spark of brilliance” is being checked against all other things in our lifetime; the key puzzle piece was merely placed in harmony with the others.

    Just found your blog, I think I like the cut of your jib, sir.

  13. THAAAAANK YOU!!! I needed this.

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