Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #166 Your Genius is Calling
About this episode

Did you know you were born a creative genius? All of us are, Martha says, but we are socialized out of our genius by the structures of culture. Why? Because the culture wants everyone the same, but genius doesn’t homogenize well. However, your genius is still calling to you, and in this episode of The Gathering Room, Martha shares how you can recognize—and follow—its call.

Your Genius is Calling

Martha Beck:

I love this topic today. You probably have heard me mention this study with which I am obsessed, which was commissioned by NASA in the 1960s to identify creative geniuses.

And as you probably remember, if you’ve heard me talk, because I talk about it nonstop, 2% of adults who were tested with this test registered as creative geniuses. And when they gave it to five-year-olds, 98% of them were creative geniuses. And George Land, who is the Polaroid genius who did the study, directly blamed the school system. Basically, he says, we are being educated out of our genius. And I agree with him, but I also think that all the structures of our culture are pushing us away from our genius. Why? Because genius doesn’t sort of homogenize well. Genius doesn’t just fade into the sameness, the bland sameness of everybody. I got a chance to go to a party yesterday. I am not the biggest fan of parties, but as they go, this one was amazing. It was full of geniuses.

I’d meet someone, I’d say, what do you do? I’m a writer. Okay, so what have you written? I’ll buy it. I’d go, and then I’d type in the title of their book and it would be like, whoa, National Book Award, finalist for the National Book Award. Say to somebody, what do you do? Well, I write songs. Oh yeah, that’s sweet. Can I hear one? Put on a song that would blow my mind. Most of the people, there were such geniuses that I just stood in awe. There were musicians playing and there were movie stars. But it was so interesting because I’ve been to parties with movie stars before, but in this one, the movie stars, nobody paid any different attention to the movie stars. In fact, people were reacting to each other in a way that was very different from what I’m used to. They were quirkier, they were more interesting.

There were people asking really interesting questions, wearing really interesting hats, doing really interesting things. And sometimes wandering away into the bushes and stuff. And I thought, okay, I’m at a gathering of some of the most brilliant people in the world, and these are the 2% who got through the school system and all the socializing institutions of our culture, and they kept their genius. And they’re all recognized, I mean, not all of them, but all of them were very, very good at something. But I’m interested in the group of us who lost part of our genius along the way, who had it knocked out of us. And I count myself among these. I mean, I never— I sort of became a writer, but writing was not my genius and my passion. And there were other things that I didn’t let myself do because I thought they were frivolous that still won’t let me go. I mean the biggest is drawing, painting, any kind of visual art. And recently, you may know, I’ve started getting up every morning and giving time to that pursuit and drawing and painting for hours a day. And it has absolutely and completely changed my life. And it made me think, as I’m around this group of amazing people and then go among people who haven’t had the same kinds of lives, I thought everyone’s genius is always calling hard, like screaming to us. But we are so deafened to that by the socialization and the other pressures of culture that we experience that even while we hear it screaming, we just go along ignoring it. So I thought, I wonder if everybody has something calling to them. And that George Land study really convinced me that we do. We all do. We were all born to be geniuses, and I don’t think our genius gives up on us.

So I picked out a few characteristics of how your genius calls to you, and I thought I’d just lay it on you here in the Gathering Room and see if we can all have a little adventure in our lives by bringing in or walking toward the genius that’s calling to each of us, going in that direction. So how do you know what your genius is?

First characteristic: It hides in plain sight. It’s the thing that you think is easy. So many people I’ve met who are really good at things just like cooking or gardening or something, I say, how do you do that? And they’re like, well, everybody knows how to do that. No! I don’t know how to do that. That’s very hard for me. Or dancing, people who can just naturally dance. I’m like, what? I can’t even feel my limbs. What’s happening there? So first of all, it’s something we discount because it feels easy to us. Anything that you’re really easy, that comes to you really easily is likely connected to your natural abilities, your genius.

Okay, the second thing is this is the important thing: Your genius makes you curious. When you see something that is related to your genius, you go “Hmmm?” you’re interested in it. It’s so fascinating to me because I raised some children with my own genes and now I’m raising a child that doesn’t have my genes, that has Ro’s genes. And it’s so interesting to me the way the children that were biologically mine, I watched them drift toward art. All of them, even Adam, who wasn’t supposed to be able to think about art, he started drawing really young. And my other two biological children are wonderful artists, but Lila, my non-biological child, is not really interested in it. On the other hand, today, on the way home from something she went to, she was composing quietly in her car seat and singing a song about her Cuckoo, which that’s what she calls Karen, her, another mother, three mothers. She was singing this song about how Cuckoo’s been away and how much they love each other, and they’re always on adventures together. She was clearly crafting a melody. She was clearly thinking ahead to make the lyrics work better. And guess what Ro does really brilliantly? Music, poetry. Her parents are both poets. Her dad is an amazing songwriter-singer. And here’s this little kiddo already starting. She gets really curious about music, but not as curious about art. And my other kids were very curious about art and not as curious– wait, no, they were also curious about music, but in a different way. It’s really interesting. 

Anyway, when something pulls you in and won’t stop pulling you in that’s connected to your genius, the worst thing you can do is say, well, the time for that’s gone past, all I can be as an observer. No! You can do this thing. If it makes you curious, your mind is already shaping itself around that activity.

Third thing: Your genius makes you feel something called the rage to master. The rage to master, it sounds kind of gnarly, but it’s not rage as in anger. It’s kind of like rage as in everything is up and “Rrrrrr!” And it happens when you see someone doing something that is along the lines of your own genius and they do it beautifully or they do it in a way that you’ve never seen it done before. And you not only feel curiosity, you feel an ache in your heart that says, “Damn, I wish I could do that! Oh my heavens, I want to be able to do that! If only I could do that!” Maybe I did have a little call toward writing because I remember walking home from junior high school when I was 11 and I was reading a short story by Jorge Luis Borges called “By the Waters of Babylon We Sat Down and Wept.” He’s a Latin American, magical realist, great writer. And I don’t remember the story, but I remember that it was so beautifully told that when I finished it, I couldn’t walk anymore. And I sat down on the side of the street on the curb and just wept because the way this man used words just called to me. And I ended up writing things and I never really expected to and didn’t think I was very good at it. But there was the rage to master this, like, “Oh my God, if only I could do something like that.” And it doesn’t have to be one of the arts, it could be engineering, it could be building motorcycles, it could be sending a rocket to the moon, but you just look at it and go, “Oh, if only I could do that!” It wants you to do it.

All right. And then finally your genius sends you ignition messages. Ignition, that’s a term I am borrowing from Daniel Coyle who wrote a book called The Talent Code about what it is that makes people become geniuses in different fields. And ignition means, in his terminology, means that there’s a specific event that happens where you just can’t hold back and you start mimicking what you’ve seen someone do really well. And the example that stands out in my mind from my life history is when Michael Jackson first rolled out his moonwalking dance. I don’t know if people still moonwalk, but when he did that, and it’s a move that makes it look like you’re walking forward, but in fact you’re moving backward. And when he did that, people just went bananas all over the world. And I was living in Singapore at the time, and I came back to the US and I remember taking a walk, I was jet lagged walking around and seeing all these young kids, like little boys together and some girls, and they were like school yard groups, but these, it was before school and they were all doing this weird motion and they were all trying to teach it to each other.

And I thought, “This is completely bizarre.” I had no context for it. I hadn’t seen TV or heard popular music for months, but that ignited so many people. And every now and then there’ll be a dance that does that. And people start going, “I’m going to learn that if it’s the last thing I do.” And if it’s along the line of your genius, you’ll get more easily ignited. And then the rage to master will take you over. And then everything will start to make you curious and you’ll realize, “Oh, okay, I’m going to start doing this. I’m going to start doing this right now.” Or you could say that. I waited many years before I said, and I didn’t even say it, it was my family. They said, “You love to draw and paint.” And I was like, no kidding, I’ve been doing it since I was one.

And they said, “Then why don’t you do it?” And I said because I don’t have time. And they said, “That is bananas. Take the mornings, paint.” And I still can’t believe it was true. If there is any time, I know there are times in your life when you cannot do that. I mean when you have little children, I’m not mom number one or even two on call in the morning, so I get to draw. But during the period my bio kids were little, I couldn’t. No wait, yes I could. I could have carried a sketchbook. Oh, that’s right. I couldn’t move my hands. All right, that was a legit excuse not to pursue this particular thing.

But you don’t just have one genius. You have a bunch. And one thing I did start doing during that period was reading books I really loved in little short bits because that’s all I could fit in between kid care and job and everything. So any place that you find yourself leaning and getting curious or going, “Oh my God, I wish I could do that.” Or you see something that you just have to learn, find a time to fit it in. Because what happens when you do that is that you link into the parts of your brain that are creative and those parts are linked into the parts of nature that is creative or the parts of spirit that are creative. It works, it links you in with creation itself and with the creator, however you conceptualize that. So that’s my preachy-preachy to you. Ro’s like, “Could you please not tell people what to do for five minutes?” I’m like, “No. I was raised by very religious people and they were evangelical. And now I am too.”

All right, I’m going to read some questions now and we’ll see what comes up next, which is exciting. All right. Buddha Field said, “I wanted to be a soap opera actress, but ended up in the theater because I was convinced it was more noble. How do you know the difference between childhood fantasy and genius?”

I don’t think there necessarily is any difference between childhood fantasy and genius. I think you try your best to live your childhood fantasies and your genius will maybe pull you to one side or another. It may bring in additional talents, it may do things that you didn’t know about at first. So go for the fantasy. One of the brilliant people I met yesterday had a tattoo on her right arm that said never forget or never, I’ll get it wrong. It was something like never discard. And on the other arm it said, your childhood dreams. And this was one of a room full of geniuses and everybody was doing that.

Everybody was like, oh yeah, I totally get that. So hang on to your soap opera dreams. Who knows? You could get a soap opera role at any time in your life, and in the meantime, if you’re going toward it, you may end up in theater, you may end up learning to, I don’t know, play jazz or climb a mountain. I dunno. Just go for it. Your genius is calling. You don’t know where it’s going to take you. You just go with it.

Dr. Donna says, “What if what’s easy and makes you curious would require you to upend your life if you pursued it?” Pursue it. Your life could be upended. If it were upended for something that’s easy and makes you curious, I mean, if your life is fabulous, it won’t be upended by doing something that is your genius. And if your genius upends your life and that’s what you’re meant to be doing, you’ll have a much happier life in the genius than you did in your socialized little box where they left you. All right, so I’m very sort of reckless about this, but I always say, I’m probably going to die right after saying, “Hey, watch this. How much harm could it do?” All right, so yeah, go ahead. Upend your life. I’ve done it several times. It works really well.

All right, Lindsay says, “Is your genius always a skill or a talent?”

What an interesting question. I don’t know if it’s always a skill. I think it might always be a talent. I don’t know. I’m going to have to get back to you on that. But here’s what I think. Sometimes it’s a message, sometimes it’s something that wants to come through you and it will take any form that you give it. So it will come out in some form of doing. Will that thing be a skill? Maybe it’s just something you say. Is that a skill? “Yeah, but everybody kind of does it.” So sometimes it’s an inspiration, sometimes it’s a state of consciousness, sometimes it’s a way of healing. Sometimes it can’t be even seen. It can always be called a skill or talent, but don’t let that rope you into just a few little things that they taught you in a liberal arts education or whatever. Anything can be part of your genius. Just go for it.

Michelle in Magenta says, “You are a genius preacher.” I don’t. I love it. I’ll say that. I love it. “I have never let go of thinking about painting. I paint on and off, but I’m often blocked by worrying about the paintings that won’t turn out. How does one overcome that?”

I have dozens and dozens of paintings that didn’t turn out. I mean, I showed one to Ro the other day and I’m like, “Should I use the back for scrap paper?” And she’s like, “Yeah, it doesn’t really work.” I’ve been doing transparent watercolor and you got no degrees of freedom. It’s the most unforgiving medium. How do I get over that problem? I throw paintings away. It’s great. My art professor at Harvard who was one of the most brilliant human beings I’ve ever known, and one of the best, one summer when I saw him after the summer break, he said he had just finished throwing away 90 pounds of drawings that he’d done that summer. Not 90 drawings, 90 pounds of drawings. So the idea is, the issue isn’t what you make. The issue is making it. Because I did this a while ago. I said, it’s not about the painting, it’s about painting. It’s not about making something with your genius. That’s the culture’s thing: “You’ve got to make a thing. You got to have a recording or a picture or something like that, something on paper, something to show for it.” No, you actually don’t. You have to have yourself to show for it. The self that has now worked through that math problem or has learned to solve that really tricky arpeggio on the violin or whatever it is, now, you are that person who has done that. And the doing of it is so difficult that it changes you as a human being. It makes you fundamentally more part of the creation of that which is creating. And that’s the fun of it. That’s the octane high of it.

All right, Kate says, “Steven Pressfield in The War of Art comments that when we experience our genius, it can bring up such intense fear that it makes it hard to actually engage with the thing. How can we overcome this intense fear when we do know what our genius is?”

Okay, this is very tricky because the more you label something the genius and put it out there as a thing you do, you’ve now put it in a socialized context and you are speaking of it in words. All of those are going to make it more verbal. And the more verbal something is, the more verbal storytelling we do about it, the more likely we are to get into anxiety. So you do something, I’ve had this happen a zillion times. I am enjoying doing something. Someone says, “I’ll pay you for it,” and boom, it snaps off. You decide, or I’ve seen people, clients who will be like all their lives, all they did was music and then they went to Julliard and boom, it all stopped, and they dropped out and they never forgive themselves. Here’s the thing. We have to be devoted to our genius and not to other people’s perception of our genius. Other people’s perception of our genius is a byproduct of living the life we were meant to live. If we live the life we were meant to live, then the things we make and the things we do will probably draw a lot of attention, but maybe not. That’s not the point.

I watched these musicians yesterday at this garden party and I watched them play and they were doing improvisational jazz part of the time, and they didn’t care. They did not seem to care at all what anyone listening was experiencing. They were so deep into that music themselves that there was no room to care anymore. If you can dive, what happens to me is I start drawing in the morning. I think, “Oh my God, this is never going to work.” Or writing. I start writing, I think, “I don’t want to write,” and then I find a paragraph that’s shaped badly and I’m going to fix that up. And as I start playing with the words, other people’s perceptions go away. Or it’s really interesting because if I’m drawing, say I’m drawing a cityscape on paper so I can paint it later. And there are a lot of rectangles in straight lines, and I’ll be doing the perspective. And I love drawing with the rules of perspective as I learned them making things look three dimensional and two dimensions. But it’s so interesting. I’m likely to be more tense when I’m doing that. And then there will be a tree or a bush or a dog or something walking through the city or growing in the city and I start to draw the thing that doesn’t have right angles and sharp corners and straight lines. And suddenly because I’m following this thing that is not linear, the enchantment comes over me again and it’s, I feel my whole body relaxed and it’s like a drug high, just this softness that comes into the world.

And I just think, “Oh, I’m here again.” My brilliant friend Steven Mitchell says he just goes to the place where the words are. He lets them find him. And that full body relaxation that comes after you’ve gone through the terrifying part, oh my, it’s so worth it, folks. It’s so worth it.

Marcia says, “I’m always pulling toward financial freedom. Is this a genius in me or what?”

I have known many people who are financial geniuses, bonafide, and they help, they easily make themselves free from worry about money. And then they help other people do it because they love the play. And it is a gamification. They enjoy working with money the way a gamer would enjoy playing a video game. And they do it with joy. They lose money, they don’t really mind. They gain money, they don’t really care. It’s really different from people who are like in it for the money and to get the biggest yacht and the biggest, nastiest-looking Cartier watch and everything, whole different energy. At this party yesterday, it was full of people who have been vastly successful in the world. And I never got the feeling from anybody that they really cared about demonstrating that to anyone, like wearing the absolute ultimate gown or whatever. There were a lot of dogs there. There were people just bringing their pets and stuff. It was a very unusual group. And I think it was because it wasn’t just famous people, it was geniuses.

And so yeah, if you’re a financial genius, that’s how you’ll feel about it and people will love it. And what you create will be filled with the joy of the creation instead of the tension and nastiness that so often comes to surround money with humans.

Okay, Jennifer says, “I’d love to hear about genius that isn’t the typical art, like bringing people together or speaking the truth. Yes, I love the word bananas and feel at home.” Good. This is such a wonderful question and a creative question too. Yeah. Daniel Pink in his book, A Whole New Mind, which came out in the nineties, he was talking about the skills that would be most marketable in the 21st century. And he said there were six. There was design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning. These were the six things. So symphony, he said, it’s obviously a musical term, but it means being able to take large numbers of various things that are not necessarily alike and bring them together, bringing them together to make them harmonious, to make them work together. So party planning, event planning is a very, very magical art. And bringing people together to have an intelligent discussion is a kind of art. Paul Revere, the guy who rode on his horse to tell everyone that the British were coming, he got all the American colonists, got up to go fight the British. There was another dude, and I can’t remember his name, but they had two people on two separate horses going in separate directions to get the word out. And they both rode their horses and told people the British were coming. But the dude no one remembers, including myself, he didn’t bring people together. And Paul Revere had this genius for making people connect and do things together. He was a motivator for some reason in this way. And so when he said the British were coming, everybody got up and got their muskets and piled out of bed. So yeah, he had that genius. This is what your genius is. Hiding in plain sight is the thing that always happens around you over and over and over. You find yourself at the center of something. That’s your genius. Yes. And it could be absolutely anything.

Andrea says, “What is a good way to resist contaminating our genius callings by thinking about turning it into a way to earn money? In the constant search for a new career path, everything I love doing seems to inevitably become contaminated this way.”

That is so true, Andrea. And in fact, I like the word colonized because we live in a culture that colonized the whole world. I mean, some of us may be sitting in areas of the world that were untouched by the colonization of the whole world by Western Europeans during the “Age of Adventure and Discovery,” but it colonizes things. It climbs into things, takes their value, turns them into money, sells them, and breaks human beings down in the process. And so to be able to follow your genius and hold away the colonization, the contamination of the culture is something that I think only an adult really can handle. Most kids cave in, they can’t help it. Everything is pressuring us to give up our genius when we’re little. But remember, I think if they really tested everybody, a hundred percent of kids would be creative geniuses. It gets educated and processed and colonized and contaminated out of all of us to some degree. 

So find a way to make money. Don’t necessarily put all that pressure on your genius to make the money and start doing your genius for its own sake. I love, I may have quoted this in the last, I dunno, eight or nine Gathering Rooms, the wonderful Gina Chick who was on a show called Alone Australia. First season. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. She’s a person who specializes in rewilding human beings. And she says, at one point, “For the rest of my life, I just have three questions every day. I’m going to get up and say, what do I need? How do I fill my needs? And how do I spend the rest of the day making art or being creative?” So that’s what I’d like you to do, Andrea, and that might keep the colonizers out if you do the needs, meet the needs first, and then boom, spend the rest of your day on your genius. Even if it’s only five minutes, even if it’s only 15 minutes, even if you can somehow squeeze in 30 minutes, like when you fall in love, as Liz Gilbert says in Big Magic, there are ways you squeeze in time with the beloved.

So your genius loves you. Your genius is calling you. It has never stopped calling you, and it will never give up on you, and neither will I. And I love you, and I’ll see you again on The Gathering Room.

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