“Genius Has to Be Destroyed”

How many times in a day do you ask “Why?”

How many times in a day do you express your true curiosities?

How often do you simply ask the question that’s most naturally come to mind?

I’ve borrowed the headline today from Erwin McManus, described on his website as an “iconoclast, artist, and cultural thought leader” and Lead Pastor for Mosaic, a church based on Los Angeles “recognized as one of America’s most influential and innovative churches.” McManus said a lot during his conversation with Ed Mylett that resonated with me, much of it tied to his own exploration of faith as a Christian and philosopher. What struck me about this particular phrase, that “genius has to be destroyed,” is how obvious it seems after the fact. How obvious the same point always seems despite how often we pressure each other to deny it.

By now (assuming you’re still here), you’re wondering how I’m going to argue that “genius” must be “destroyed.” You’re even more confused if you know me. Or perhaps not, for I also tend to ask questions and make arguments in order to find where their logic train ends–whether I believe in the underlying premise or not. Rest assured, coming out against genius isn’t my purpose here. If anything, I’m coming out for McManus’ description of genius. In its most natural state.

One of the most telling pieces of data I’ve ever heard came from this podcast episode with McManus.1 Citing a 1960s-era study on genius and creativity, he said that a group of five-year-olds was measured using a methodology developed by NASA to determine whether someone was a genius. That first measurement yielded 98 percent; the overwhelming majority of those kids were geniuses. On its own, I don’t think that data amounts to much. We can all disagree on what constitutes “genius,” “creativity,” “giftedness,” whatever. What clinched it for me was the rest of the study’s findings as the investigators continued to measure the same sample as those children grew into adolescents, then adults. At age 12, only 30 percent met the criteria (the same as when the study began). By age 20, only 2 percent qualified as genius. TWO PERCENT of the original sample. McManus uses this data to contend that “genius,” such that it is, “has to be destroyed” and that is it not something we must develop but that is intrinsic to each of us as a human being. Holy s#!t.

I’ve met a number of Christian pastors in my life. Many were fond of comparing a Christian’s faith to the innocent faith of a child. They remind congregations about how honest and forthcoming children are, how willing they are ask why and why not, and how willing they are to plow through moments of ignorance or uncertainty in order to grow. If it’s true that 98 percent of us, at age 5, would qualify as geniuses, while only 2 percent of us remain so into adulthood, isn’t that something we should be talking about? Better yet, isn’t that something we should address? And I’m not asking because I think everyone should “fix” themselves and become devout Christians. Hardly. I think the loss of such faculties, perhaps apparent in the life of every child, could be one of today’s most tragic realities.

It would be easy for me to point to school as the culprit. And believe me, I’m no stranger to failing educational models and spend every day falling farther away from the belief that our future lies in the traditional model of academic training–including the unbroken progression from pre-K, to K-12, through undergraduate. If anything, it has taken the world’s highest-profile CEOs to remind us how little a college degree can mean in a world moving much faster than universities have proven themselves capable. Many of us were admonished if anything but “college” was our goal after high school. Maybe it was just me, but I doubt it. Yet some of our most famous entrepreneurs, faith leaders, and creatives made a name for themselves and provide value to millions without ever attending a post-secondary course. Some didn’t even finish high school! But they have found personal and professional success, perhaps because they had the freedom (or wrestled it away from their parents) to eschew the standard dogma.

It’s all in your perspective, right? I’m a father of two young boys who’s now more concerned than ever about how young children should be educated, and how we can best prepare them for an unknown world without making them think there’s only one way. There’s never been only one way. We thought so because it appeared to work for so many people. Millions, in fact. But the numbers we were taught didn’t include the millions more for whom the standard didn’t work. It didn’t include the stress and anguish suffered by those who “accomplished” the standard goals while hating every aspect of their personal lives and professional endeavors. Of course I want my children to be successful. And of course I want them to grow up into mature, self-sufficient, service-oriented men. But I don’t want all that so I can gloat about it to the neighbors. I suppose I don’t actually want it at all. I need those things to happen because my boys need that reality for themselves. For our sons to grow into strong, capable, loving men is for them to answer questions only they can answer. I can’t answer for them what jobs they should seek, what schools they should attend, what trades they should train, or what sports they should play. I can answer those questions no more than I can answer them for you. The difference is I have an opportunity to influence them in a positive way while at the same time allowing them the freedom to make their own decisions. And to suffer the consequences of their own mistakes.

I will intervene for their safety as all parents would, but I will not keep my kids from learning the lessons only an individual can learn in their own time. Such is a mark of our creative genius, I think. School won’t make you smarter. Only you can do that by seeking counsel, guidance, and education on your own terms. Knowledge is a great thing to have. Smarts is about how you’ll use it for the better. To build up others and build a better future for them.

1I have not found the study McManus cited in the episode. Please note, I cannot confirm the statistics shared, but believe wholeheartedly still in the message. Think for yourself and, if you find the study, please let me know!

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