The first TED talk I remember ever watching was “Your Elusive Creative Genius,” by Elizabeth Gilbert, in 2009. If you aren’t among the 19 million people (literally) who have watched this talk, or if you just want to relive the magic, here’s the link. There’s a lot of good stuff in that talk, but the thing that has most stuck with me these eleven years is Gilbert’s account of the way the word “genius” has changed through the centuries.
The ancients believed that “creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons.” The Romans called this attendant spirit a “genius”:
They believed that a genius was a sort of magical divine entity, who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist’s studio, kind of like Dobby the house elf, and who would come out and invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work.—Elizabeth Gilbert
So, for the Romans, “genius” was something that existed outside the artist. But around the Renaissance or soon thereafter, people started to think of creativity as something that comes from the individual instead of something that comes to the individual. “And from that time in history,” says Elizabeth Gilbert, “you start to hear people referring to this or that artist as being a genius instead of having a genius.”
The idea of having a genius, being attended by a genius, protects the artist from many of the neuroses and unhealthy habits of mind that beset artists:
If your work was brilliant, you couldn’t take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed—not entirely your fault, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame.—Elizabeth Gilbert
You are not your gift.Jonathan Rogers
I don’t know whether Elizabeth Gilbert actually believes in attendant spirits. It’s not always easy to discern when she’s speaking literally and when she’s speaking figuratively. But I can tell you that the best stuff I’ve ever written has always felt like it was coming from some place that wasn’t between my ears. And the idea that creativity originates in the individual human brain—that strikes me as at least as superstitious and woo-woo as the idea that creativity originates outside the individual human brain.
Creativity is a mystery; you are not your gift. Or, as Elizabeth Gilbert puts it,
Allowing somebody, one mere person to believe that he or she is the vessel, the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile human psyche. It’s like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance.—Elizabeth Gilbert
It’s not your job to be a genius. It’s your job to sit down and do the work. There are mysteries at play in all creative endeavors. Those mysteries are beyond your grasp. That’s all the more reason for you to double down on what is within your grasp—staying in the chair, putting words on the page, resisting the urge to check social media or (as the case may be) to fold another load of laundry. Tend to your business. Hopefully your genius will show up.
This piece was originally shared in Jonathan’s weekly Habit Newsletter. If you’d like your own inbox to be graced with such insight—and with staggering frequency, at that—you can sign up for it by clicking here.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.