I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way.
— Lady Gaga
During one of those generally meaningless in-office conversations, colleague Jim West and I discovered a shared belief on the concept of artistic genius (which may be a little scary for both of us).
The premise, which I’ve always strongly believed, is a simple one: You can teach someone to write, to play a musical instrument, to paint, to reach the very limits of their artistic talent. You can teach them all the rules, all the accepted technical requirements, all the tricks of the trade.
But when you get to a level that stretches beyond adequacy, into that realm where genius resides, not even the greatest teacher can take you there. When it comes to the truly gifted writer — a James Lee Burke — the spokesman-of-a-generation lyricist — a Bob Dylan — the touched-by-God painter — a Michelangelo — the virtuoso musician — a Yo-Yo Ma or a Jimi Hendrix — the take-your-breath-away vocalist — a Sam Smith or an Eddie Vedder — there are forces involved that surpass any level of education.
I call it true genius.
Even in the world of athletics, which at its pinnacle requires a certain level of artistry, there are skills that the Roberto Clementes and the Julius Ervings and the Bart Starrs and the Martina Navratilovas possessed before they ever picked up a baseball bat or a tennis racket or a basketball. Certainly they had to hone those skills. And, at some point, someone or something had to lead them in the direction of their inherent talent.
Once Serena Williams took the court, or Peyton Manning had a football placed in his hand, or someone introduced Jimmy Page to his first guitar, though, something magical happened.
In his glorified treatise “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell — a man who’s no stranger to the genius tag — suggests that persons of rare exception can be identified well beyond the boundaries of arts and athletics. Gladwell offers compelling data he says show that, in addition to being born with certain gifts that allow individuals to excel in business, soccer, hockey, chess, politics … pretty much any pursuit … individuals of genius in any chosen field ultimately reach that level by working at it.
Gladwell surmises that it takes a period of 10,000 hours of intense preparation in any chosen endeavor to hone natural skills to the level of genius. (Incidentally, Gladwell’s principle is the basis for Macklemore’s compelling song “Ten Thousand Hours” on his “The Heist” disc, so if you’re not into intellectual pursuit, you can take the easy route.)
In the wonderfully dark 1999 Oscar-winning movie “American Beauty,” Mena Suvari’s Angela character laments, “I don’t think there’s anything worse than being ordinary.”
Unfortunately, for an overwhelming majority of the world’s population, ordinary — or maybe even slightly above ordinary — is about the best we can hope for. But for those rare individuals who have been rationed gifts through some miracle of the genetics lottery and/or divine intervention — the folks that Gladwell calls “outliers” — the possibility of true genius not only exists, it’s there for the taking.
Remember, though, Michael Jordan didn’t become one of the greatest basketball players ever by watching other people play the game. And Tom Morello didn’t become perhaps the greatest guitarist of his generation by listening to old Clapton and B.B. King records or incessantly playing the Guitar Hero video game.
There are those 10,000 hours to be dealt with.
Oh, and the rest of us? There’s always the possibility of winning the lottery or marrying rich. As Dylan sang, “… she inherited a million bucks, and when she died it came to me. I can’t help it if I’m lucky.” We can only wish.