We’re All Unaware of Our Genius

You have a genius. Everybody does. If that strikes you as overblown, it’s probably because the word “genius” gets tossed around rather cavalierly these days. Everyone from the latest disposable pop star to a chef who knows how to make crème brûlée is dubbed with the term. In fact, if you search the words “Marcus Buckingham is a genius,” you’ll get … well, you won’t get any hits at all. But let’s not dwell on that. What I’m getting at is this: the word “genius” has become diluted, and it has evolved, as many words do, quite far from its original meaning.

“Genius” derives from the Latin gignere, meaning “to beget,” and its original sense in English described a guardian spirit present with a person from birth—something like a guardian angel. Many of us in the twenty-first century may not think a lot about guardian spirits, but the word changed over time to take on the broader sense of a person’s natural, inherited abilities. In this sense, we do all have a genius. The most basic challenge, of course, is that it’s hard to see your own uniqueness. As with Lilia, your strengths are a part of you, whether you’re conscious of them or not. Because they’re so woven into the fabric of who you are, they become invisible. Certain things come so naturally to you that you don’t feel your ability to do them as unique; you just think it’s you. Or rather, you don’t even think anything. You just do what you do, because it comes to you too easily to require analysis. It’s not that you don’t value your uniqueness; it’s that you’re barely aware of it.

Which points to a second challenge: most other people aren’t aware of it either. As oblivious as we can be to our own strengths, it’s even easier to ignore the particular and unique strengths of others. We assume that if we have a particular talent or inherent ability, everybody else does, too. Or if we’re not naturally drawn to doing something, we find it hard to understand why anybody else would be. With most of us struggling to vividly articulate what our own strengths are, it’s little wonder we fail to identify other people’s. The uncomfortable truth is that, more than likely, no one else is worrying about what makes you unique. Nobody is dedicated to identifying that special cluster of talents you have.

School doesn’t do it: schools want to make sure that everybody learns what everybody is supposed to learn. Work doesn’t do it: work is most concerned about performance, about what needs to get done. Everybody in your life has expectations and demands that don’t necessarily have any direct connection to your strengths. It makes for a lot of background noise. If you were an engineer, you might say that your life has a terrible signal-to-noise ratio. Even if you felt compelled to ask yourself, “What is my genius? What am I drawn to do naturally? What makes me who I am?” you are surrounded by crowds of people drowning out that impulse with their well-meaning advice to “try this,” “you have to do it this way,” and “be like that.”

The challenge here is that even if you do cut through the noise and identify what unique strengths you have to offer, that’s still not enough. To be truly your best, it isn’t sufficient merely to understand that you’re unique, or even to understand what makes you unique. Sustained success comes only when you take what’s unique about you and figure out how to make it useful. Your strengths, in essence, are value neutral. They can be put to good use, or they can (as Lilia’s teachers can attest) be put to bad use. If you don’t remember your strengths, if you don’t know them and understand them and consciously decide how you can best apply them in your life, they will come out anyway. But you won’t be in control of how they do.