As a society, or species, (or whatever we are), we tend to laud forward thinking creative geniuses. When we find one, we hoist them onto a pedestal and treat them as an (to quote this article) “Übermensch [who] stands apart from the masses, pulling them forcibly into a future that they can neither understand nor appreciate.” This is true across all disciplines. Think of Einstein, Beethoven, Picasso, on and on.
So how does one become a genius? Clearly you have to innovate, to do something no one else has done. But there’s a catch here. You can’t be too innovative. You can’t be so ahead of the curve that nobody can really grasp what you’re saying or doing.
Let me propose a thought experiment. Jimi Hendrix travels to Vienna around 1750 and plays his music. Would he be lauded as a genius? Would his guitar playing be heard as the obvious evolution of current trends in music? No, he’d probably be regarded as an idiot making hideous noise and he might be burned at the stake.
But, let music evolve for around 220 years and yes, Jimi is rightfully regarded as a genius. His sound was made palatable by those who came before him, mainly electric blues guitar players of the 50s and 60s. (Obviously there are a lot of other factors (like race and class and sex) relevant to whom gets crowned a genius but I’m painting in broad strokes here.)
So the trick to being a genius is to be ahead of your time but not too ahead. The world of science and medicine is filled with examples. Gregor Mendel famously discovered that physical traits could be passed from one generation of life to another. In what was a major breakthrough in our understanding of biology, he theorized what we came to call genes. He published his results and was met with pretty much total indifference. It wasn’t until his work was rediscovered decades later that we applied them. Mendel was too ahead of his time.
The book “The Mind’s I” notes the mathematician Giovanni Girolamo Saccheri who contributed to the discovery of non-Euclidian geometry. His ideas were so controversial that even Saccheri himself rejected them! (At least he did according to the book; there seems some debate on this. See the last graph on the Saccheri wiki page.) Talk about being too ahead of your time.
But perhaps the best example of this sort of thing is Ignaz Semmelweis. The Hungarian physician…
…discovered that the incidence of puerperal fever could be drastically cut by the use of hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics.
That’s right, he basically came up with the crazy idea that doctors should wash their hands after touching sick people. Unfortunately…
Despite various publications of results where hand-washing reduced mortality to below 1%, Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time and his ideas were rejected by the medical community. Some doctors were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands and Semmelweis could offer no acceptable scientific explanation for his findings. Semmelweis’s practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory and Joseph Lister, acting on the French microbiologist’s research, practiced and operated, using hygienic methods, with great success.
Oh well. Semmelweis probably still had a great career and life right?
In 1865, Semmelweis was committed to an asylum, where he died at age 47 after being beaten by the guards, only 14 days after he was committed.
Don’t be too ahead of the curve folks.