There’s a scene in a book I read recently, How Should A Person Be, where Sheila Heti (a writer who I truly believe has a direct line to my brain) is walking back home with a friend Jen. They have just attended a lecture by an artist who has been painting since he was two and Jen is feeling all torn up. Jen believes that the reason she cannot be successful in life is because she hasn’t been painting since she was two and the only real way to be a genius is to be a prodigy. That to be a genius is to have a long line of events and signs in your life that when altogether traced could only mean one thing, that you are a genius and you’ve always meant to be one. A little bit like this:
Age 9: you get a guitar.
Age 15: you play till your fingers bleed.
Age 24: you are proclaimed a musical genius.
This type of deterministic and quasi-religious thinking is making Jen feel like the events in her life do not add up to her being a genius. That she hasn’t been painting or singing or writing since she was two. That at best she’s been infinitely curious and at worst a shallow dilettante. And that no matter how hard she works now or in the next five years, no matter how long she slaves at her writing, she can never really be a genius writer because you see she was never really meant to be one.
Sheila, hearing this comforts her friend saying that everyone has been doing something since they were two and you need to find that and lean into it and use that to inform your work, and that’s what makes a true genius.
The episode ends in the book, but I imagine hearing that must have given Jen a tiny sliver of hope in her heart. Not at first, not if Jen is a jaded, modern, cynical woman who doesn’t believe that a simple conversation can really change your beliefs or impact your life. But later as she must have been doing her dishes or walking to work, Sheila’s words must have come back to her and lodged themselves between her intense desire to be successful and the terrifying belief that she could never be. And now every time she has a moment to herself, and her thoughts naturally traverse back to the topic of geniuses, she must think: What have I been doing since the age of two?
Sometimes Jen might chance upon something like how she has always created fake intricate conversations in her head, or worked hard to give meaning to mundane, unexciting things of life, but she shakes her head because those are not substantial things. Not meaty enough to be the stuff that makes up genius. But I guess no matter what a jaded cynical modern day woman Jen is, she still carries in her the hope that one day, in a glorious eureka moment, she will find the answer to that question. And I really hope she does.