I’ve been reading a lot of books by Malcolm Gladwell and books remarkably similar to books by Malcolm Gladwell. The pattern is pretty straightforward: You give your book a one-word title and then explain what the hell you’re talking about in the subtitle.
So you get books like Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior and Book: How People at Cocktail Parties Come Up With Conversational Topics.
I made that last one up, actually. But that’s the point — I think I could write one of these things pretty easily. The two main qualifications for being a pop sociology author appear to be the ability to ask rhetorical questions, and the ability to share anecdotes that vaguely answer those questions. Is this something I could do? According to a tangentially related study of bar-hopping patterns among female youth in Prague, yes it is.
The problem with these books is that they all make you feel like you’re getting the inside information on some key aspect of the human psyche, something that might unlock the genius hidden inside you like a sausage wrapped in a pancake and sold off the kids’ menu.
But of course, that’s not realistic. Learning about what made Darwin, Gershwin and to a lesser extent Paquin who they are is not going to do a damn thing for you, any more than the Babar books turned you into elephant royalty like you always secretly hoped they would. So my book is going to focus on the one thing that all successful, world-changing geniuses have in common: They’re not you.
What follows is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Nope: Success, Brilliance, Innovation and Why Those Words Never Come Up When People Talk About You.
A young boy in what is now Salzburg, Austria, sits down at his father’s piano and composes a minuet beyond the creative capabilities of many accomplished adults. A 78-year-old woman in a rural New York village sells a painting to an art collector; within five years she will be one of America’s most celebrated painters. A Scottish biologist nearly throws away a contaminated sample; instead he cultures the contaminating mold and discovers the first truly effective antibiotic, one which eventually will save countless lives.
What do these three people have in common? Well, to begin with, nobody would ever mistake them for you. Each had a special spark that made them able to achieve things miles beyond what most people accomplish, which is like light-years beyond what you’ve done with your life. What did you get done this week — take that one shirt you spilled mayonnaise on to the cleaners? No? Well, maybe next week.
For centuries, scientists have wondered what makes someone special, and for two or three years now your significant other has been seriously considering leaving you for a member of the Geek Squad. What makes a genius stand head and shoulders above his or her peers, the same way some assbutt making 20 bucks an hour selling people antivirus software looks like a Greek god with a Harvard Med degree next to you?
Is it that they didn’t have your parents, and thus were toilet trained sometime before second grade? Or perhaps they had more intellectual and creative stimulation from their peers than you get from that one guy who sometimes says “hi” to you at the coffee shop? Or perhaps they simply had the right genetic makeup, unlike that pile of half-eaten, rancid, drive-through chicken parts you call a genome.
The answer, it turns out, is all of the above, and yet none of the above. And yet some of the above. While nobody would disagree that your upbringing was laughable, your education futile and your peer group made up entirely of parasites both literal and figurative, science has determined that any number of people start with equally poor raw materials and yet manage to become lauded in their own time and praised by historians. And even if they don’t, at least they can manage to buy actual real beer instead of accidentally getting the alcohol-free crap about a third of the time. Seriously, what’s with that? Most people wouldn’t buy something called “O’Doul’s” even if it were the cure for herpes.
Face it: Geniuses don’t think like you.
Nonetheless, if we research thoroughly and reject studies that don’t support our theory, we can find certain themes that recur in the lives of geniuses from Ancient Greeks to adolescent geeks. In addition to not being you, it turns out that they don’t think like you, don’t process ideas like you, don’t respond to criticism with that same snotty-whiny voice you use anytime someone suggests you’re not 100 percent perfect and, last but not least, their ex-lovers don’t have quite as many amusing tales of sexual inadequacy to share with friends, colleagues and live television audiences.
In this book, we’ll examine all these people who aren’t you, and the ways they avoided being you their entire lives. Most importantly, we’ll outline the steps that ordinary people who aren’t you can take to be even less like you, and perhaps even find that spark of profound insight that you have never experienced in any form, even when you figured out all by yourself that squeezable ketchup bottles don’t make as much of a mess if you open the cap first.
Join us, won’t you? But go brush your teeth first — you’ve got like an entire veldt stuck between them.
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Born helpless, naked and unable to provide for himself, Lore Sjöberg overcame these handicaps to discover the cure for herpes contaminating a bottle of Kaliber.