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, written by Jeremy. Read the commentary.

When do we get to play? I mean play for real – like NHL-hockey-player playing. Where it’s for real money in a real game against real opposition.

Where we’re invited – or better yet, commanded – to completely unload. To grab our brimming grail of rich potential, look for the whitest, untouched canvas we can find, and with absolute abandon splash its red brilliance on everything in our lives. When does that happen?

There’s this scene in the last X-Men movie where Juggernaut, this massive brute who’s mutant power is giant strength, is chasing Kitty Pryde (another mutant) through a building. Instead of racing through hallways and doors, Juggernaut just puts his head down and smashes through the brick walls. Bursting through one impossibly thick wall after another, he’s unstoppable. Meanwhile, Kitty, who’s power is phase shifting, zips along in front of him, flashing in phases through the matter in front of her.

The intoxicating thing about all the super-hero stuff we’ve seen is that deep down we believe a tiny, microscopic fraction of it is actually true. Some have a seemingly inhuman or unfathomable strength that isn’t a direct result of experience, or schooling, or career path. That, without even trying, a few can touch things that most people take a lifetime to achieve.

We believe it because we see its evidence all around us. The most obvious of these people are the best musicians, artists, athletes, and scientists. People well-recognized and well-paid to crash through the walls of our existence into a reality most of us weren’t even aware of.

More rare, but also happily embraced, is the genius, prodigy, savant, and polymath. These are the phase shifters – the glorious few who don’t even touch reality.

But what about the rest of us who don’t play in the NHL and aren’t confident enough to be eccentric and earn the excuse to be wildly brilliant?

Why does brilliance have to be excused at all?

I think it’s because no one has taught us how to invite it or accept it from others. Our systems of working together teach us to stick to the lowest common denominator rather than spark off into the stratosphere.

We start from very young, in classrooms where we’re forced to wait for the slowest students to figure out the current lesson. We watch that sorry kid struggle through their math; we learn to focus on the weakness in others. We’re taught that it’s not worth it to be bright … bright kids just have to wait for everyone else and if those that accidentally do get a great grades get bell-curved down so that the rest can keep up. Better to be average.

We’re taught to create a template for our lives where every skill, every challenge, and every job gets a B. If you’re weak – try harder. If you are strong – focus on pulling up your socks in other areas.

The result? Those crazy enough to blast off into brilliance are committing cultural taboo. Read the story of almost every genius, prodigy, or savant – most of their lives are spent coming to grips with their potential in a world that doesn’t know how to handle it.

By the time we finally get permission to find our own way through life, we’re so completely desensitized to our natural abilities that we can’t see them in ourselves and we sure can’t value them in others. Having lost the touch, we spend the rest of our lives aching for something we can’t define and despising those foolish enough to touch things we can no longer explain.

We end up as managers, decision makers, and leaders who don’t know what to do with everyday types of genius. We don’t have systems for understanding and banking on the intuition, flashes of insight, or gut instinct expressed by others. So these forms of decision making get relegated to artists, entrepreneurs, and wacked-out scientists. And this is why we never get invited to be amazing.

We don’t get invited to play – to completely unload – because no one knows how to respond when we do. But there are a few, rare places that are trying to figure it out. And funny thing, we love to talk about those places.

We can’t bear to recognize brilliance in people but we’re delighted to chat about the companies and regions who embrace them. As uncomfortable as brilliance makes us, at least we’re able to talk about the places that enable it.

IDEO, Intellectual Ventures, Silicon Valley … these are places that celebrate genius. They’ve built systems to embrace it, explosion proof business models to enable it, and they are learning to make decisions based on brilliance based insights.

Unfortunately, when we talk about them it usually ends up as discussion of highly-designed office space, free food, unlimited sodas, and sometimes stats about sexual behaviours. Of course, these aren’t really the point, but again it distracts us from the reality that this kind of creativity and brilliance might be within our reach – at least indirectly.

It keeps us from acknowledging the simple and clear path back to brilliance – that someone with authority, credibility, resources, and power stood up on a soapbox, grabbed a bullhorn and shouted: “Here, in this place, you are free to unload. We’re paying people to play – with everything they’ve got … if you play, you get a cheque. If you work, you’re fired.” And then tossed the bullhorn, got off the soapbox, and made it so.

We know who these companies are and where they work for the single reason that it’s incredibly rare to embrace brilliance. In our culture, inviting brilliance might even be more rare than brilliance itself. For this reason, I don’t believe – in fact, I am utterly convinced – that no one will ever invite me to play. But maybe I can invite others to play.

Maybe my purpose will be to grab the bullhorn and find the soapbox – I don’t know. Maybe my life will be spent finding those few people who miraculously made it through with the ability to walk through walls. If I can’t play, at least I could protect those that can.


Saturday Links for the Week — January 13, 2007…

Marvelous piece.

I think comfort plays a big part in our slide into mediocrity. Brilliance is not comfortable, for the reasons you describe. Neither is public speaking, learning, growing old, or death.

It is for this reason I feel brilliance should be embraced nationwide. And why it won’t be until there’s a sea change in how we understand comfort.

I have a piece of paper tacked to my wall. On it is written, “Why do I need anyone else’s permission?” It’s a reminder of the same thing you so eminently purport – the natural ability to wonder and discover IS present among us. A way always exists to find it.

Thanks Chris. We are comfortable in the middle, aren’t we. As awful as slothing around feels, it somehow has its own inertia.

What do you think must change “in how we see comfort”?

Brian Eno once made a deck of cards that you might enjoy. Each card has a new way of looking at life, an oblique strategy. There are various flash and shockwave versions too. And I just found this two minutes ago, an RSS feed.

Chris, what do you do that you have up a slip like that regarding permission? Where do you think you picked up the habit of asking for permission?

I see comfort as next to apathy in our society. If none of us tries, then no one’s threatened. We’re all sitting there; the only effort we need expend is watching each other to make sure nobody gets “uppity.”

For us to change that, we must realize that the greatest comfort comes AFTER achievement, and is a signal for us to look to the next challenge.

I grew up the son of parents obsessed with avoiding conflict. This meant extracting themselves – and us – from any situation where we might offend or obstruct someone else. I had to ask permission on which essay topics I could write.

Along the way, I realized there was a fundamental hypocrisy in this thinking. Growth does not occur without conflict. Moreover, I got tired of asking questions and being told not to. I still struggle with it, but I’ve learned that to rely on others for permission to think is deadly to the developing mind.

Interesting deck of cards.

How do you see the contrast between opportunity and comfort? Has opportunity been expressed in a language that comfortable people understand?

People are comfortable but the ache to achieve real things is nearly universal these days. Does that suggest anything?

I agree with and understand your comment regarding the way you were raised. There is something deep within us that maleable in our youth and nearly untouchable in adulthood. Too few parents understand the gift they can give curious children by simply allowing them to ask “why” instead of “please”.