the thing about geniuses

This is one of my favorite posts from A Holy Experience. It has really changed what I think about– well, you’ll just have to see. 🙂

Dormant geniuses lie sleeping down the hall.

They eat across from us at the breakfast table, sit next to us in mini-vans taxiing to soccer fields, even look back at us from our bathroom mirrors. What if genius is the normative intent of what God’ bestows?

And our own lack of faithful stewardship results in malnourished gifts?

László and Klara Polgár, parents of three daughters, understood exactly that. Homeschoolers in Hungary who were harassed by armed police to enroll their daughters in public school, Klara and László believed that any child could be nurtured to flourish, and exceedingly so. It was simply a matter of faithfulness.

The Polgar’s were.

Faithful hours of considered study and practice were invested in the Polgar home. By 2000, these home educated daughters were at least tri-lingual (one daughter could speak seven languages), each had achieved top-10 ranking in the world of female chess players, and their youngest daughter, Judit, shattered the previous record for the youngest person, male or female, to earn the title of chess Grandmaster. She was 15 years old. While Susan would later be the number one female chess player in the world, Judit would be the first woman to be rank in the top ten chess players worldwide.

How did the Polgar’s raise three geniuses?

It wasn’t a function of I.Q. or genetics. (László concedes he was a mediocre chess player at best, being regularly beaten by his oldest when she was five years old; Klara didn’t even know the rules when their daughters began playing. Current research clearly indicates that the top achievers are rarely high-IQ geniuses or former child prodigies.) It was simply the same way Mozart, Benjamin Franklin, Tiger Woods found their way: by faithful , wholehearted stewardship.

By diligent, attentive nurtuing of the gifts God hands out liberally to far more than a select few. It’s dangerously tempting to think that geniuses are exceptional products of blazing, divine intervention.

Because then we don’t have to closely examine how we are stewarding the gifts He’s given us.


Are geniuses really only better stewards then the rest of us? 

Recent research suggests that rather unnerving possibility.

1. Geniuses are stewards who Faithfully Practice

Geniuses make it look effortless only because they’ve faithfully practiced. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, posits that “extended deliberate practice” is the ultimate key to successful use of a gift. “Nothing shows that innate factors are a necessary prerequisite for expert-level mastery in most fields,” he says. Ericsson’s interviews with 78 German pianists and violinists discovered that by age 20, the best musicians had spent an estimated 10,000 hours practicing, twice the average 5,000 hours the less accomplished group practiced.

Genius is a long faithfulness.

So fingers stretch across ivories here, shoulders hunch over Latin, brows knit in mathematical quandary. Just two hours a day of concentrated practice over a decade stacks up to 7,000 hours of faithful stewarding.

What would happen if every Christian used the 4 hours daily spent in front of the television a day (more than 126 hours a month!) or the near hour a day the average American surfs the internet and spent two of those hours developing their skill in a particular domain ( woodworking, quantum physics, photography) and one hour more on the spiritual disciplines that lead into a deeper relationship with God, (prayer, memorization, Bible meditation, fasting) – only repurposing three hours a day from the five we spend on passive entertainment — and in one decade, our entire culture – and the world at large – would be entirely revolutionized. How are we being faithful stewards of our 10,000 hours?

Why not tenderly unfurl a gift?

2. Geniuses are stewards who Faithfully Pioneer

The flesh tugs towards the path of least resistance. Even if we practice, we’re tempted to keep practicing what we already know. But geniuses steward the gift by faithfully pioneering into unknown territory. Committed stewards continually forge ahead by asking: what weaknesses need strengthening? what skills need extending?

Faithful stewards fight the flesh and mind’s inclination to sloppily automate a skill, by careful analyzing the parts of the whole skill and altering their practice accordingly, which forces the brain’s internalization of an improved pattern of execution. Like Benjamin Franklin who would rewrite his favorite articles from memory, then closely compare it with the actual, we too stretch minds and skills with challenge of new ground.
How can I gently stretch a gift?

3. Geniuses are stewards who Faithfully Pursue

Geniuses steward the gift by, practice, pioneering and finally, pursuing a mentor. A coach or teacher is necessary to flourish a gift, to grow it into pioneer territory. And pursuing a supportive environment is paramount for fostering a gift. Parents can be mentors. Parents can be the positive environment. When Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University, praised children for “how” they did a task—for undergoing the process successfully — most children wanted to take on increasingly challenging tasks. The children wanted to pioneer. Generally, such encouraged children’s performances improved, and when it didn’t, they still deemed the experience enjoyable.
How might we pursue a mentor and *be* a strengthening, affirming for others stewarding a gift?

Children slip out of beds, and another day dawns with its hours. I’m not so sure anyone here will ever be deemed “a genius”, or if that is really even a worthy goal, but stewardship clearly is. And it’s clear that God’s far more generous in placing truly great gifts into our hands than we’ve ever realized.

It’s our hands that need be faithful with the talents.

I reach out and squeeze the young hand next to mine.

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