Genius Doesn’t Excuse Anything

Mozart was a genius.  That’s something on which almost all professionals in classical music agree.  Outside of music, however, his acts, language, and behavior left, shall we say, something to be desired.  The same was also true of Richard Wagner.  Because my wife is a professional singer, as well as a professor of voice and opera, over the years, I’ve met a few renowned figures in the field.  Several, often described as outstanding or geniuses, have come across as boors, bitches, and self-absorbed bastards [no..I won’t name names].  In my years in politics, I went through the same experience, except that occurred in the back rooms, so to speak, because any competent politician, in general, is warm and caring in public… or at least careful in dealing with anyone who can vote or contribute or give good media coverage. 

Now… not all geniuses are uncaring, self-centered egotists, but from what I’ve seen, a disproportionate number are – especially in private or when they think they can get away with such behavior.  What is it about so many people who have great talent that makes them so indifferent to the feelings of others and so willing to tromp over others – even when it gains them nothing and often costs them far more than they realize? That might just be a reason why the career of pop music phenoms average 18 months.

Some have claimed that such egotistic behavior is one of the costs of or prices for genius.  I don’t buy that.  I suspect that people tend to excuse behaviors by those with great talent, wealth, or power that they would not tolerate in others.  I understand [but still find repulsive] such excuses when people feel they must ignore or excuse bad behavior by those with great power, as in the case of corporate subordinates of egocentric CEOs, because calling your boss on bad behavior is usually a career-limiting move.  And I have to admit that I’ve never understood the appeal of rock stars or popular musicians whose popularity seems to be enhanced by bad behavior.  That might possibly be because fans wish they could do the same and identify with it, but, elitist that I am, I much prefer quiet class to the openly displayed arrogance of power.

As I’ve noted before, in the corporate area, competent and quiet CEOs almost always outperform the egocentric ones, but both the public and the media seem all too willing to praise the egotists, at least until they fail… and most do.  As for Mozart, while his music lives on, he was buried almost without mourners in an unmarked grave.  Maybe that fact ought to be trumpeted a bit more.

7 thoughts on “Genius Doesn’t Excuse Anything”

  1. Brian says:

    From teenager to my mid-twenties I understood the appeal of bad behaviour. I still do. For most it is an outlet. A very necessary outlet.

    When I was twelve I rummaged through my brother’s 8-track collection and pulled out a tape on which I recognized only two songs. I didn’t even know the names of the band members. I stuck it in the 8-track and loved the music I heard. I have been a Rolling Stones fan ever since. Not until my ‘rebellious’ teenager phase did I learn what Mick and Keith were like outside of the music. *eye roll*

    My parents instilled enough moral values in me that I understood the consequences of acting out my rebellious urges. I knew that if I got busted for drugs in Toronto in the late 70’s, my penalty would be jail, not providing a free benefit concert for the blind in Oshawa. While I toed the line and contented myself with relatively harmless acts of rebellion, my Rock ‘n’ Roll heroes (which had grown beyond Mick and Keith) acted out real ones on my behalf. My dreams to trash a hotel room were shared by others, but none us have ever done so (to my knowledge). I found that it did enhance my enjoyment of the music, my ego, my sense of belonging with others who were fans of the same bands and my sense of being bad without having to face the real consequences.

    Behaviour was still secondary to the music, though. If I like the sound; if I have a positive emotional reaction to it; I will buy it and listen to it. It is the same today as then. I couldn’t be a fan of an artist if I could not like their music, even if they acted outrageously. Besides, there were plenty of bad examples whose music I did like!

    Now, in most cases, I see public tabloid behaviour to be proportional to talent. The worse the public tabliod behaviour the worse the talent. This behaviour is a smoke screen, but young people will still do what I did and either overtly or covertly identify with it. As an outlet for themselves. Some will have the moral compass to control themselves; others sadly do not. The reasons for the latter group’s lack of moral compass is a discussion I’m not prepared to go into here.

    I, too, have begun to appreciate quiet class, beauty and elegance in performers and their music. That’s not elitist. More closer to maturity I would think. So does that mean my days of harmless symbolic acts of rebellion are at an end? Hahahaha! No way!

    You know that symbol that Texas Longhorn fans make: the index and pinky fingers extended with middle two fingers being held down by the thumb? Hook ’em Horns? Well that has a different meaning at a Metal concert. And you see it a lot. They are referred to as the Devil’s Horns. On the rare occasion I get out to such an event these days, I engage in a little harmless, yet rebellious, fun for a couple of hours. Then I return to my everyday ordinary life feeling all the better for it. For those who take the symbol a little too seriously know this: if the real thing (horns, tail and all) showed up on the front doorstep of 99.99% of the audience who gave that symbol during the concert they would piddle down their leg in fright (probably me too!).

    If my favourite performer embodying class, beauty and elegance were to give a concert in my part of the world, I’d be able to return the Horns after she flashes it first. Oh, it can be fun being naughty, if only for a little while. 🙂

  2. Alan says:

    I had a professor in college who was something of an egotist. Like some professors, he felt he was a superior example of what we should all strive to learn. Forced us to buy his book from the book store for the class, and generally imposed his interpretation of the text.

    One thing I did garner from his class in psychology was that many people who develop these bad behaviors, AND are considered geniuses or revolutionary within a field are often the social product of their intelligence. They do not develop at the same rate as their peers intellectually and it separates them socially. The worse that social connection becomes, the more their peers tend to pick on them.

    Over time a broad reaching rang of common social disorders can form. Or simply the desire to work and be alone. The more extreme a persons ability, it appears, the more they are impacted by their peers at a young age.

    Additionally, genius level individuals in technical fields tend to fall short in many social graces. Their minds work at a different rate and method then the average. What they find obvious and clear is frequently quite the opposite to most. This leads them to be impatient and quarlsome when dealing with others. They expect people to follow what appear to be wild leaps in logic without missing a beat.

    These individuals also resent the social ease others have for being better adjusted to deal with society. They have little patience for the small lies and inconsequential mundania that fills most peoples time. With no interest in propriety or the white lies people spout all the time, they only come across as even worse then they really are. Often times cynical, impatient and demanding, they do not intend to be rude or hurtful.

    Of course this does not excuse the rude, crass and general unfriendly behavior people exhibit. But when you look at it from the genius’ point of view, we’re just a bunch of slow and difficult liars. People who haven’t got the brain cells to keep up.

    It is universally agreed, within the US Naval Nuclear Power community, that Hymen G.Rickover was just such an individual. An asshole of the highest order, he was rude, cynical, impatient and uncaring for anyone’s feelings. But he is also hailed as a genius who aided in the design of nuclear reactors, was able to build the US Navy’s carrier and submarine force to be a power in the world. He defied Congress, bluntly told the president his opinions and then went about his own business, trusting in his superior intellect, skills and ability.

  3. Brian says:

    Many child prodigies are told how special and great they are during their formative years. Whether they are an artist or an athlete, for many that can’t help but inflate their egos to gigantic proportions. The feeling of being indispensable to the rest of the world, regardless of their personal behaviour, can develop. The knowledge of being different can also isolate them from other children their age to the point that their social skills by the time they become adults are stunted.

    Personality, living environment, parenting and other influences will determine whether the child becomes an adult resembling Ryan Leaf or Peyton Manning.

  4. Mayhem says:

    I would say that the number of people who can be called ‘genius’ in a given field is much lower than people think.

    The number of driven, focussed and ambitious people who will do whatever it takes to reach the pinnacle of their profession on the other hand is obvious.

    Every person I have met who I would call a true genius has been relatively humble about their achievements within their field – it is inevitable – their accomplishments come so easily that they aren’t given the same degree of importance as those of others.

    On the other hand as said above, many extremely talented individuals have been praised and rewarded for simply being better than their peers, so they will do anything they can to retain their glory and often treat others with disdain as a means of maintaining their position.
    The Salieri to Mozart as it were. They are not geniuses, simply very talented.
    In my mind Genius is that extra spark that comes along so very rarely, where what they do is so extraordinary everyone else looks on in awe. And they are so often tormented by their talents – take Douglas Adams, whose brain was so continuously inspired by the absurdity of everything that he had tremendous difficulty in actually writing down what he was thinking before he’d be off on another tack. That disability comes through so clearly in spoken recordings.
    Compare the great minds of physics, like Richard Feinmann or Neils Bohr, who could grasp extremely complicated ideas just from looking at the problem, and not only determine the answer, but everything that was likely to go wrong along the way. That takes genius – the talented ones are the ones that bring the subsequent ideas to execution.

  5. Steve says:

    Social ability is both a gift based on genetics and a skill that can be developed to a limited degree. It seems that many who have genious in one area are more limited in others. Often it is social ability that is limited. Add to this that since genious is often given a pass on behavior they are not pushed to develop their already limited gift, and you have a recipe for boor.

  6. Or someone who is socially clueless, as many are.

  7. Joe says:

    I think you’re mixing cause and effect.

    Mozart spent most of his childhood being drilled in music. The people around him only appreciated him for his music. That he would become socially inept should come as no great surprise. Indeed, it would not be too surprising if he hated the box people put him in.

    Many rich people also come over as self-centered and unpleasant. Yet when you realize that much of their experience is of people “being nice” to get their money or influence, perhaps it is not so surprising that they give up on empathy. Poorer people don’t have that option, since understanding others and networking is their key to survival.

    A further source of potential misunderstanding is that what is obvious to one person, may not be to another. However things that are obvious are very hard to explain. (Explain “red” to a blind person). But if you find it difficult to explain some technical concept to a person not skilled in that art, and tell them so, they will often think you are being arrogant. To make matters worse, others often do not seem to be putting in the effort required to understand that which you are trying to explain. They just put the onus on you to explain it so that they can understand without effort.

    Nevertheless, the true masters I have met are humble. To succeed in their field, they have had to adopt the standards of the field itself, rather than listen to their peers telling them how wonderful they are. When you do that, you realize how little you know and how much there is to learn.

    Next time you meet an unpleasant genius, perhaps you should tell him that while you respect his skill, you’re saddened that you found your interactions with him to be so unpleasant. That might be the first honest feedback he’s received in a long time, and he may be curious why you got that impression.

    Of relevance:

    http://www.psy.fsu.edu/~ehrlingerlab/FayJordanEhrlinger2012.pdf

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