Nietzsche on Genius and Mastery

Speak not of gifts, or innate talents! One can name all kinds of great men who were not very gifted. But they acquired greatness, became “geniuses”…” (Human, All Too Human, Friedrich Nietzsche)

We often look at those who have achieved excellence in their field with a sense of awe, feeling as if they are in some way “super-human”; possessing an innate gift which the rest of us, mere “mortals”, lack. This Human, All Too Human - Nietzsche
tendency to “worship the genius” creates a fictitious chasm separating humanity into two groups – the minority capable of achieving excellence, and the majority destined for nothing but mediocrity.

According to Nietzsche this tendency to worship the genius serves the psychological purpose of enabling us to feel satisfied living a mediocre life, and comforted in our failure to strive towards some grand goal or vision. If genius is an inborn gift, either we have the potential for genius or we don’t. And if we don’t then there’s nothing that hard work, passion, and persistence will accomplish.

This is why as a society we tend to worship the genius, thinking of excellence as innate rather than cultivated – we like to feel complacent in our mediocrity, self-satisfied in our lack of achievement:

Because we think well of ourselves, but in no way expect that we could ever make the sketch to a painting by Raphael or a scene like one in a play by Shakespeare, we convince ourselves that the ability to do so is quite excessively wonderful, a quite uncommon accident, or, if we still have a religious sensibility, a grace from above.” (Human, All Too Human, Friedrich Nietzsche)

It is imperative to understand that genius is attained. Mastery is something that is achieved over years of intense focus and practice. The genius is in no way fundamentally different from any one of us. They are merely individuals who have been overcome by a passion, and worked diligently over years to perfect their craft and realize some inner ideal.

There is a “science of mastery” – everyone who has attained some sort of excellence has followed certain common steps; the activity of the genius is explicable.

All these activities are explained when one imagines men whose thinking is active in one particular direction; who use everything to that end; who always observe eagerly their inner life and that of other people; who see models, stimulation everywhere; who do not tire of rearranging their material. The genius, too, does nothing other than first learn to place stones, then to build, always seeking material, always forming and reforming it. Every human activity is amazingly complicated, not only that of the genius: but none is a “miracle.”” (Human, All Too Human, Friedrich Nietzsche)

Too many of us have passion – some sort of meaningful activity through which we can cultivate our
creativity – yet lack the confidence that we can become a master in that field. And so we relegate the activity the status of “hobby”, and in the process do ourselves and our overall well-being in life a great disservice.

We go through life engaging in the “hobby” as a means of escape from the doldrums of daily existence, but we never throw ourselves wholeheartedly into it, and therefore never achieve anything of real significance. In doing so we let what is most precious in us, the capacity to achieve mastery in a chosen endeavour, whither and die.

It is important to understand the insight of Nietzsche. We all have the qualities necessary to become a genius,  but not all of us have the right attitude. We must apprehend that mastery is something cultivated over numerous years of focused effort, sustained by passion, and guided by an inner vision of a goal to be realized.

If we have settled on an activity we are passionate about we must stop using the excuse “I don’t have enough talent”, and realize that we have more than enough talent. What we are lacking is focus, persistence, and the belief that through years of concentrated effort we can “become geniuses” and attain success:

all [geniuses] had that diligent seriousness of a craftsman, learning first to form the parts perfectly before daring to make a great whole. They took time for it, because they had more pleasure in making well something little or less important, than in the effect of a dazzling whole. For example, it is easy to prescribe how to become a good short story writer, but to do it presumes qualities which are habitually overlooked when one says, “I don’t have enough talent.” Let a person make a hundred or more drafts of short stories, none longer than two pages, yet each of a clarity such that each word in it is necessary; let him write down anecdotes each day until he learns how to find their most concise, effective form; let him be inexhaustible in collecting and depicting human types and characters…let him contemplate the motives for human behavior, and disdain no hint of information about them, and be a collector of such things day and night. In this diverse exercise, let some ten years pass: and then what is created in the workshop may also be brought before the public eye.” (Human, All Too Human, Friedrich Nietzsche)