At age 10, when most of us were glued to our televisions, John Stuart Mill was reading Plato and Demosthenes in Greek. At age 16, when most of us have just graduated from highschool Albert Einstein performed his most famous thought experiment and realised that the speed of light would always be constant. At age 24, when most of us were just beginning our careers, Friedrich Nietzsche was offered a place as a professor of philology at the University of Basel, having neither completed his doctorate nor acquired a teaching certificate.
In comparing myself to such geniuses, I always feel more than a tinge of envy. What have I achieved in my lifetime? I am but an ordinary student, progressing through the stages of society in the most ordinary means. It suggests that no matter how hard I work, I will never achieve as much as these great minds. It suggests that I am destined to become a background character, who watches enviously as the genius protagonist achieves everything that I have achieved in far less time and even more. I would then be humbled into my place in life.
It is a horrific image for me, though I could as easily chide myself for being so petty. Does it even matter that I am not as good as someone else, if I am satisfied in life? I suppose not. Yet, is not the telos of man to rise to his greatest heights? Accepting my place and denying all claim to such capability feels like defeat.
Perhaps I could comfort myself as I would comfort Caesar after comparing himself against Alexander – Alexander was born a king, you had to fight for your political power. Having been born with less, it is only fair that I would achieve less, at least until I could stand on my own.
Indeed, it is the case that most people we would consider geniuses – Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, and even Bill gates were born either into wealthy families, or families which had specialist knowledge they could pass on to their children. These are the families that could afford giving their children good education, that could feed them as they slaved away at unprofitable theory, that had the connections to help their childrens talents be discovered.
Having said this, I might claim that my background is my destiny, that lacking money and connections, I am doomed to fail. Yet, I might point to the successes of Albert Einstein, who worked on the theory of relativity during his work as a patent clerk, or the extraordinary rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, from minor nobility in Corsica to the Emperor of France.
Of course, such extraordinary rises is dependent on extraordinary talent. Just as a man of average build would never be able to score higher than Kobe Bryant or swim faster than Michael Phelps, a man of average mental acuity would never be able to rise too far above his station. At least in Singapore, everyone works hard, but sheer observation tells you not everyone is a genius. Which brings me again to my worry, that I am perfectly ordinary.
Having thought this I can’t help but wonder; is this envy a sign of my normality? At least in popular culture, it seems that the genius is a naïve, self-absorbed thinker. Think Einstein locking himself in his room as he works on his theorem, eating food delivered through the gap underneath his door. My focus on others as opposed to my own work is then a sign of my having internalized the thought process of an ordinary man.
I refuse to end my writing on such a depressing note. Instead, I shall adopt the cause of genius, the naïve, self-absorbed and curious personality. If I desire excellence, even if not genius, then whatever favours me in my pursuit is favourable to my use.