Greatness is Acquired and Genius Can Be Learned

01/01/1970 12:33 AM | Sky Stebnicki

Any worthwhile achievement is born out of constant struggle, intense focus, and unrelenting hard work. We often falsely suppose that success comes easily and naturally to some, but the truth is that there is no such thing as an easy path to the top.

Nietzche once wrote, "Don't talk to me about giftedness or inborn talents; one could name all kinds of great people who were not very gifted. They acquired greatness, they became geniuses and they did so by overcoming difficulties." One need only to perform a cursory review of recent history to find validation for Nietzche's position.

Winston Churchhill overcame a speech impediment and became one of the most respected public speakers in recent history. He failed the 6th grade and was defeated in every major election he ran for. That is not an extraordinary resume by any standard and it was not until he was 62 years old that he became British prime minister. How many of us would have given up way before 62?

Henry Ford's first business went under, he left his second due to conflict, and his third company also failed. Only after what must have been three brutal and frustrating failures that could have paralyzed anyone in fear and doubt, he went on to become one of the greatest success stories of all time.

One of my favorite and lesser known stories is that of Amy Cuddy, who dreamed of becoming a scientist early in her life; but when she was 19 she was in an accident that threw her from her car resulting in a severe brain injury. She woke up in the hospital to learn that she had been withdrawn from college and her IQ had dropped so much that doctors told her she would never be able to finish her education. She ignored their warnings and graduated by making up for her disadvantage through working harder than anyone else, even though it took her a full 4 years longer than her peers! She didn't stop there however, she went on to get a Masters and a PhD from Princeton University - all the while struggling beyond belief with the feeling that she was an imposter and did not belong. She kept fighting, against all odds, even faking it at times; but never giving up. Amy is now a famous researcher and professor at the illustrious Harvard School of Business and a talk she gave recently at TED was ranked in the top 20 most inspirational talks of all time.

One could wax on for ages and never run out of material of such stories, many of which we have no doubt heard over and over. Walt Disney was told he "lacked imagination and had no good ideas" by his employer as he was being fired; he failed at several business attempts before starting the now famous Disney. J.K. Rowling was an unemployed single mother being supported by social security before becoming the first person to ever become a billionaire from writing. Thomas Edison's teachers told him he was "too stupid to learn anything" and he famously failed 1,000+ times to create a successful light bulb before finally experiencing a win.

If there is anything these stories teach us it's that a man poor of pedigree and talent but rich in motivation can and will, despite his disadvantages, do something of significance; but a man with all the talent and intellect in the world will do nothing absent ambition, resilience and hard work.

I leave you with the words of Andrew Carnegie, a man no stranger to success: "People who are unable to motivate themselves must be content with mediocrity, no matter how impressive their other talents."(source).

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