Are Large Community and Large Genius Sometimes Incompatible?
In this article I want to dissect the relationship between larger community and genius, and also briefly discuss the “Brilliant Jerk” term that has been in vogue lately.
So let’s start with four stories to dissect this relationship between community and genius (Steve Jobs would probably prefer three stories but let’s do four).
1. Story — Leonardo Da Vinci
In the late 15th century, when the Italian Renaissance was heating up in its epicenter Florence, Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the biggest innovators of that time period, was working in Milan.
It is interesting to consider that Leonardo was born right outside of Florence in the village of Vinci and grew up in Florence. And while most European scholars, scientists and artists were flocking to Florence, Leonardo chose to distance himself from Florence.
This is partially because he was somewhat of a controversial figure in Florence and not always well received.
Later in life Leonardo spent few years in Florence, but was mostly on the move until ultimately settling in France.
Today Leonardo symbolizes the creative genius of the Italian Renaissance, but during his lifetime he faced significant hostility from the innovation community.
2. Story — Friedrich Nietzsche
In the late 19th century, when the psychological and sociological scientific revolution was occurring in the Austrian Empire, Switzerland and some parts of Germany, Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the biggest innovators in these fields, lived mostly in Italy.
It is interesting to consider that Nietzsche was born in Germany and had held professorship positions in Basel. While most scientists in the emerging fields of psychology and sociology were flocking to Vienna and Basel, Nietzsche chose to distance himself to Italy. This is partially because he had some conflicts and disagreements with the academic circles in these fields and was not always well received.
Only many years after Nietzsche’s death, did the depth of his writing become apparent to psychological and sociological trailblazers, including Freud, Jung and others, who followed his ideas to drive the scientific revolution.
3. Story — Albert Einstein
In the early 20th century, when the physics revolution was occurring in Berlin, Albert Einstein, one of the biggest physics innovators of that time period was living in Switzerland.
It is interesting to consider that Einstein was born in Germany and chose to distance himself from the scientific epicenter Berlin, while other physicists were flocking to Berlin. This is partially because Einstein had many disagreements with the physics academia and was not well liked. Which is one reason why Einstein initially had a difficult time getting a professorship position and worked as a patent clerk.
Only much later after Einstein gained recognition and fame did he spend some time in Berlin.
4. Story — Elon Musk
In the early 21st century, when the fourth industrial revolution was heating up in its epicenter of Silicon Valley, Elon Musk, one of the biggest innovators of our time, lived in Los Angeles.
It is interesting to consider that Musk was a product of Silicon Valley, as he had worked on PayPal before. And while the rest of the world was flocking to Silicon Valley, Musk chose to distance himself. He also had his disagreements with many Silicon Valley views. As most of Silicon Valley was working on more social networks, more ad networks, more messaging apps, more picture sharing apps, Elon Musk was focused on real transformation that would move humanity forward (by revolutionizing space, energy and transportation).
Early in his quest he faced significant criticism and hostility from the innovation community.
There is an interesting parallel in these four stories pertaining to Da Vinci, Nietzsche, Einstein and Musk. In each case, one of the biggest innovators or probably the biggest innovator of a given time-period chose to distance himself from the larger innovation community and was not well received by the community. All four of these geniuses were initially misunderstood by the innovation community.
So why is there such a dichotomy? Why did the biggest and most drastic innovators of these time periods choose to distance themselves from the larger community? Or why did the community dismiss them?
There are many reasons.
Large communities can sometimes stifle drastic innovation and also develop many undesirable dynamics, some of which are discriminatory towards geniuses and truth finding. Let’s discuss how.
1. Large communities often have many engrained power structures. These power structures have an incentive to maintain the status quo so they can maintain their power. Hence these power structures are resistant to drastically new views, truths and approaches that may destabilize the status quo. Therefore, these power structures are hostile towards those who can unearth hidden truths or drastically new ideas.
2. Large communities often operate based on different forms of consensus and imitation. But it is easy to imagine that drastic truth or innovation is unlikely to gain consensus, because the idea or view would be so new, that it would be misunderstood by most members of the larger community. Most members of a community operate based on imitation of the old and are comfortable with that, yet geniuses are usually originals and their perspectives are likely to be misunderstood by the community.
3. Large communities often have deeply engrain views and approaches that are strongly manifested in each member. An idea conflicting with these old views will likely trigger an instinctual opposition. Max Planck once said: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents, but rather because its opponents eventually die.” It is difficult to convince people of something that they are instinctually opposed to. Most members of a community are not open-minded enough to consider a drastically new view.
4. A breakthrough idea is often a truth that has not yet been noticed by any community member, and there is probably a reason for that. Revolutionary geniuses like Da Vinci, Nietzsche, Einstein, Musk are neurological outliers. They capture and process reality differently than others (another article discusses in detail the Neuro-Biology of Geniuses). Therefore they can notice something that no one in the community has noticed before. It is difficult to convince the community of something, that no one can notice or capture. The brilliant philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said: “Talent hits a target no one can hit. Genius hits a target no one can see.” There is a very deep truth in this statement regarding geniuses.
5. Since many of these revolutionary geniuses capture reality differently, it is likely that the larger community will misunderstand their ideas. The community members do not capture what that genius can see and the genius has no way of knowing what the community members can’t capture. Hence to the genius the community members are just confused. So there is lots of room for misunderstanding. Elon Musk once said in an interview, that it is sometimes odd when questions, which seem completely easy and obvious to him, garner broader discussion, disagreement and many divergent views. This is partially because others don’t capture what Musk can capture about reality.
There are many more reasons why larger communities are bad for drastic innovation and radical truth finding. Communities usually operate on imitation, while unearthing something drastically new is the opposite of imitation.
Throughout history the biggest innovators and thinkers were not well received by the larger community.
This is not to say that Leonardo, Nietzsche, Einstein or Musk did not have collaborators, who helped them actualize their ideas. Oftentimes, a very small group of likeminded individuals help them along the way.
Yet all four of these geniuses were initially not well received by the larger community.
Communities are valuable, because they can provide a broader view, a diversity of ideas, means of discussion, teamwork, in addition to the social aspects of emotional support, belonging and bonding.
But communities always evolve over time and easily adopt unfavorable dynamics.
There is usually a point in time and size of any community, when the wisdom of crowds moves to some confusion of crowds.
This is when the crowd becomes monotone, dominated by politics, resistant to any new idea or view, stale and inflexible, and sometimes also highly fixated on a false premise.
In addition, the internal dynamics, including the community’s power structure and political components, can get in the way of truth finding.
Ultimately, at the core of any drastic innovation is some form of new truth finding. And we have to keep in mind that broader consensus and truth are not the same!
This is where a large community has its disadvantages. As with most aspects of life, also with sociological structures, benefits have costs.
Many benefits of a community also have associated costs.
And oftentimes these costs can get in the way of drastic innovation, breakthroughs or other forms of truth-finding. These associated costs also over time can trigger sociological confusions.
I remember when Elon Musk was beginning to work on reusable rockets and most established people in the aerospace community were dismissive and almost hostile to his quest.
I remember when Elon Musk was beginning to work on electric cars and most established people in the automotive community were dismissive and almost hostile to his quest.
I also remember when Elon Musk wanted to drastically improve tunnel boring technology and most established people in that community were dismissive and almost hostile to his idea.
Many writers have tried to debunk the myth of the lone genius, but we should think more deeply about the overall dynamics of this genius-community interaction.
One lesson from these four stories about Leonardo, Nietzsche, Einstein or Musk should be, that throughout history the biggest innovators and truth finders were misunderstood by the larger community and pushed to distance.
Communities are very complex and can often malfunction!
This should give us reason to think more deeply about the concept and dynamics of a community.
We should be more skeptical about hyper-idealizing the concept of community.
A very easy way to see this is by realizing that The Nazi Party or The Bolshevik Party were also communities.
Just because a community is comprised of many individuals, the community’s views or approaches don’t have to be correct in any way or trump that of a single genius.
The amount of confusion in any given community is inherently very high and it would take several geniuses to debunk these confusions over time.
I think this may even be one interesting way to view a genius, as someone who can capture some truth that the larger community cannot capture. Maybe this is a reason for that Founders Fund heretic-view interview question, since a plausible heretic view is a good way to spot a genius.
In this dynamic between community and genius, it is difficult to know if Leonardo, Nietzsche, Einstein or Musk, voluntarily chose distance from the community, or if the community showed so much resistance to their ideas and persona, that these geniuses had no choice. Maybe both!
This phenomenon should provide many lessons about the dynamics between community and genius. And we should think more deeply about this interaction.
One additional thought.
The term “Brilliant Jerk” has been in vogue lately, and I would like to discuss this term from a sociological perspective.
There is an inherent discriminatory factor in this term, which labels specifically geniuses as jerks. It is a label towards a specific minority. No one should or would be comfortable with a label Mexican Jerk, or Jewish Jerk, or Autistic Jerk, or Gay Jerk.
Just like there are jerks in any sociological or biological community, there can be jerks in neurological outliers as well. But no other sociological or biological community would or should accept such a broad label.
Creating a broad label statement towards any specific minority is very dangerous and discriminatory.
Then there is an even more interesting philosophical question pertaining specifically to labeling any genius as a jerk.
Who and how does one decides who is the jerk?
What if the community is the jerk? Or what if the community is just confused?
This should be considered as a plausible scenario, because a neurological outlier is likely to capture something that the broader community can’t. So there is a much higher likelihood that the community is just confused.
Most communities are highly confused, so one should be very careful labeling any genius as a jerk.
And in the cases of Leonardo, Nietzsche, Einstein or Musk, it is fairly clear in retrospect that the community was the confused jerk!
Since I am a dyslexic, I am prone to spelling and grammar mistakes. Hopefully it does not distract from the substance of the article.
Thank you for reading this article :)