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Unleashing Your Hidden Genius
Michael Gelb chose his college, Clark University in
Worchester, Massachusetts, because it was where Freud and Jung headed
when they visited the United States. Both presented their
theories at the school’s 20th anniversary in 1909. It was Freud’s
only visit to this country. While that fact is interesting, it is
equally interesting that, according to his own account, Gelb decided
on a college based not on a reputation for good parties, outstanding
sports teams, or links to big name employers, but rather for its ties
to pioneer thinkers.
A native of Jersey City, Gelb says that even as a child he was
with puzzling out the meaning of life and the nature of genius. Now
a corporate trainer and author, Gelb has never changed course. After
graduating from Clark with a degree in philosophy and psychology
of 1973), he headed to England to do graduate work in psycho-physical
reeducation. A new field at the time, it explores the mind/body
Gelb’s studies included Yoga, Tai Chi, Shiatsu, and the Alexander
Technique, which aims to rid the body of tension through mindful
While training to teach the Alexander Technique, which is popular
among dancers, actors, and musicians, Gelb decided to test it out
on himself by learning to juggle. "If this works," he recalls
thinking, "I should be better at juggling than I thought
He succeeded so well that he was soon using juggling to pay for his
living expenses. Able to keep five balls in the air, he played to
street crowds in Portobello Road and Harvard Square.
One day he and a pal, Lloyd Timberlake, who went on to become a
editor at Reuters, were juggling in Hyde Park. "The Rolling
manager saw us," he recalls. Next thing he knew, he and Timberlake
were performing onstage as an opening act for a Stones’ concert.
Gelb still juggles, and teaches attendees at many of the 100 corporate
seminars he gives each year to juggle too. The seminars are the core
of High Performance Learning Center, his company. But while juggling
is included in the sessions, and the Alexander Technique remains
in his preparation for them, the main purpose of the seminars is
and creativity training. His client roster includes Merck, Lucent
Technologies, I.B.M., Compaq, Ford, and National Public Radio.
Gelb speaks on his new book, Discover Your Genius: How to Think Like
History’s Ten Most Revolutionary Minds, on Friday, March 15, at 8
p.m. at Barnes & Noble at MarketFair. Free. Call 609-716-1570.
Gelb founded his company in the Washington, D.C. area. He says, tongue
partly in cheek, "D.C. is the place where creative thinking is
most needed." He recently moved his business to Edgewater, New
Jersey, in part because his parents had just celebrated their 50th
anniversary, and he wanted to reconnect with them and with his many
other New Jersey relatives. His father practiced oral surgery in north
Jersey for 45 years. His mother is a psychologist at the Passaic
Mental Health Center.
Gelb tells his seminar participants that each of them came into the
world with a spark of genius. For those who don’t believe it, he says
in the introduction to his new book, "just ask any mother."
The human brain, he writes, "harbors vast potential for memory,
learning, and creativity." He quotes Sir Charles Sherrington,
a pioneering English neuro-physiologist, who described the human brain
as "an enchanted loom." Its 100 billion neurons are capable
of limitless creativity. Anyone seeking to make the most of this
powerhouse, he believes, does well to emulate mankind’s greatest
Emulation is natural for humans, Gelb says, pointing
to the way a baby responds to his mother’s smile by returning it.
A key premise of his work is that learning by observing can continue
throughout life, and can produce wondrous results if the subjects
chosen for emulation are intellectual giants such as Shakespeare and
Darwin. An examination of their lives — and their works —
turns up traits that anyone can emulate to bring out the genius
Gelb’s first book, Body Learning: an Introduction to the Alexander
Technique, came out of his master’s thesis. His other books include
Lessons from the Art of Juggling: Achieve Your Full Potential in
Learning and Life; Mind Mapping: How to Liberate Your Natural Genius;
Samurai Chess; and How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci.
The da Vinci book was by far his greatest commercial success. Gelb,
who never wavered from his youthful interest in the nature of genius,
spent years studying the man. He calls da Vinci "perhaps the
genius who ever lived," marveling that his accomplishments
not only the creation of the Mona Lisa, but also the design of ball
bearings, gear shifts, and a parachute, which da Vinci designed long
before any human had ascended high enough to need one.
His current book, which, he quips, gives readers "10 geniuses
for the price of one," came from three questions. In addition
to Leonardo, who are the most revolutionary, breakthrough-thinking
geniuses in human history? What is the essential lesson we can learn
from each of these great minds? How can we apply the wisdom and
of these great minds to bring more happiness, beauty, truth, and
to our lives, and the lives of our children in the midst of
change, rampant materialism, and cultural chaos?
Published by HarperCollins, the book was created to engage multiple
senses. Speaking from his home, which sits on the cliffs above the
Hudson overlooking the New York skyline and the Statue of Liberty,
Gelb observes: "Leonardo said the five senses are the ministers
of the soul." He attends to those senses by filling his home with
flowers, music, art, and the shimmer of light from the river. He
cooking, and delights in motion, teaching or practicing Aikido, a
Japanese martial art, four days a week.
Recognizing that this emphasis on sensory enjoyment is more European
than American, he says with a laugh, "In France they have joie
de vivre. Here we have Miller Time." Seeking to connect readers
with the former, Gelb commissioned drawings of his 10 geniuses from
Norma Miller. Taking up a full page at the beginning of each chapter,
the bold watercolors — in shades of brown and black — are
meant to stop the reader, to engage his attention and contemplation.
Details from the drawings are used throughout each chapter, focusing
on a sad eye or a mysterious smile.
There is also a companion CD for the book. Gelb commissioned it from
Spring Hill Music to evoke the spirit of each genius. For Einstein,
whose key trait he believes to be imagination, Gelb chose Gymnopedie
Number 1 by Satie. For Jefferson, whose work, he finds, embodies
and happiness, he chose Beethoven’s Symphony Number 9 in D minor.
For Elizabeth I, the only woman genius profiled, the piece is Sonata
in D Major by Purcell, a selection meant to evoke power and balance.
The geniuses, appearing in the book in chronological order, are Plato,
Brunelleschi, Columbus, Copernicus, Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, Darwin,
Gandhi, and Princeton’s own Einstein. For each, the book presents
historical context, a little biographical information, a summary of
achievements, and an analysis of a quality that made each person
The book then suggest ways in which these qualities can be cultivated.
A substantial portion of each chapter is given over to exercises with
subtitles like "How to Learn Optimism," "Become Aware
of Your Roles and Play Them Well," and "Practice Walking for
In the chapter on Jefferson, for example, there is a 10-point
plan based on a study of the Virginian’s life. Included is: Never
trouble another for what you can do yourself. (Jefferson believed
in the spirit of personal as well as political independence and
that it began with the ability to solve one’s own problems.) There
is an extensive analysis of Jefferson’s secrets of health and
that ends with a section on wine, which, Gelb writes, the great man
considered a key element in the pursuit of happiness.
At the end of this analysis Gelb suggests that readers spend time
with the Declaration of Independence, studying the document, and
even memorizing it.
The chapter then moves on to "Jefferson at Work." In a section
that looks at "Choosing the Right People," it quotes our third
president as saying "If I had a universe to choose from, I could
not change one of my associates to better satisfaction."
Gelb writes, chose colleagues who were equal to him intellectually,
morally, and circumstantially, avoiding yes-men and intellectual
Other facets of Jefferson’s work life that apply to the corporate
world, circa 2002, include "Modeling Openness and
and "Team Building."
Of the latter skill, he writes, "Thomas Jefferson
understood that people come together by getting to know one another
in natural, enjoyable circumstances. He knew that informal social
contact — between members of his own team, and with all
especially opponents — was the key to getting things accomplished.
Ignoring formal rank, Jefferson treated everyone at his team-building
dinners as an honored guest. He graciously drew all his guests into
conversation and applied wit and charm to deflect or redirect
as it arose."
Other genius profiles in Discover Your Genius are similar, all
exercises to encourage insight and growth in readers’ personal lives
and in their work. Toward the end of each chapter, he uses an example
of how a contemporary has emulated the genius profiled. For the
on Filippo Brunelleschi, whose accomplishments include the design
and construction of the dome of the Florence cathedral in the mid-15th
century, he chose Jim D’Agostino, former president of Bovis Lend
a construction management company. Gelb had gotten to know D’Agostino
when he did consulting work for Bovis’ Princeton office, now located
at 821 Alexander Road.
D’Agostino, Gelb writes, worked his way up from pouring concrete to
running a billion-dollar construction management firm. D’Agostino
helped to build a significant portion of the New York City skyline
and supervised the renovation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He
recently decided to expand his perspective by changing careers.
He quotes D’Agostino on the inspiration that Brunelleschi provides:
"After college, I returned to my family roots in the construction
business. Although my background was in the masonry trades I was
in all the components that went into a completed building.
I was given the opportunity to interact with all the pieces —
design, engineering, and supervision of craftsmen. . . For me,
has always been a truly inspiring role model. As the first true design
builder, he was able to see the big picture — logistics,
labor — and fit all the pieces together.
"As a Renaissance man, Brunelleschi was always seeking new
and approaches. He defines the essence of fulfilling one’s potential
through vision, persistence, and hard work. After 30 continuous years
of hard work in all facets of the building business, I am forming
a new vision and sense of proportion. I feel good about leaving a
field that I became quite knowledgeable about and venturing into new
areas where I know little. My expanded perspective involves pursuing
a balance between my interests as a communications consultant, ski
instructor, white water guide, sculptor, and worker in the winery
Like D’Agostino, Gelb, fascinated by the workings of the mind since
he was a child, has worked on developing "genius" qualities
himself. He says he does the things suggested in his books —
practicing joyful service (like Ghandi) or attending live performances
(like Shakespeare) — and then writes about them. Among his
projects is one that many have found to require all the help the
minds have to offer. "One of my goals is to get married and have
kids," he says.
Gelb’s first marriage ended just as his book on Leonardo
da Vinci hit the number one spot on Amazon.com’s list of best sellers.
"I was married very happily — until things didn’t work
he says. For him, it was the best of times, and the worst of times.
At the time of the break-up, he says he thought he would never be
in the dating arena again. But, with his 50th birthday coming up in
October, he is out there.
He has learned from his past and is confident he will be an even
partner this time, although he says, "I think I was pretty good
last time." From his study of geniuses he has learned that
relationships are more of a challenge for the really great minds."
There are exceptions, though. Gelb points to Darwin and Jefferson
as men who enjoyed "happy, fulfilling" marriages.
Gelb says that for geniuses, and for ordinary folk, too, relationships
are a never-ending challenge. He does have some "genius dating
tips." The first is to seek out the best and brightest for
assistance. It stands to reason, he says, that smart, interesting,
balanced people have friends with the same qualities. "Attempt
to be introduced to people through the people you admire the
he says. Then, when the first date is secured, "expect nothing,
and be ready for everything."
Think of the date as an opportunity to have get out and do new things,
to have fun. If the date is a good match, so much the better. If not,
cherish the memory of the good play you saw, or the new restaurant
you tried — but move on fast. "Don’t spend time with people
who don’t enrich your life," says Gelb. That goes for friends
and acquaintances as well as for romantic partners. "It’s a
of being open and having boundaries," he says of the tricky
act that is the quest for the best relationships.
Taking his own advice, Gelb asked one of his most brilliant and
friends — a woman who is well-traveled archaeologist and author
— for introductions to women she thinks would be right for him.
She has introduced him to a Princeton woman. Gelb reports that there
have been three or four dates, so far. He is optimistic.
In his book, Gelb highlights this quality as the key genius attribute
of Christopher Columbus. Sure, the man was a good sailor, but the
thing that got him to let go of the coastline — and to keep on
going with no land in sight — was optimism.
Here is an excerpt from Gelb’s new book:
Like many highly successful people, Columbus was
optimistic. Even after six weeks at sea with no sight of land, he
maintained an unwaveringly positive attitude. Optimism and resilience
in the face of adversity — like that shown by Columbus — is
the greatest long-term predictor of success for individuals and
Individuals and organizations who view their setbacks in the context
of progress are much more likely to continue in their efforts toward
success. As psychologist Karen Horney discovered, most people actually
succeed when they commit to do whatever it is they want to do in life.
Most of what people describe as failure in their lives, Horney
is a function of withholding commitment. In other words, they give
up prematurely and label the experience a failure. Shakespeare
this when he wrote, "Our doubts are traitors and make us lose
the good we oft might gain by fearing to attempt."
Columbus-like persistence is a critical key to success, and an
attitude is the key to persistence. Dr. Martin Seligman, author of
Learned Optimism, points out that pessimistic thinking tends to be
self-fulfilling because it short-circuits persistence. His research,
over more than two decades, shows that pessimists tend to give up
when confronted by adversity, even when success might be right around
the corner. Living under "Murphy’s Law," they have "the
knack for snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory."
The research also demonstrates that optimists perform better at work,
at school, and in athletics. Optimists regularly outperform the
of aptitude tests. Their resistance to colds and other illnesses is
superior, and they recover faster from illness and injury. And
make significantly more money.
Seligman also discovered that pessimists are generally more accurate
in their assessments of reality. Pessimists assume that optimists
are people who do not yet have all the facts. Optimists really do
seem to look at the world through rose-colored glasses. The results
of numerous long-term studies demonstrate, nevertheless, that better
results are obtained by erring on the side of optimism. The core of
optimism is explanatory strategy. In other words, when things go
do you explain them in terms of your own fundamental incapacity
demotivating yourself and forestalling future attempts to succeed,
or do you spin your interpretation of events in such a way as to
learning, adaptation, and renewed efforts at success?
you have ever met (a pessimist is someone who, when faced with two
unattractive alternatives, selects them both) and the three most
people (an optimist is someone who, when faced with two unattractive
alternatives, is thrilled to have a choice). Conjure up their images
in your mind’s eye and get a feeling for the effects their attitudes
had or have on the quality of their lives.
lesser positions in life because they avoided the risk of starting
a new job, or going off on their own? Do you know anyone who seems
overly optimistic to the point of delusion, a person who takes undue
risks and often suffers the consequences?
If the most pessimistic person you have ever met is a "1" and
the most optimistic is a "10," what number rating would you give
to yourself? Your spouse? Your mom and dad? Your children? Co-workers?
something that is now resolved — in the last 10 years. Then
the biggest challenge you face now. Starting with the challenge from
your past, write out a sample of the internal dialogue that went on
as you faced this challenge. Then do the same with a current
Of course you can’t change the past, but you can change your attitude
toward it. Can you think of a more positive way to view your past
challenge? Can you conceive a more optimistic way to look at the
you are facing now?
You can learn to think — and succeed — like an optimist by
changing your explanatory style, even if you are a confirmed
"But," the pessimist protests, "according to the research
I’ll make less money, get sick more often, and be more subject to
depression. And, it’s all my fault, it will never change, and it will
completely, totally ruin my life."
The statements above reflect the key self-defeating elements of the
pessimist’s explanatory strategy. In other words, in the face of
or bad news pessimists focus on the negative and then take it
(it’s all my fault), assume it’s permanent (it will never change),
and consider its influence pervasive (it will totally ruin my life).
When optimists confront misfortune or bad news they react differently.
Optimists don’t take it personally; they can see the influence of
external factors in their problems. Optimists view success and
as their normal state. They see negative events as temporary glitches
on the path to inevitable progress. And optimists view negative events
as isolated phenomena, insulated from other areas of their lives.
Optimists view success and happiness as their normal state. They see
negative events as temporary glitches on the path to inevitable
And optimists view negative events as isolated phenomena, insulated
from other areas of their lives.
You can free yourself from the constraints of pessimism and achieve
better results in life by consciously choosing a new, optimistic
style. For example, imagine that you had spent years researching and
developing a proposal for creating a new line of business (like
and you’ve finally gotten the opportunity to present it to the board
of your company, and the board responds with an unequivocal no.
How would the pessimist respond? How would the optimist respond? Let’s
compare the contrasting "self-explanations."
know why I bothered in the first place.
makeup of this board isn’t conducive to what I’m trying to do.
then, and maybe I can find a venture capital firm in the meantime.
Either way, I’ll work out the glitches in the presentation and be
I do, and my life is filled with so many other blessings that I can’t
let this little setback bother me.
be pessimistic, you can begin achieving better results in your life
— and strengthening your immune system — by practicing the
discipline of optimistic self-explanation.
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