Columbus’s Genius: Optimism in the Face of Adversity

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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’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:

Top Of Page
Columbus’s Genius: Optimism in the Face of Adversity

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?

In your notebook make a list of the three most pessimistic


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.

Do you know any talented people who have kept themselves in

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?

In your notebook, describe the biggest challenge you faced —

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."


It’s all my fault. My proposal was fundamentally flawed. I don’t

know why I bothered in the first place.

I’ll never get another chance to present this. I blew it!

My life is ruined. I’m a failure.


I probably could have given a stronger presentation, but the

makeup of this board isn’t conducive to what I’m trying to do.

New board members are elected in three months. I’ll try again

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’ll use the lessons from this experience to improve everything

I do, and my life is filled with so many other blessings that I can’t

let this little setback bother me.

Even if your first response to negative events continues to

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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