Do All Of Us Possess Genius?

Jun 1, 2012
Originally published on June 14, 2012 3:01 pm

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Creative Process.

About Elizabeth Gilbert's TEDTalk

The author of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert has thought long and hard about some large topics. Her next fascination is genius and how we ruin it. In this TEDTalk, Gilbert muses on the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses — and shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person "being" a genius, all of us "have" a genius.

About Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert faced a ­pre-midlife crisis by doing what we all secretly dream of — running away for a year. Her travels through Italy, India and Indonesia resulted in the mega-bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love, about the process of finding herself by leaving home. The book was on The New York Times bestseller list for 187 weeks.

She's a longtime magazine writer — covering music and politics for Spin and GQ — as well as a novelist and short-story writer. Her books include the story collection Pilgrims; Stern Men, a novel about lobster fishermen in Maine; and The Last American Man, a biography of the woodsman Eustace Conway. The movie Coyote Ugly was based on her own memoir in GQ. A movie based on Eat, Pray, Love was released in 2010, starring Julia Roberts as Gilbert. Gilbert also owns and runs the import shop Two Buttons in Frenchtown, N.J.

About June Cohen

TED Media Executive Producer, June Cohen says she's passionate about media, technology, culture and their impact on each other. She began following TED in 1990, attending her first talk eight years later. She's only missed one year since and joined the staff in 2005. Her work focuses on extending TED in new directions, including launching TEDTalks in 2006, in 2007, and the Open Translation Project in 2009. As of mid-2011, TEDTalks have been watched more than 500 million times worldwide.

Cohen joined TED Radio Hour to discuss working with Gilbert while she crafted her TEDTalk.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart.

This episode is about creativity: what it is, what it means to our daily lives. And if you're a creative person, this next TED Talk could be for you. It's about how to protect our creativity from the outside world and from ourselves.

Writer Elizabeth Gilbert experienced insane success with her memoir, "Eat, Pray, Love."


ELIZABETH GILBERT: The result of which is that, everywhere I go now, people treat me like I'm doomed.


Seriously. Doomed. Doomed. Like, they come up to me now, like, all worried and they say, aren't you afraid? Aren't you afraid you're never going to be able to top that? Aren't you afraid you're going to keep writing for your whole life and you're never again going to create a book that anybody in the world cares about at all, ever again?

STEWART: Joining us in studio is June Cohen, the executive producer of TED Media. June, welcome, first of all.

JUNE COHEN: Thank you, Alison.

STEWART: So, for our audience, let's get big - start big and go small. Explain to me what the TED conference is, what the goal is. And then why Elizabeth Gilbert was a good person to have on this particular panel or this particular part of the conference.

COHEN: Sure. Well, you know, TED began as a conference focused on technology, entertainment and design. That's the T-E-D in TED. Over the years, we grew ever broader. Now we incorporate anyone with an idea worth spreading, whether that's an architect or an entrepreneur, a philosopher or a photographer.

Every speaker gets 18 minutes onstage to give the talk of their lives. Then we take all of those talks and we put them online and distribute them to the world. You can really think of TED as a clearing house for great ideas.

And Elizabeth was a great choice for TED because she is so articulate about the creative process. And it's actually very hard to find creative people who can actually articulate where their inspiration comes from and how to protect it.

STEWART: We're going to talk more with June in just a little bit, but first let's hear Elizabeth Gilbert's TED Talk.


GILBERT: Creative people across all genres, it seems, have this reputation for being enormously mentally unstable. And somehow we've completely internalized and accepted collectively this notion that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked. And that artistry, in the end, will always ultimately lead to anguish.

And the question that I want to ask everybody here today is are you guys all cool with that idea? Like, are you comfortable with that? Because you look at it even from an inch away and, you know, I'm not at all comfortable with that assumption. I think it's odious and I also think it's dangerous. And I don't want to see it perpetuated into the next century. I think better if we encourage, you know, our great creative minds to live, you know?

And so the question becomes how, you know? And - and so it seems to me, upon a lot of reflection, that - that - that the way that I have to work now in order to continue writing is that I have to create some sort of protective psychological construct, right? I have to sort of find some way to have a - a safe distance, you know, between me as I am writing and my very natural anxiety about what the reaction to that writing is going to be from now on.

And - and, as I've been looking over the last year for, like, models for how to do that, I've been sort of looking across time. And I've been trying to find, like, other societies, to see if they might have had better and saner ideas than we have about how to help creative people sort of manage the inherent emotional risks of - of creativity.

And that search has led me to ancient Greece and ancient Rome. So stay with me, 'cause it does circle around back. But ancient Greece and ancient Rome, people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then, OK? People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons.

The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity daemons. Socrates famously believed that he had a daemon who spoke wisdom to him from afar.

The Romans had the same idea, but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit, a genius. Which is great, 'cause the Romans did not actually think that a genius was a particularly clever individual. They believed that a genius was this sort of magical, divine entity who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist's studio. Kind of like Dobby the house elf. And who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work.

So brilliant, there it is right there. That distance that I'm talking about, that psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work. And then the Renaissance came and everything changed and we had this big idea. And the big idea was let's put the he - individual human being at the center of the universe, right? Above all gods and mysteries.

And there's no more room for, like, mystical creatures who take dictation from the divine. And - and it's the beginning of rational humanism and people started to believe that creativity came completely from the self of the individual. And, for the first time in history, you start to hear people referring to this or that artist as being a genius, rather than having a genius.

And I got to tell you, I think that was a huge error. You know, I think that allowing somebody, like, one mere person to believe that he or she is, like, the vessel, you know, like, the font and the essence and the source of all divine creative unknowable eternal mystery is just like a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile human psyche.

It's like asking somebody to swallow the sun, you know? It just completely warps and distorts egos and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.

And if this is true, and I think it is true, the question becomes, you know, what now? You know, can we do this differently? Maybe go back to some more ancient understanding about the relationship between humans and the creative mystery. Maybe not. You know, like, maybe we can't just erase 500 years of rational humanistic thought in one 18-minute speech.

And there's probably people in this audience who would raise, like, really legitimate scientific suspicions about the notion of basically fairies who follow people around, like, rubbing fairy juice on their projects and stuff. Like, I am not probably going to bring you all along with me on this. But the question that I kind of want to pose is, you know, why not? Why not think about it this way?

Because it makes as much sense as anything else I have ever heard, in terms of explaining the utter maddening capriciousness of the creative process. A process which, as anybody who has ever tried to make something, which is to say as basically everyone here knows, does not always behave rationally. And, in fact, can sometimes feel downright paranormal.

You know, like, even I have had work or ideas come through me from a source that I honestly cannot identify. And what is that thing? And how are we to relate to it in a way that will not make us lose our minds, but in fact might actually keep us sane?

And for me, the best contemporary example that I have of how to do that is the musician Tom Waits, who I got to interview several years ago on a - on a magazine assignment. And we were talking about this. And, you know, you - you know, Tom - I mean, for most of his life, he was pretty much the embodiment of the tormented contemporary modern artist. You know, like trying to control and manage and dominate these sort of uncontrollable creative impulses, you know, that were totally internalized.

But then he got older and he got calmer. And one day, he was driving on the freeway in Los Angeles, he told me, and this is when it all changed for him. And - and he's, like, speeding along and all of a sudden he hears this little fragment of melody, you know, that comes into his head, as inspiration often comes elusive and tantalizing. And he wants it, you know? It's gorgeous. And - and he longs for it, but he has no way to get it.

He doesn't have a piece of paper. He doesn't have a pencil. He doesn't have a tape recorder. So he starts to feel all of that old anxiety start to rise in him, like, I'm going to lose this thing, you know? I'm - and then I'm going to be haunted by this song forever. And I'm not good enough and I can't do it. And, instead of panicking, he just stop - he just stopped that whole mental process and he did something completely novel.

He just looked up at the sky and he said, excuse me, can you not see that I'm driving?


Do I look like I can write down a song right now, you know? If you really want to exist, come back at a more opportune moment, when I can take care of you. Otherwise, go bother somebody else today. Go bother Leonard Cohen, you know? And - and his whole work process changed after that. Not the work. The work was still oftentimes as dark as ever, you know?

But the process and the heavy anxiety around it was released when he took the genie, the genius, out of him, where it was causing nothing but trouble and released it kind of back where it came from. And realized that this didn't have to be this internalized, tormented thing. It could be this peculiar, wondrous, bizarre collaboration, kind of conversation, between Tom and the strange external thing that was not quite Tom.

So, when I heard that story, it started to shift a little bit the way that I worked too. And it already saved me once, this idea. It saved me when I was in the middle of writing "Eat, Pray, Love," and I fell into one of those sort of pits of despair that we all fall into when we're working on something and it's not coming. And you start to think this is going to be a disaster. This is going to be the worst book every written. Not just bad, but the worst book ever written.

And - and I started to think I should just dump this project, you know? But then I remembered Tom talking to the open air and I - I talk - I tried it. So I just lifted my face up from the manuscript and I directed my comments to an empty corner of the room. And I - I said aloud, listen, you, thing. You and I both know that if this book isn't brilliant, that is not entirely my fault, right? 'Cause you can see that I am putting everything I have into this, you know? I don't have any more than this.

So if you want it to be better, then you got to show up and do your part of the deal, OK? But if you don't do that, you know what? The hell with it, I'm going to keep writing anyway because that's my job. And I would please like the record to reflect today that I showed up for my part of the job.


Because... thank you. In the end, it's like this, OK? Centuries ago, in the deserts of North Africa, people used to gather for these moonlight dances of sacred dancing music that would go on for hours and hours, until dawn. And they were always magnificent, because the dancers were professionals and they were terrific, right?

But every once in a while, very rarely, something would happen and one of these performers would actually become transcendent. And I know you know what I'm talking about, because I know you've all seen at some point in your life a performance like this, you know?

And it was like time would stop and the dancer would sort of step through some kind of portal. And he wasn't doing anything different than he'd ever done, you know, a thousand nights before. But everything would align and all of a sudden he would no longer appear to be merely human. You know, he would be, like, lit from within and lit from below and all, like, lit up on fire with divinity.

And when this happened back then, people knew it for what it was, you know? They called it by its name. They would put their hands together and they would start to chant Allah, Allah, Allah. God, God, God. That's God, you know?

Curious historical footnote: When the Moors invaded southern Spain, they took this custom with them. And the pronunciation changed over the centuries from Allah, Allah, Allah to ole, ole, ole, which you still hear in bullfights and in flamenco dances. In Spain, when a performer has done something impossible and magic, Allah, ole, ole, Allah, magnificent, bravo. Incomprehensible. There it is, a glimpse of God. Which is great, because we need that.

But the tricky bit comes the next morning, right, for the dancer himself, when he wakes up and discovers that it's Tuesday at 11 a.m. and he's no longer a glimpse of God. He's just an ageing mortal with really bad knees and, you know, maybe he's never going to ascend to that height again. And maybe nobody will ever chant God's name again as he spins. And what is he then to do with the rest of his life?

This is hard. This is one of the most painful reconciliations to make in a creative life, you know? But maybe it doesn't have to be quite so full of anguish. If you never happened to believe in the first place that the most extraordinary aspects of your being came from you. But maybe if you just believed that they were on loan to you, you know, from some unimaginable source, for some exquisite portion of your life, to be passed along when you're finished with somebody else.

And, you know, if we think about it this way, it starts to change everything, you know? This is how I've started to think and this is certainly how I was thinking about it in the last few months, you know as I've been working on the book that will soon be published as the dangerously, frighteningly over-anticipated follow-up to my freakish success.

And - and - and what I have to sort of keep telling myself, when I get really psyched out about that, is don't be afraid. Don't be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment through your efforts, then ole. And if not, do your dance anyhow and ole to you nonetheless.

I believe this and I feel like we must teach it. Ole to you nonetheless. Just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up. Thank you.


Thank you.

STEWART: That was writer Elizabeth Gilbert speaking at TED in 2009.

With me now is June Cohen, executive producer for TED Media, who worked with Elizabeth to develop her TED Talk. June, this talk is titled "Nurturing Creativity" and Elizabeth was fairly candid about the insecurities that come with creative success.

COHEN: I love the way she talked about the dark side of success in her talk because you - you very rarely see people who are courageous enough to do so. We always assume that success is always a good thing. That we envy it, we aspire toward it, but nobody ever tells you about the dark side of what happens once you do succeed. I loved when Elizabeth talked about the fears that success creates and the - the fears it creates in others for you.

STEWART: Elizabeth asks the audience to take a big leap of faith and talk about things that you can't see and touch and muses and spirits in the walls. In front of an audience of movers, shakers, scientists, engineers who are used to - you know, even though they may be creative, are used to tactile science and definitive things. Not sprites in the wall.

What kind of conversation did you have about that? Or did it - did it not occur to you, maybe? I don't know.

COHEN: Well, we didn't talk about - we - truthfully, we did not talk up front about the spiritual aspect of her talk or the metaphysical aspect of her talk. And I actually think that everybody in the audience was ready to embrace that as...

STEWART: They were willing to take the jump?

COHEN: As a metaphorical journey.


COHEN: Whether you actually believe in the muse or the sprites, or whether you just welcome that as a useful metaphor for...

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

COHEN: ...helping you through a creative impasse. I think everybody was able to find something in Elizabeth's talk that resonated with them.

STEWART: Oh, I thought she meant it.

COHEN: I actually picture them all the time.

STEWART: I know, right?

COHEN: You know, and there's another thing. I actually think that Elizabeth's talk was amazingly universal. She really framed her talk in terms of the writer's journey and the - the particular pressures that are placed on writers. But I think that her message has resonance to a much broader audience.

Whether you're a scientist, whether you're an entrepreneur, whether you're a part-time photographer or an amateur athlete, everybody faces the same sets of challenges and questions about their own success. Their own last success and their - and whether their next success will come. For many of us, our work does require a leap of creative faith.

STEWART: June, why do the talks about the creative process seem to be so popular?

COHEN: There seems to be such a hunger in the world for talks about the creative process, and I think that's because we're all essentially creative beings. If you think about it, before mass media, before the Industrial Revolution, our ancestors were essentially creative every single day. They made their clothes, they built their homes, they made music, they told stories. And we all still have that essential creative impulse inside of us, whether or not it's being expressed in our actual work.

And so that's why I think people look to advice for how to unlock their own creativity, because they feel it inside of them and want to be able to express it. But what's interesting is that it's actually quite hard to find a good talk on the creative process.

STEWART: Oh, that's int - that is interesting. Why is that?

COHEN: I think it's partially because there's a - a sort of shroud of mystery around...

STEWART: Uh-huh.

COHEN: ...the creative process. None of us are exactly sure of where it comes from. I think it's also partially because many artists are not linear thinkers. And so it's difficult for them to express where their creativity comes from or how it takes form in a way that the rest of us can follow.

That's one of the things that makes Liz Gilbert so unique. She is so creatively expressive in her writing, but is also able to unpack that process for us in a way that can be used, not only by other writers, but by anyone.

STEWART: June Cohen is executive producer of TED Media. June, thanks so much for being with us.

COHEN: Thank you, Alison. It's such fun to be here.

STEWART: You can find dozens more TED Talks on the creative process. Go to

You're listening to the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.