Timothy So, Msc, is a PhD candidate in Psychology in the University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry. He is a Research Associate of Cambridge University's Well-being Institute and a Chartered Occupational Psychologist. Timothy is also responsible for both the Traditional and the Simplified Chinese PPND sites. Full bio.
“I believe, however, that such abnormal moments can be found in everyone, and it is all the more fortunate when they occur in individuals with creative talent or with clairvoyant powers.” De Chirico, 1919
“Am I abnormal?” People sometimes tell me their thoughts, plans, behaviors and ask me this question when they know I am a psychologist. I am not in a very good position to answer this question, yet this leaves me in rumination over another interesting question, “Why do people try to be normal but not someone special? Why not be Positively Abnormal?”
I was told this story when I was young: there was a fisherman who only kept the small fish and released the big fish that he caught. One man was curious about his practice and asked the fisherman why he did this. “Oh! I wouldn’t have done that if I had a bigger pan at home. I only have an average-sized pan,” answered the fisherman.
Before you laugh, think a moment about whether this has ever happened to you! Sometimes we want to do something special or come up with great ideas, yet we are not willing to make the move since we tell ourselves, “I’d better not try this, I’m just an average-sized pan!” Yes, sometimes we constrain ourselves and try to be “normal” people.
Yet when we are reading news about people such as Bill Gates (Chairman of Microsoft), Tiger Woods (world No. 1 golfer), Placido Domingo (world-renowned operatic tenor), or Ron Howard (Academy Award-winning film director and producer), we admire them and think, “Wow, how can they do that, they are really geniuses!” But how many of us have ever tried to think about the reason why they are so distinguished, so special, so outstanding? Or have ever imagined them trying to be normal, lacking their meaning of life? Obviously we have not.
The Concept of “Genius”
How do positive psychologists view the concept of genius? Indeed, speciality, originality, genius, creativity and talent are the important general concerns of positive psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Being a genius has also been linked to optimal functioning and health by numerous researchers and theoreticians. The best illustration would be the humanistic psychology movement led by Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers (Cassandro & Simonton, 2003).
And what does it take to become a genius? Gassandro and Simonton probably give the best definition of “genius” in their paper, “Creativity and genius” (2003):
1) A genius is someone who possesses unique or distinctly characteristic creative ideas or behaviors – uniqueness.
2) A genius is an individual with social impact – when the genius’ thoughts, idea, or products have a tremendous impact on the social environment, ranging from the other members of the individual’s field to the society as a whole.
3) A genius is someone who has a high quality of intellectual power where intellectual power or importance brings positive social impact.
So, by definition, a genius – a position that seems so afar and rare among us, indeed just requires you to FIGURE OUT YOUR UNIQUE STRENGTH, DEVELOP IT TO MAKE SOCIAL IMPACTS OF HIGH AND POSITIVE QUALITY.
Who Is Great?Yes, many great names in history, such as Benjamin Franklin, Ludwig van Beethoven, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, and still many others, all recognized their own strength and interests, believed they are unique and enjoyed being unique (criterion 1), and put extra efforts to make their dreams come true, to impact society positively (criteria 2 & 3). They are as ordinary as any Tom, Dick, and Harry in many ways. The only way they are different from others is that they believe that they are unique and daring enough to stand out from the crowd, think outside the box, and choose to go on a path that those with a self-limitation are afraid to choose. We might not be achieving as much as these great people did, but if we believe that we are special and not the same as everyone, and are confident that we are capable to do things we are really good at, success and happiness could be there awaiting us. If we have the courage to explore, we could experience the different amusements of existence. Great people are great in the sense that they are willing to explore their own specialty and values, and have the courage and insistence to apply their values to society, creating something meaningful. Imagine if Galileo had not believed in himself and was not daring enough to challenge the ineradicable classic teachings; if Michael Jordon had lost faith in his ability and given up his career on basketball after failing to make the varsity basketball team at Laney High School; and if Beethoven had doubt his talents in music and despaired after losing his hearing, we would have missed many incredible changes and marvelous performances, and these people would no longer be regarded as “geniuses” but just someone ordinary.
Afraid of Being Deviant
People are afraid of being deviant, thinking that they would be excluded by others, the majority, if they do not conform. Researchers however do not hold the same stance. Snyder and Fromkin proposed the “need of uniqueness” as an attribute, in which the striving for uniqueness would bring about a sense of positive self-esteem. If we want to make a breakthrough, we need to learn to embrace our uniqueness. We have to realize that we are unique and special. We have to find out in what ways we are unique from others, as illustrated by the first definition of genius by Gassandro and Simonton (2003); then we have to respect that and make good use of it.
It is now time for us to make some changes, to see ourselves from a different perspective, to open our hearts, to be daring, to break conventional rules, and to try doing things that we think are impossible for us. Start discovering our potential, strengths, and “abnormality” that would motivate and drive us to do something meaningful and positive! People would feel psychologically satisfied and fulfilled if they could alter the dull routines in life, whereas being weary of life whittles away one’s volition and brings about negative psychological impacts. It is also important for us to get rid of the tendency to avoid incidents that seem unusual, as it hinders our willingness to confront challenges and try out something new.
So, are you parents ready to let your children know how unique they are? Are you teachers ready to encourage your students to explore something special in them? Are you managers and leaders ready to pay attention to your colleagues who work particularly well on something?
Is everyone ready, in the new year of rat, to discover your “abnormality” and do something positive and meaningful for the community?
Cassandro, V. J. and Simonton, D. K. (2003). Creativity and Genius. In C. L. M. Keyes and J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived, (pp. 163-183). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Snyder, C. R., & Fromkin, H. L. (1977). Abnormality as a positive characteristic: The development and validation of a scale measuring need for uniqueness. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 86, 518–527.
Snyder, C. R., & Fromkin, H. L. (1980). Uniqueness: The human pursuit of difference. New York: Plenum.