“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.
Thank you for your inspirational article. I couldn’t agree with you more and I was fascinated to learn about some of the references you included.
Your last few questions relate to the work I am doing as a result of my positive psych research last year. Specifically, I am speaking with parents and educators to help them understand the flaws in our current approach to education and the beauty in students who are not at the top of the class (including many world/scientific/corporate leaders).
If you have an interest, there’s a self-running presentation on the web: http://www.positiveleaders.org/appreciatingbeauty/appreciatingbeauty.html [username and pw are both “bottom80”]
Thanks for raising the issue of genius in everyone!
Happy Year of the Rat,
Christine (MAPP 07)
Great article, Timothy! And nice references!
You mentioned Snyder and Fromkin that striving for uniqueness would bring positive self-esteem. I wonder whether the reciprocal may also be important, i.e., a person with high self-esteem is more likely to pursue uniqueness. It takes courage and confidence to believe in oneself that i am doing a right, albeit dissimilar, thing. And again, as you said, it is a matter of perspective. And we just have to believe in ourselves to do the impossible but good things!
Thanks again for your insightful article!
Excellent call to embrace our “Positive Abnormality,” using some very powerful examples. I enjoyed the focus on genius, and the concomitant call to recognize the genius each of us has. Additionally, one of the differential factors I’ve been studying as I look at greatness is the amazingly difficult work that these individuals undertake to make their genius come to the forefront. Perhaps this is why more people don’t embrace their genius. It takes incredible discipline to be a genius, or be great. That’s the part that seperates many of us from those that stand out. We are not willing, day after day, year after year, to put in the time. What we’ve not been able to identify is if this “drivenness” is genetic, or learned. That might unlock some more geniuses.
Nicely done. Thanks.
Scott (MAPP 08)
Thanks for sharing on your research. It’s very inspiring! I can’t tell how excited I am to see relevant studies on positive leaders.
In your study, I am impressed by the possible contradictions between best student and best child, as well as your disproof of the myth of best student’s pathway à best colleges à best jobs à money à happy for life. I particularly like your example of lawyers who are best paid and also most depressed.
I think your whole piece is an incredible message to educators that they should let their students – the future productive citizens, even future leaders, know how to have a better life! Would you mind if I send around to my teacher friends?
I wonder if you’ve conducted any further research on the relationship between positive leaders and their childhood development. My main research interest (also my PhD research study which will start this Oct) is leadership in Professional Service Firms. Indeed there are many interesting questions about positive leadership in PSFs, like how to lead highly intellectual people in an environment of high stress and demand effectively; which leadership style is the best for employee well-being; why some leaders/partners can have better lead than others; and what are the core leader strengths and characters. These are all positive psychology related. Are leadership skills formed early in childhood or learnable after people started their career; and how would positive psychology shed light on better training and development on leadership? These are the exciting questions that are worth to be examined.
Would be great if we can have further discussions on these interesting topics!
Again, thanks for your research sharing and great comment!
What a cool point suggesting a reciprocal relationship between uniqueness and self-esteem. People with high self-esteem are more comfortable with being at a deviant position. Uniqueness and self-esteem are dependent – it takes courage and confidence, which probably stems from positive feedback and recognition from parents, teachers and peers, to build up self-esteem. With a sense of self-worth, people believe that they are unique and make things done.
And what you said also reminds me of a classical experiment I’ve learnt from your Social Psych. class few years ago in CUHK, Asch’s (1956) conformity study on line judgment. I wonder if the belief of uniqueness could be used to explain why some people are daring enough to insist what they believe is true instead of following the majority who gave a wrong answer.
Thanks so much for your comment. I wish you a shining academic year teaching in CUHK!!
Scott, thanks for your sharing!
I can’t agree with you more on the “drivenness” of being a genius. What you have said demonstrates the pathway of being a genius – “drivenness”, persistence, self-discipline and tons of hard work. If being a geniuses is a process like winning at a 100m race, my piece probably serves to build up one’s beliefs and courage to register and take part in the game, to believe that they are more than enough to perform well or even win the race, and your ideas obviously focus on how they should prepare and the attributes needed to finish the race during the event! Thanks for offering and widening perspectives on geniuses!
Chris Peterson recently wrote an op-ed piece about character strengths and political leaders.
I think he makes some very good points. Check it out — and perhaps express your views in the survey:
PS Timothy – I was looking for a place to post this, and your article seemed the best match.