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Elizabeth Gilbert: Genius and How we Ruin it

I’m standing in for Ethan Zuckerman, blogging from TED today. This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

The author of “Eat, Pray, Love“, Elizabeth Gilbert has thought long and hard about some large topics. Her next fascination: genius, and how we ruin it.


Elizabeth weaves an insightful story of artists, success and pressure. She asks if she’s doomed. What if she never replicates the success of her past book? Is it rational or logical to be afraid of the work that we were put on this earth to do? Why have artists and writers had this history of manic depressive and mental illnesses? Why does artistry always lead to mental anguish?

“I think it might be better if we encouraged our great creative minds to live.”

“It’s exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me. That’s the kind of thought that can lead a person to start drinking gin at 9:00 in the morning.”

She states that she now needs to create some safe psychological construct. She’s looking at other societies and understanding how they have dealt with this same issue. That led her to ancient Greece and Rome. In their world, the brilliance and genius around ancient artists were attributed to daemons and spirits. It protected them from narcissism in success and suicidal failure.

The big change happened when we decided that the person, who is this artist, is the center of the universe. It’s too much pressure to ask one person to think of themselves as this single vessel of all artistic understanding of the world.


  1. Ok, I’ve never seen so much good coverage in such a short person. These are indeed Ideas Worth Spreading ™! ๐Ÿ˜›

    I got to subscribe to Ethan Zuckerman again too I think.

  2. I believe that if you’d study genius closely, you’ll see that they are closely connected to other genius, if only unidirectional: by what they’re reading, and from whom. I personally think that some people just happen to have developed better connections, almost by accident (I personally don’t believe in free will in the absolute sense).

    I really don’t believe there’s a big “genetic” factor in genius. It’s situational.

    Also, not only connections matter, but also personal freedom. If you have to work for money 9-5, you have less chance to follow your dreams. So people who are free to pursue their interests will have much bigger chance to develop a kind of genius.

    I think I’m part of that lucky group who has stumbled on the right connections and also has had (and have) lots of free time. I feel as if it has been all an accident for me.

  3. RE: Greece/Rome, so when did the change come? ๐Ÿ™‚ By the Great Awakening we had started to believe in the self over the supernatural and that’s also when we started to really praise and even deify artists and great thinkers.

    So the problem is: if we add that boundary back, and are able to say that our success and failures are รขโ‚ฌโ€œ in part รขโ‚ฌโ€œ out of our hands, will be able to justify the wealth we hope to gain from our creations?

    @Meryn Stol: I think that history shows that it rewards people who have ideas and courage pursue them, regardless of their income. My concern in your statement regarding personal freedom and not having to work 9-5 is that this leave innovation and genius to those with money and time: the upper and middle upper classes of society.

    Those with really, truly good ideas/talents tend to rise to the surface. Those of us with time/money, we just get a chance to play in a league we don’t always deserve to be in. (I count myself in this pool and don’t mean to speak for anyone else in this conversation.) I find this to be true of the west any way.

    Curious to hear what people think about all of this from the Global South and East.

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