“If you’re not a genius, don’t bother.”
Jim Bennett’s voice roars across the lecture hall.
“If you take away nothing else from my class, from this experience, let it be this. The world needs plenty of electricians, and a lot of them are happy.”
Portrayed by Mark Wahlberg in a 2014 rendition of The Gambler, Bennett is an English literature professor at UCLA. Or at least, he pretends to be. What he really teaches, however, is something else entirely.
“Now, the trouble with writing, if I may bring it up here in the English Department, is we all do a little of it from time to time. Writing. And some of us start to think, delusionally, maybe with a little time, a little peace, a little money in the bank, and you get that room of your own, you think, “Well, shit, I might be a writer, too.”
I mean, we accept genius in sports as something we cannot do. But it’s no more likely that you could be a writer that you could be what? An Olympic pole-vaulter? Because what you have to be, before you try to be a pole-vaulter…
Hello! Is a pole-vaulter, no?”
Like his students, you may already roll your eyes, but what’s most annoying about Bennett isn’t his rude, nihilist attitude. Much worse, he has a point. Sure, no pain, no gain, we know that much. But what about no prodigy, no greatness? That one’s a lot harder to process.
If we’re honest, deep down it’s killing us. But why?
A Nitpicker at Heart
From 1856 to 1863, Austrian abbot Gregor Mendel took care of 28,000 younglings. Not monks, plants. The passionate gardener dedicated multiple years of his life to counting peas, for he could not shake the hunch it might reveal answers to “a question the importance of which cannot be overestimated in connection with the history of the evolution of organic forms.”
And, despite never receiving due credit in his lifetime, answers he did find. Crossing pure breeds of all shapes, colors, and sizes, Mendel discovered that green peas mixed with yellow peas always yielded only yellow peas. It was only in a subsequent, hybrid breed generation, that green peas started showing up again. Therefore, Mendel dubbed the yellow trait ‘dominant’ and the green trait ‘recessive.’
150 years later, an entire branch of science, genetics, has grown deep roots from Mendel’s original seeds. We now know that the traits are variants of individual genes, that their pairings are probabilistic, and that we can determine the resulting types with simple tables.
The underlying math of Mendel’s peas is entirely objective and fair. What’s not is that the same genetic heredity scheme also applies to humans. Some of us are green, some of us are yellow. Some round, others wrinkled.
And the world has always loved green peas.
Jeremy Meeks is not your average felon. After almost a decade in jail for grand theft, he was sentenced to another 27 months for gang violence in 2014. As usual, the police released his mugshot online.
What’s less usual is that over 100,000 shares and one GoFundMe campaign later, Meeks scored a modeling contract, whilst still in prison. Upon release, he debuted at the New York Fashion Week.
He now sports 1.8 million Instagram followers, a lavish home, a Maserati, and dates the heiress of a fashion billionaire.
It’s easy to look at this situation and call it unfair. It is. But besides winning the genetic lottery, there’s a more subtle element to his story, something that really eats away at us: When you’re extraordinary, the world will find a way to tell you.
Bennett’s case in point:
“Let’s have a look at Dexter. Dexter! An ordinary-looking young man
with a what? Size 40 jacket, regular features, and decent dentition, is the second-ranked collegiate tennis player in the United States of America. How did that come about, Dexter? You come from a tennis family?”
“Well, I mean, I started playing five years ago in high school ’cause the tennis guys have the best weed.”
For some, high school becomes college, for others it’s preschool. But the definition of genius is being too good to ignore. And once the glass breaks…
“What happened when you noticed you were naturally better than everybody?”
“I…I got interested in the game.”
“That is an IQ break point, brother. Right there! Do you remember Machiavelli? That would have been in September.”
“Man. I can remember September.”
“All right. Is it the game, brother, or the money? Virtu or fama? Fame or virtue?
What are you after? Don’t go modest on me. What do you want?”
“You got ambitious, yeah?”
“I realized, as I learned about the game, that I was in reach of… In reach of…”
“Highest level, yeah.”
What Bennett is hinting at is that everyone, even a stoner like Dexter, is enough of a Machiavelli to recognize when life is handed to them on a silver platter. Eventually, the trigger will fire and the genius will soar past the rest.
Meanwhile, most of us mortals are free both from federal prosecution and drugs, yet we still can’t find a purpose.
Somewhere between our seventh birthday and entering college or starting to work, most of us have figured out that we’re not particularly brilliant at anything. That’s a bitter pill to swallow.
Even worse, it doesn’t change any of the voices around us. When you’re a pea, the world really wants you to be green, true colors remiss. Pressure for greatness is applied, regardless of whether you hold the capacity to.
On top of that, career paths are dissolving left and right. Google hires coders off exposing competitor flaws online, stay-at-home moms run e-commerce empires, and what startup ever required a CV if you brought the skills?
In a world where even a mediocre career unfolds in a million ways, the non-genius loses twice. Besides not making the draft, he or she is burdened with choice. Choice among a sea of unsatisfactory options, which cripples us, as Barry Schwartz explains:
“The very wealth of options before us may turn us from choosers into pickers.
A chooser is someone who thinks actively about the possibilities before making a decision. A chooser reflects on what’s important to him or her in life, what’s important about this particular decision, and what the short-and long-range consequences of the decision may be. A chooser makes decisions in a way that reflects awareness of what a given choice means about him or her as a person. Finally, a chooser is thoughtful enough to conclude that perhaps none of the available alternatives are satisfactory, and that if he or she wants the right alternative, he or she may have to create it.
A picker does none of these things. With a world of choices rushing by like a music video, all a picker can do is grab this or that and hope for the best.”
In face of such disgrace, people like Bennett prefer to self-destruct.
Cats Are Hard to Understand
Having spotted his novel in a hallway showcase, a student calls out Bennett on his rant about genius.
“You are one.”
“No, I am not. For me to be a novelist, I would have to make a deal with myself, that it was okay being a mediocrity in a profession that died commercially in the last century. All right, people do that. I am not one of them.”
No, Jim. Clearly. In lack of destiny, Bennett perpetually pokes the universe, questioning his existence. Heir to one of the richest men in America, he chooses to hide behind a pathological gambling addiction, rather than embrace his losing status.
And a loser he is indeed. Already owing money to a host of dangerous people, he continues to ask for more, only to blow it on yet another deck of cards. He is utterly and completely lost. But being a literature professor, he sure must remember what the cat told Alice:
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
“I don’t much care where –”
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
There are two ways to interpret that last line and the perspective Bennett chooses, that’s his big mistake.
Lunch Is Never Free
Of course Bennett knows he’s not alone.
“But it’s still a gamble, isn’t it?”
Dexter nods. Bennett might as well be talking about his own life, but he’s not. What he refers to is the commitment to rise to the occasion. The challenge of the exceptional. Fully aware of their talents, they still have to show up, day in and day out. Even for a genius, genius might be out of reach.
That’s hardly better than the rest of us, who’re desperate for something to hold on to. Anything at all.
Green peas, yellow peas, no one really wins the game when nature is the house. They’re two different problems, but maybe the solution is the same.
Even Nowhere Is a Place
I’ve been writing for 3.5 years, but I still don’t know where I want to go. The best destination I’ve managed to find comes from a piece of advice by Bennett’s lender of last resort:
“I’ve seen you be half a million dollars up.”
“I’ve been up two and a half million dollars.”
“What do you got on you?”
“What did you put away?”
“You get up two and a half million dollars, any asshole in the world knows what to do.
You get a house with a 25-year roof, an indestructible Jap economy shitbox, you put the rest into the system at 3%-to-5% to pay your taxes, and that’s your base, get me? That’s your Fortress of Fucking Solitude. That puts you for the rest of your life at a level of “fuck you.”
Somebody wants you to do something? “Fuck you.” Boss pisses you off? “Fuck you!” Own your house, have a couple bucks in the bank, don’t drink. That’s all I have to say to anybody at any social level.”
Bennett isn’t a loser because he’s playing a pointless game. The real reason his loan shark is mad at him is that he chose to stay in after he won. Life may force you to bet, but at least make it a gamble worth walking away from should you succeed.
Naval Ravikant puts it a bit more philosophically:
“A great goal in life would be to not have to be in a given place at a given time.
That is a recent vector that I’m trying to work towards. Obviously it’s not fully realistic, you know you have meetings and stuff, but at an even more basic level you have a job, right? Most of us have jobs we go to at a certain time of the day and can’t come back until a certain time and somebody else is telling us what to do all day long.
I think it’s really worth, whenever you can in life, if you have the choice, optimize for independence rather than optimize for pay.”
If it doesn’t matter where you go, you might as well walk on an empty, long, winding, crazy path. All roads lead nowhere, but nowhere is still a place. Regardless of whether you’re excited or inspired, when you choose something over nothing, something always happens.
Maybe the opposite of depressed isn’t happy, but arbitrary.
The Purpose of Life Is to Be Pointless
Whether you’re a genius afraid to take your shot, or an aimless wanderer waiting for the sign, it seems the world desperately wants you to figure out what you want and then be bloody brilliant at it. I don’t think that’s true.
Actually, we’re waiting for you to be pointless. Aimed at an arbitrary goal, just aimed after all. Regardless of what we think of you. We’re all gamblers here. And all gamblers lose.
Go on, pick up your badge. Wear it, and maybe you’ll be free.
Naval thinks so:
“The smartest and the most successful people I know started out as losers. If you view yourself as a loser, as someone who was cast out and has no role in normal society, then you will do your own thing and you’re much more likely to find that winning path. It helps to start out by saying, “I’m never going to be popular. I’m never going to be accepted. I’m already a loser. I’m not going to get what all the other kids have. I’ve just got to be happy being me.””
There’s a fine line between obliterating and liberating. No matter if you’re full of talent or trivialities, only losers get to go for broke. A shot to sit at the table of “fuck you.”
That is why one day, they will rule the world.