Genius and Grit: Five Reasons why Perseverance Trumps Talent

“Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.” ~ Jon Acuff
grit Genius is more about grit than giftedness, more about courage than capacity. Grit sands, sharpens and polishes the gift into the gifted. Courage stretches the dimensions of our capacity into a comfort zone with the potential to subsume the cosmos. Having grit grinds us into something hard-fought for, something earned on an existential level.

Talent is merely handed to us by fate, but true genius is wrestled out of the arms of the gods and torn from the teeth of demons. And that takes grit. That takes tenacity. That takes a resolve that dissolves boundaries into horizons. In the spirit of true grit, here are five reasons why perseverance trumps talent.

1) Talent can be nurtured despite nature

“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci

Life is an experiment, and we are all alchemists. Like Christopher Poindexter said, “We are all scientists, trying to make sense of the stars inside us.” The problem is that most of us are not aware of it. We’re desperately trying to make sense of a hyperreal reality while ignoring the underlying roots of a very real reality.

Our alchemy is too much on the surface. Too distracted by false fire and flashy things that are either going too fast for us to catch up, or too loud for us to hear anything. As T.S. Eliot surmised, we are “Distracted from distraction by distraction.”

We too often tell ourselves “What can I do? I don’t have enough talent. I need some training, some education first.” But then we never get around to training or education, forgetting that the best training and education we could ever get is going down inside the roots of things. It’s getting down deep, below the hyperreal world, below the disconnected reality of the surface and into the interconnected reality of the inner workings of things. And this takes courage. This takes perseverance. This takes grit.

The beauty of life being an experiment is that we can, at any moment, decide to rewrite our story. As the sacred scientists of our own lives, we are free to rewire our hard wiring. We are free to recondition our current condition despite our preconditioning. When we allow perseverance to trump talent, we’re declaring to the universe, “With enough courage, and grit, I will nurture myself into a talented individual, despite the fact that I was not provided with natural talent.”

2) We don’t have to wait for permission
“Attitude is the difference between ordeal and adventure.” ~ Karl Frei
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When we persevere despite talent, life is allowed to be an adventure. Attitude is the thing. Our disposition is paramount. When we allow others to define us –whether cultural, familial, or individual– we are limited to their definitions, and our life becomes an adventure-less grind within the parameters of those definitions.

But when we dare to define ourselves, we break the spell they have over us, and our life becomes adventurous. We shatter the chains. We flatten the box “they” want us to keep thinking inside. We transform their preconditioned boundaries into our own unconditional horizons.

When we persevere despite talent, we are asserting that we don’t need permission to define our own lives. We don’t need permission to become the best version of ourselves possible. We don’t need permission to question authority, to self-educate, and to learn from our own mistakes. This is our life. This is our adventure. And nobody is going to stop us from living it except ourselves.

We get out of our own way by forcing our ego to rise above the superego in order to get back to the roots of the instinctual id. Then we cycle back through again. Our lives become boring and void of adventure as soon as we allow our ego to rot away and grow stagnant within the confines of the superego. Our lives become adventurous and exciting again when we use our ego to transcend the superego and then use it as a tool to navigate the id. As long as we can maintain the process of this sacred individuation, this self-actualization and self-overcoming, while never reducing ourselves to asking for permission, then our genius will not be denied its fullest potential.

3) Making our own path is so much fun
“If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.” ~ Joseph Campbell
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When we allow ourselves to persevere, we liberate our inner genius. And when our inner genius is liberated, we are free to be as creative as we can be. Through such creativity the clearing of unique paths becomes manifest. We dare ourselves to go “off road.” We clear brambles, boulders, and all forms of obstacles, and with enough perseverance, with enough grit, our own path begins to reveal itself.

Like the Zen Proverb says, “The obstacle is the path.” The “road most traveled” eventually becomes the road we sometimes travel, because we are too busy clearing paths of our own. We are too busy having fun, playing in the wild places, making the unfamiliar familiar, to the point that our comfort zones begin to subsume all paths.

If, as Brian Sutton-Smith said, “The opposite of play isn’t work; it’s depression” then it behooves us to become playful workers and working players –similar to what James P. Carse referred to as an Infinite Player.

Let’s make “work hard, play harder” our modus operandi as opposed to just “work hard for work’s sake.” Nine-to-five daily grinds be damned! When we can bring sacred play to our work and sacred work to our play, then all paths open up; as the Walls of Self-seriousness and the Veils of Ignominy are lifted, all paths become interdependently interconnected, and our perseverance becomes the talent of our genius.

4) Quantity begets quality
“Our role in existence must be played in uncertainty of its meaning… as an adventure of decision on the edge of freedom and necessity.” ~ Eric Voegelingrit5

Quantity should be primary and quality secondary. It seems like the opposite should be the case, but it’s not. The richness of our lives shrink or expand in proportion to our ability to make quantity primary and quality secondary. This is because if we focus too much on having talent, then our creativity is stifled by thoughts of perfection.

If we can focus more on perseverance, grit, and courage, then we can learn and grow from our mistakes; instead of dwelling on potential mistakes, and then never even getting around to making the vital mistakes we need to make in order to grow. This way we learn more about life and about craft, and we worry less about being perfect. In short, we slowly, systematically, and courageously become a genius, despite “talent” and in spite of perfection.

Quality will eventually come from quantity. It matters not if we ever become the likes of a Shakespeare or an Einstein or a Picasso. What matters is becoming the best possible version of ourselves. Just “showing up” every day and playing through the work and working through the play will sharpen our character, hone our spirit, and make us more adaptable to change. And it is precisely from this adaptability where our quality and talent become manifest.

But we must constantly remind ourselves to let go of the ideal of perfection. Let go of the idea of being more talented. Let go of the idea of creating art with higher quality. We must free ourselves to make mistakes, so that we may learn from them. We must free ourselves to fall flat on our face, so that we may learn how to get back up again and again. And this takes quantity. This takes practice. This takes perseverance, courage and grit. We must bravely and patiently persevere. Quality will come.

5) Carving our own niche carves us
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” ~ Samuel Beckett

When we finally realize that we are nothing more than a story we’ve been telling ourselves, then we see why it behooves us to improve upon our story and make it as interesting as possible. This is the epitome of grit and genius, and why perseverance is key. There’s nothing wrong with allowing others to guide our story, but it must be our own writing, otherwise we are merely a character in someone else’s story rather than the hero of our own.

Being the hero of our own story is carving our own niche. It’s repetitively and self-competitively persevering through the creation of our own path through the “uncertain wood” of the cultural milieu. It’s practicing every day. It’s failing every day. Then practicing even more, so we can fail even better. Like Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Make your niche your habit. Then practice, fail, and repeat. Only do it better.

If, as Kurt Vonnegut said, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be,” then it behooves us to pretend to be amazing at what we love to do, while, at the same time, letting go of the idea of being amazing – a kind of mindful no-mind, or attached detachment to becoming better.

We free up a space where we allow ourselves to “pretend” to be amazing, a sacred place where we are free to be as imperfectly perfect or as perfectly imperfect as we need to be in order to get things done. It’s a space that allows us to get out of our own way so that our inner genius can emerge. We forge ourselves in the furnace of life until our perseverance sharpens us into a genius, while also letting go of the result of our sharpening by simply allowing the process of our own personal genius to unfold.

But this takes courage despite comfort. It takes grit despite a guarantee. It takes perseverance despite reassurance. It takes letting go in spite of hanging on. It takes setting fire to our comfort zone and hoping against hope that a Phoenix will emerge from the ashes, while being prepared for the worst and able to adapt and overcome if not. Like Brené Brown said, “You can have courage or you can have comfort, but you can’t have both.”

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  • Gary 'Z' McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide awake view of the modern world.

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