Imagine you have a shot at $1 million… now imagine that chance rests on your ability to recall general trivia.
This was exactly the case when Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter, and James Holzhauer met on the setup Jeopardy for the Greatest of All Time Championship. All these men were excellent during the tournament, but Ken was in rare form. He seemed to always be first to the buzzer, recalling obscure facts on everything from rare art to pop music to wars in Asia.
You couldn’t help but think it: “He’s a genius.”
At the end of the championship, Ken raised his hands in victory. James embraced Ken with and said “we’re not worthy” reverence. This reaction mirrored the sentiment of everyone watching. America loves a genius.
Or at least, we love people who appear to be geniuses. After all, get Ken Jennings in a pool with Michael Phelps or on a basketball court with Lebron James, and suddenly he’s more normal than a cactus in the desert. Our perception of genius usually relies on circumstance more than any raw intelligence.
Ken showed us the first trick to looking like a genius: only appear in an environment that you can dominate. You may not be a trivia whiz, but I’m willing to bet you too can cultivate a genius aura. Along with that first trick, here are 6 more.
Trick #2: Have a great system
Remember Jennifer Lawrence? The marvelous actress adored by both traditional and social media in the early 2010s? The one who seemed to be in the awards conversation every year?
Where did she go?
Jennifer was lauded as a one-of-a-kind performer, a genius of her craft. She scored big with fans in the X-men series, raked in big checks for Hunger Games, and wooed critics in Silver Linings Playbook.
And then she vanished.
As others have pointed out, Lawrence had an incredible system to accompany her great ability. That system, essentially, was this:
- Do an X Men movie
- Do a Hunger Games Movie
- Do a movie with awards potential for David O. Russell
What happened was this: the X Men movies started to lose favor among audience. Then, they ran out of Hunger Games films. Then her last memorable run at an Academy Award (Joy) did not perform well in awards season, and O. Russell took a long break. From 2015 to 2020, the most memorable “film” Lawrence contributed to was an ad for Dior perfume.
Part of the genius mystique (pun absolutely intended) revolves around a system that gives you every opportunity to look fabulous. When the system fails, the “genius” looks incredibly average.
Trick 3: Be Obsessed
I figured out Ken Jennings’ secret, by the way.
In between rounds of trivia, the Jeopardy broadcast showed short videos of the contestants in their daily lives. Ken’s video featured a young, blond-haired boy reading books and watching Jeopardy on television. As he grew, we watched a recap of his legendary run on the show, and then got an update on his career as a writer.
Then, it showed Ken preparing for Jeopardy.
Turns out Ken spent hours in front of the television listening to the cadence of Alex’s voice, rehearsing live trivia, and hitting an actual buzzer. He didn’t just study trivia, he rehearsed it. Jennings was and is obsessed with Jeopardy specifically, and with knowledge in general.
This level of dedication reminds me of the recently deceased Kobe Bryant. Bryant couldn’t even drive a car when he joined the NBA. It didn’t matter. Everyone around him knew basketball was the route forward.
Kobe stayed obsessed. In addition to his performance on the court, Bryant is probably most well known for his work in the film room. He started studying film from a young age. This habit continued throughout his hall of fame-worthy career.
When I asked Twitter who came to mind when they thought of a “genius,” the names the came up were closely tied to obsession: Elon Musk, Leonardo DaVinci, Ada Lovelace, Billie Eilish, Kanye West.
The past has shown, and the future will prove that obsession leads to genius.
Trick 4: Do a lot of work
I almost hate to bring this one up. It’s overdone in today’s culture.
Pablo Picasso made me bring it up, though. Picasso might be one of the more common names you consider when you hear the word “genius.” I wanted to figure out why. Although there are several reasons, here’s a tangible one: Picasso painted an average of 300 canvases every year, all the way up until his death at age 91. We can guess he started doing this at age 17. That means we’re looking at over 20,000 paintings in a lifetime.
Picasso painted in poverty and wealth. He painted in anger and depression. He painted in and out of love. He painted in times of war and of peace. He painted with people and in solitude. He painted from the beginning to the end.
When you do that much work, you almost earn the genius title by default.
Trick #5: Find Your Niche
How does a comedy about Hitler win an Academy Award?
That’s the question director Taiki Waititi will be asked a lot in the coming days. Waititi’s fabulous writing for the movie Jojo Rabbit won him an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. How unusual is it for a comedy to win this award? Well, let’s put it this way. Only one other film (BlacKkKlansman) has claimed the honor in the last 20 years.
Waititi is a genius of comedy. When he was named director of Thor Ragnarock, he didn’t think “Okay, how can I change myself to match the gritty, serious Marvel universe.” Instead, he bent the universe to match his style.
Taiki doesn’t make thrillers. He doesn’t make documentaries. He doesn’t make dark dramas. He brings the same spirit into all his projects, even when that isn’t the most obvious choice.
For this reason, Waititi now goes to sleep with a golden statue next to his head.
You may have noticed a theme here, but I want to call it out anyway:
Nobody is a genius at everything.
Ken Jennings is a general trivia genius. Jennifer Lawrence is an acting genius. Kobe Bryant is a basketball genius. Taiki Waititi is a comedy genius.
The misguided will make you believe you need to master an enormous amount of information to be seen as a genius. Not true. Instead, do your favorite thing. Do it over and over. Do it with the kind of attention it deserves. Do it for decades.
One day you might just look up and find out you are a genius too.