Oh the fine line – the microscopic distinction – between genius and insanity. Readers of my Mad Genius book will know this has been a topic that fascinated me for a long time. Maybe because some people think I’m a genius and other think I’m batshit crazy – and I secretly know that both camps are right. (And more than a few of the people who follow my work could describe themselves the same way.) So how do we navigate through the minefield, staying sane and able to function, but not giving up our belief that breakthrough change, brilliant ideas, and unexplored worlds still can come into being?
Let’s begin a series of posts investigating this topic and see where it leads us. I’m not sure how many posts this will entail, but that doesn’t really matter, does it? Let’s simply jump down the rabbit hole and see what’s there…
The idea of a razor-thin line between genius and insanity could be best demonstrated perhaps by Ted Kaczynski, a/k/a as the Unabomber. Most people know him only as a crazy guy who lived in the wilderness, mailing pipe bombs to professors and tech people, in a futile attempt to get humanity to destroy technology and start all over again. Would it surprise you to learn that he was a child prodigy who was accepted to Harvard at 16 years old, and went on to become a PhD and a professor himself?
He was eventually captured after a Manifesto he wrote was published by some major newspapers at the request of the FBI. You might expect that this Manifesto would be crazy, and in some ways it was. Yet is also demonstrated critical thinking ability and had some intriguing ideas worth deliberating.
Kaczynski stated that for people to be truly happy, they require challenge, most specifically to have goals which require serious effort. He divided goals into 3 buckets:
The overriding theme of his Manifesto was that the hard goals – the difficult problems the world needed to solve – were already done. The only goals left were the easy ones and the impossible ones, thus no real meaning or fulfillment in life, no reason to continue.
I don’t agree with Kaczynski’s conclusion that all of the difficult but possible goals for the world have been solved. But I think a lot of people are in a similar place that he was, in regard to the goals and meaning in their personal life. This comes about because they also believe that the worthy goals remaining are impossible for them to attain. They’ve given up on their dreams. Millions of people believe that they will never get in shape ever again, won’t find true love, will never be wealthy, etc. Because they don’t see breakthroughs happening, they stop living life and simply exist through it.
The number of people suffering from depression is mind-boggling, and the suicide rate is beyond alarming. Personally, I believe a lot of this comes from people who feel there is no real meaning in their lives. They aren’t seeking out challenges worthy of them. They’re self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, social media, and Netflix. But these things are only diversions and prevent us from seeking the real answers.
People who are eager and excited by a challenging project have no time or proclivity towards depression. People who are merely keeping their head below the cubicle, waiting out the week until Friday are much more likely to experience depression. If you believe your greatest years are behind you, it’s difficult to think your life is very meaningful. I fought a serious fight against depression. But I never had an issue when I was launching a new company or starting a new book I was excited to tackle.
Kaczynski had a very bad approach. But his ideas about goals and challenges are worth pondering. What’s your default setting of your path in life now? Do you see your best years and work behind you, or in front of you? Do you seek new challenges? And do you have a challenge worthy of you at this moment?
Please share your thoughts below. And tomorrow we’ll explore this deeper.
P.S. The idea for this series was inspired by the challenging questions and critical thinking of Peter Thiel, after I did a rereading of him book Zero to One recently. So a h/t to him along with a strong recommendation to read the book if you have not.