Senior client partner at Korn Ferry Hay Group
Like millions of people around the world, I couldn’t stop smiling while watching the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lift-off carrying Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster. For an extended moment, I shared the sense of pure awe and youthful exuberance of the SpaceX team, cheering as the massive rocket roared off the launch pad.
Beyond the incredible technical feat, the event provides an important lesson in how genius can drive innovation that will shape how we’ll work and live in the 21st century and, most importantly, what future employers will be looking for in the people they hire. Want to work for SpaceX? Consider this job offer on their website: “An unparalleled opportunity to play a direct role in transforming space exploration and helping us realize the next evolution of humanity as a multi-planetary species.” Who wouldn’t want to work for that kind of company?
Launching an electric car into space, creating the iPod, inventing the parachute – the results of the genius of Mr. Musk, Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci. Although very few of us will become the next Mr. Musk, we all have genius potential. In looking at the minds of great geniuses past and present, certain patterns emerge; what we know is that genius is a discipline that can be learned and harnessed. Here are a few tips for developing your own inner genius.
Be curious (about everything)
Writer Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of da Vinci reveals that he taught himself how to be a genius by being curious about everything, from studying the tongue of a hummingbird to the design of war machines and, of course, painting. He was the textbook definition of a polymath – someone who has wide-ranging knowledge and expertise. We see this in other geniuses. Mr. Jobs was a computer geek, but also deeply interested in calligraphy and Buddhism. And Mr. Musk has passions from space to health sciences to farming and the entertainment industry.
Too often, we adopt the mistaken belief that being curious will take away from more important things, such as our careers and ability to earn a living. Instead, think of being curious as a way to enrich who you already are, something that will actually make you better at what you do. I was recently surprised to learn that a brilliant colleague of mine, an expert in evaluating jobs, had gone back to university several years ago to take a degree in winemaking and went on to run a vineyard, all while being a skilled silversmith. He explained that he sees patterns between these very different disciplines, and the mix helps him bring a more well-rounded approach to his client work. The lesson is: be curious for the pure joy of curiosity, not because it’s simply useful or practical.
Another important habit to fuel your curiosity is to keep a learning journal. A leader I know has kept journals over the past 20 years, filled with quotes, models, personal reflections – almost everything and anything that interested him about his role, his company and his life. He is one of the most curious people I have ever met. So start a journal; be like da Vinci and begin by writing down all the questions you want to answer. Then start the exciting journey of exploring.
Manage your energy, not your time
Most of us don’t have unlimited time to pursue all our passions, but we often allow ourselves to get caught in the No. 1 thinking trap that limits our inner genius – perceived lack of time. Time is a limited resource; you will never have enough. Instead of managing your time, learn how to manage your energy. Great geniuses bring unbounded energy to everything they do, and they had no more time than you or me. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Catherine McCarthy explains that unlike time, our energy is an unlimited resource that can always be replenished. She recommends building simple rituals to manage your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energy, such as getting enough sleep, expressing appreciation to others, reducing interruptions and, most importantly, doing “sweet-spot” activities more often – activities aligned with your passions and values. All these rituals feed our wellspring of energy, which, over time, can shape our genius.
Work across disciplines
Several years ago, we studied the career progression of leaders at IBM. What we found is that those who progressed to the highest levels had made more career moves across very different types of roles compared to those who remained in one function or specialty.
In our increasingly complex world, specialization is often seen as the key to success. So many of us choose between science, humanities or art, but that leads to a false dichotomy, and great geniuses know that. Einstein was an accomplished violinist, the great film actress Hedy Lamarr invented a radio guidance system that became the basis of Bluetooth technology, and, of course, da Vinci was both an artist and a great scientist.
Learning to read music builds pattern recognition, drawing develops observational and analytical skills, and taking an improv class strengthens your ability to think quickly and laterally. And nowhere is the need to branch into the arts and sciences more obvious than in today’s digital economy, which requires a unique mixture of technical ability combined with creativity and a deep understanding of business.. A recent Korn Ferry study of 350 digital leaders showed that the traits they possessed included curiosity, the ability to manage ambiguity, the willingness to take risks, and the ability to engage and inspire others. So sit down at the old piano you haven’t played in years or take a painting class at your local art school. Your inner genius will thank you.
The reflection of the earth in the windshield of a red Tesla Roadster, with a whimsical spaceman mannequin at the wheel, speaks to pure genius and is inspiring a new generation to change the world and do something no one has ever done before. Mr. Musk himself said he was surprised at the success of the lift-off and was fully prepared to see a rubber tire roll down the launch pad as the Falcon Heavy rocket exploded.
But it didn’t. And that leads us to the final and perhaps most important factor in genius – resilience, the ability to stay focused on a bigger goal, despite any challenges. Ultimately, that is the power of genius and why we all need to nurture it in ourselves and others. Our collective future literally depends on it, because highly innovative and visionary organizations like SpaceX are fueling the new economy, and they are looking for that spark of genius in us all.
Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.