Posted by: trevormeers | December 31, 2011

How To Fail Like a Genius

I spent part of Christmas weekend reading a book assigned for one of my classes next semester. This is a sure sign that A) I got no cool toys for Christmas and B) I’m a non-traditional student. I realized this as my nephews assembled their 18thLego Star Wars toys of the weekend, and I said, “You know you’re an older student when you read the books before class even starts.” My professor brother corrected, “Or when you read the book, period.”

History's greatest genius--and, not coincidentally, a guy who wasn't afraid to royally screw things up.

Indeed, age changes the university student, and it goes deeper than becoming the guy who gripes about how kids these days can’t walk down the hall without texting. A friend and I (both on Round 3 of college) have noticed our uncanny ability to shoehorn study time into whatever five-minute gap the day presents, wherever it occurs. Karate class? Commercial break during Monday Night Football? A New York curb during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade? Those are all study halls if our kids are occupied, brother. “Let’s face it,” my buddy said. “A parade is quieter than my house.”

This is why I found myself reading How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci while Kung Fu Panda 2 blared on the TV and an angry swarm of Hex Bugs drove my mom’s elderly dog to dementia. Leonardo is generally ranked as history’s greatest genius by people who rank such things and have obviously never considered the guy who invented beef jerky. Leonardo knew essentially everything that could be known in his era, and, in fact, probably knew twice as much as the smartest guy in the generation before him. Leonardo helped tear Europe out of the Dark Ages, a 1,000-year era during which things pretty much stayed as they always had been and everyone assumed they already knew everything there was to know. It was like an entire continent had filled up with the old guys in a small-town coffee shop.

Da Vinci was a master painter (Mona Lisa, The Last Supper), architect, biologist, chef and inventor (he diagrammed a perfect parachute 400 years before there were any planes to jump out of). And just to shut up the knuckleheads at the castle who might consider him a bit of a Nancy boy, he could reportedly bend horseshoes with his bare hands.

He was the original Renaissance Man, a term applied to those who can do it all, embodying the motto mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a sound body). Thomas Jefferson was the quintessential American version of the breed, what with his ability to effortlessly jump from writing the Declaration of Independence to landing the Louisiana Purchase to designing his own beautiful home. It’s a hard title to achieve in our own era of exploding information and specialization, when a person could devote a lifetime of study to something like seed corn and never cover it all.

Thomas Jefferson knocked out the design for this little place when he wasn't busy founding universities, buying continents and outlining the concepts behind the world's most successful nation.

Still, it’s something to aspire to, this concept of being a truly well-rounded person. That’s heady talk for a guy from my background, where most folks view music, for example, through the lens of the honkytonk barmaid in The Blues Brothers, who declared, “We play both kinds of music: country and western.” (And believe me, I could argue a long time about the differences between the two.)

To keep stretching the ol’ horizons, I set up Pandora stations on my iPhone for Mozart and Charlie Parker over the weekend. The da Vinci book suggested both would open my mind and reveal new creative possibilities in the world around me. Turns out, it’s hard to run a fast mile to Piano Concerto No. 21, but the road to a broader intellect is bound to include a few speed bumps.

That’s one thing to keep in mind if you’re an aspiring Renaissance Man. Stretching yourself produces failure. Guaranteed. Even for the great Leonardo. He once planned an elaborate dinner party where each dish would be a work of handcrafted art, and the plates would be distributed by a mechanical assembly line of his own design. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find enough kitchen workers capable of crafting his fanciful presentations, and the assembly line ultimately crashed down and set the kitchen on fire. (Food Network producers can contact me via this blog if they’re interested in my concept for a new show featuring brilliant astrophysicists burning down Beverly Hills kitchens—think Honey, I Shrunk The Kids meets Keeping Up With the Kardashians.)

Da Vinci's sketch of a parachute, which would've been handy if anyone had built all the flying machines he also designed.

Trying new things means living in a constant state of lousiness in at least one area of your life. You’re a perennial rookie compared to the folks who stick with a single pursuit throughout life and pass only once through the embarrassing beginner phase. This path has made me the only adult in a hunter education class full of 12-year-olds; the target of a frustrated college student explaining how to roll a kayak; and the partner of a classmate who kept drifting away from our discussion on business ethics so she could browse wedding dresses on the web. I hardly notice anymore when someone says, “It’s really admirable that you’re trying this at your age/size/experience level.”

But if you can tame your pride enough to endure life as a newbie, you’ll learn one of the great payoffs of the Renaissance life: Beginners have most of the fun. A rookie’s initial failures are quickly followed by the most explosive growth you’ll ever experience in your new pursuit. Experts struggle for years to see incremental improvement. In a few days, on the other hand, a rookie can go from thinking Beethoven is only a St. Bernard dog to knowing the difference between Baroque and Classical.

So if you’re looking for a few New Year’s resolutions to settle on over the next couple of days, consider committing yourself to publicly flaming out at a couple of new things in the coming year. It’s just what geniuses do.



  1. You had me at beef jerky. And, if it not baroque, don’t fix it.

  2. Leonardo was amazing…he had that many different talents and sometimes I can’t even find my own car in the mall parking lot. I think he maybe underachieved though on the whole architect thing…he should have aspired to become a city planner.

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