Napoleon’s Unusual Idea of Genius
“de fixer les objets longtemps sans être fatigué” or, “The ability to focus on objectives for long periods without tiring.”
When you think of what makes someone a genius you are probably thinking of someone who has a high level of innate intelligence–as if brilliant ideas, completed projects, inventions, discoveries and theories will pour out of them with the same effort you put into deciding what to wear in the morning. What we forget, or maybe, better put, we don’t see, is the amount of focused effort people we call geniuses actually put towards their projects.
Napoleon, who would certainly qualify as a genius in military matters, said that genius or greatness came to those with the gift of “de fixer les objets longtemps sans être fatigué,” or “the ability to focus on objectives for long periods without tiring.”
This is probably a better way to think about genius: not as innate intelligence, but as the ability to accomplish great works of intelligence. The ability to focus on a project over a long period of time, whether it be thinking through a problem at work, writing a blog post, composing a song, coding a piece of software, or planning a military campaign is a sort of human super power. This is not to say that innate intelligence doesn’t exist or doesn’t play a role though! Rather, the projects that we associate with geniuses require the ability to focus for long periods of time. Even the most innately intelligent person could struggle to accomplish anything if they can’t focus.
Naturally you’re thinking about how well you yourself can focus. The modern world is probably the least sympathetic to our ability to focus than any period in history. Seemingly every major tech development of the last 20 years was designed to grab our attention. How easy is it to focus on a project and avoid distractions today in 2022? You start work, maybe it’s something you’re even truly passionate about, and within a couple minutes you, without even thinking, reach for your phone and check your notifications. Oh, some idiot didn’t like your tweet about Donald Trump? Better respond, but now you have to think about the most insulting way to respond that won’t get you suspended. Ok, tweet sent and now I can get back to work and, oh he’s already responded and he’s still being an idiot and on and on it goes until you look at the time and realize you wasted an hour of your life and you can’t even remember where you were supposed to start on that project.
Every notification on your phone is a kryptonite bomb trying to destroy your focusing super power. Although it’s funny to think of it that way since the gift of tenacious focus on projects and objectives is not a Superman power. It’s Batman’s superpower. Batman’s got will power and he uses it to focus on his objective. What Superman achieves with his innate super powers, Batman must achieve through focused determination towards building his arsenal and learning his opponents.
I have a humble personal example: I wrote the first draft of this article in about 45 minutes in a single evening (and no I am not calling this a work of genius. Please.) We won’t count the reading and thinking I’ve put in through the years to have the world view required to write this–just the actual writing process. My previous article took two weeks and maybe three hours of actual work. The amount of research and problem solving required for both was roughly the same. The difference was with this article I managed to keep myself focused on this single task for 45 minutes while for the other I foolishly didn’t.
Yes there are tools and techniques to improve your focus and prevent devices from throwing distractions at you, but we should think about this on a larger scale: what does a society look like when so many of its potential geniuses are finding their ability to focus on things that matter destroyed? Think of how many hours you have spent posting random thoughts and getting into arguments on social media these last 10 years. Would you have spent that time working on some project instead if social media didn’t exist? Now scale that up to national levels. How many more inventions, companies, works of art, and projects that improve life would we have seen if we could better harness our ability to focus?
I don’t know the answer to this, but I do want to throw away the idea that those with innate intelligence would be able to solve and finish their projects regardless. Remember, Napoleon of all people should have a decent concept of what genius is, and he didn’t think it was innate intelligence. So why is that? Why is it the ability to focus and not innate intelligence?
Projects, of any kind, tend not to be a single problem that, once solved, are finished. Instead they tend to be many smaller problems all connected together that you must solve in order to make the whole project complete. Focus is key to completing this process since every small problem you solve requires mental effort to identify, find a solution–sometimes through trial and error–and then implement in such a way that it will not cause other problems to arise elsewhere in the project. Maybe innate intelligence can help you solve some of these problems more quickly, but in the end you’re still going to have to grind through the project and rely on your ability to focus.
Every time you break your focus you lose where you were. You forget which exact small problem you were trying to solve, you forget which solutions you had already tried and why they wouldn’t work, and you forget where you were in your thought process. Suddenly, it becomes easy to just say “forget it,” and give up for the day. It doesn’t matter how innately intelligent you are if you give up.
Innate intelligence isn’t going to suddenly write an entirely new operating system in some ingenious way one evening. You’re going to have to focus for long periods of time planning the project and solving many smaller problems. There’s no eureka moment that will suddenly produce a finished OS that will function as you envisioned when you first got the idea in the shower.
Understand the power of focus. Learn how to improve your ability to focus. Think about what we are losing with the way daily life is structured to bombard us with distractions. Yes, it is a loss–a loss to you personally, your friends and loved ones, and to society. It sounds grim, but remember that the ability to focus is like a muscle: you may be weak and flabby today, but through training you can build your focus power.