What Makes A Genius?

Five insights from the Martha Graham revolution.




What Does It Take To Become A Genius?

Leonardo Da Vinci, Wassily Kandinsky, Albert Einstein, Hanna Arendt, Claude Debussy, Martha Graham. Every single one of them has been called a genius in their own fields. But what made them stand out?

What do geniuses see that the average person misses? How do they relate to their surroundings? What are their habits?

Can genius be learned, or do we have to sit around and wait for the Universe to deliver a cosmic slap across our face and get a sudden epiphany?

Martha Graham is known for singlehandedly revolutionizing contemporary dance in the 20th century.




She was born on May 11, 1894 in Pennsylvania, the eldest daughter of a respected physician and his young socialite wife. She had every reason to sit back and wait for a 5 carat diamond ring to land on her finger. Instead, at age 22 (considered way too late to start a dancing career for most) Martha joined the Denishawn school of dance and related arts. She went from struggling artist in Greenwich Village all the way to founding her own dance company training the likes of Madonna, Gregory Peck and even Woody Allen in body expression. She turned modern dance form on its head and cascaded into international fame.

On Martha Graham’s birthday week, I’m taking you on a journey to discover four attitudes that made her into the creative powerhouse she was.


1. Doom Eagerness — The Necessity To Create

“Ambition is not enough, necessity is everything. People have asked me why I chose to be a dancer. I did not choose. I was chosen to be a dancer, and with that, you live all your life. ” (Blood Memory p 10, Martha Graham)

Ambition by itself is not enough to create a masterpiece. There must be a kind of urgency to create that goes beyond rational self-interest.


Robert Edmond Jones, visionary designer and director, called this urgency ‘doom eagerness’. It isn’t the eagerness of someone who has rationally chosen a career he is good at. Instead, it’s the urgency to follow one’s own calling. Being doom eager to do something means you have no other choice but to to keep on going, even if you are the only one who believes in your potential.


Hence, the kind of work that we call genius is not a product of ambition. It’s the result of a deep necessity to create.

Martha Graham never asked herself whether she should become a dancer. She just danced.


To discover your own source of genius, think of the one thing that you could never give up. The thing you do for the sake of feeling whole and holding on to sanity.




2. Blood Memory — Digging Up Our Past In The Present Moment

“I never thought of myself as being what they call a genius. I think a better expression is a retriever, a lovely strong golden retriever that brings things back from the past, or retrieves things from our common blood memory.” (Blood Memory, p 16)

Ultimately, creation is always based on a reinvention of the past. But there is a difference between imitating the past and discovering it.


In the former — we are simply reshuffling the same old steps we’ve been taught in the hopes of stumbling upon something original. But we’re doomed because we’re stuck in a classical mind-frame. In the latter, we discover the past by deeply observing ourselves in the present — it’s about experimentation.


Martha Graham saw the body as a vessel for ancestral knowledge. Martha retrieved unconscious wisdom by observing her instinctive gestures in the present moment and experimenting with them. In this way, she managed to break away from doctrinal assumptions about what dance was meant to be, to discover a new way to dance

. We too can find new sources of inspiration by being present enough to look at what our habits and bodies are telling us. Our gut instincts can probably tell us more about the world and our place in it than our intellect can.


But tapping into this knowledge depends on our ability to be present.



“We are the carriers of lives and legends — who knows the unseen frescoes on the private walls of the skull” (William Goyen)


3. Child-Like Curiosity

I walked to Central Park Zoo and sat on a bench across from a lion in its cage. I would watch this lion for hours as he’d take those great padding steps four times back and across the cage. It was a wonderful thing how it turned to go. Finally I learned to walk that way. I learned from the lion the inevitability of return, the shifting of one’s body. (Blood Memory, p 103)

Curiosity is getting good at getting lucky.


Most people don’t care to look carefully enough and so, they miss opportunities that are hidden in plain sight. Martha’s technique was to a large extent a product of her curiosity. She would create new dance forms based on her observations of animal instincts. Whether it be the movement of a swan’s neck, or the tenderness of an elephant’s gaze, she would use them as inspiration to imbue her dance with fluidity and raw emotion.

Somewhere along the line, we lose our capacity to marvel at things. We live our lives on autopilot because we’ve already placed everything into neat categories and labels — butterfly, elephant, iguana. And so, we build pre-conceptions about how nature behaves. We lose the ability to truly see the world around us.


But Martha did see. So did Newton when he discovered the law of gravity by staring at an apple tree. Preserving a child-like curiosity allows us to make new discoveries by looking at the same picture from a different angle.


I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious. (Albert Einstein)




4. Discipline to Transcend Perfection

When the dancer is at the peak of his power he has two lovely, fragile and perishable things. One is the spontaneity that is arrived at over years of training. The other is the simplicity that is arrived at over years of training. It is the state of complete simplicity costing no less than absolutely everything. (Blood Memory, p 17)

Talent alone doesn’t lead to genius. Talent AND discipline does.


The famous Russian ballet choreographer Vera Volkova once said “It was perfect. But too effective”. Real grace is all about trust, and freedom of expression comes from truly mastering one’s own craft.

Martha Graham worked arduously to chisel her body into the tool she needed in order to freely express whatever she wanted. Picasso did the same, if you look at some of his early work in the Blue Period you’ll see that he had truly mastered classical techniques. He had achieved ‘perfection’. However, true genius was only born when he started breaking the rules with Guernica or Demoiselles d’Avignon.


The masterpieces that move us most are not perfect, they are spontaneously simple. The kind of simplicity that comes when you trust your abilities enough to give in to your instincts.


5. Ask And Though Shalt Receive

“We were invited to perform at an English manor-style mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. Though I had no money I was determined to arrive in style. When we arrived the butler said that as an artist I was to enter through the servants’ entrance. I absolutely refused and told him I would arrive as I saw fit or return to New York City. The other performer did what she was told, but I was permitted to enter through the front doors. At the end of the evening, she returned to New York, but I was asked by my host, Doris Duke, to stay overnight and remain for supper the next evening.” (Blood memory, p 101)

Modesty was never one of Martha Graham’s strengths, and the lack of it opened countless doors for her literally and figuratively. She recognized her own genius, and wasn’t scared to ask for her worth to be recognized. Martha Graham was a Prima donna day in and day out, but she knew she had the substance to back it up. And regardless of the bad reputation Diva’s get, they’re always on the VIP list.

It isn’t enough to be a genius if you don’t believe in your own worth.


How many geniuses out there are missing out on recognition because they are too afraid to ask for it? Knowing your value is vital. And if you want everyone else to see it too, shake your feathers and flaunt it.


Final Thoughts


What made Martha Graham a genius was a combination of self-less passion, deep awareness of the present moment, discipline, curiosity for the world around her and enough self-confidence to ask for what she wanted. We all have a spark of genius, but most of us don’t bother watering the right seeds within us to see it blossom. It takes courage to recognize that thing that you want to do more than anything else, and true tenacity to take the leap of faith. But the view from the other side is absolutely worth it, take it from Martha.



“The main thing, of course, is the fact that there is only one you in the world, just one, and if that is not fulfilled then something has been lost. (Martha Graham)

Thoughts welcome.

© 2020 by The Unlearning Project. 

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