Beyond brilliance, there is only one thing we revere more highly. It’s often subconscious, unstated, and for many of us, it is what makes a genius worthy of our admiration.
It is goodness.
In Genership 1.0: Beyond Leadership Toward Liberating the Creative Soul, David Castro argues that “the problem in our culture…is that we associate perfection with people who are strong creators. We expect them to be like gods because their creations are godlike, a clear category mistake.” And further, he points out our society’s belief that “to create something valuable requires an individual or team to be good as a foundation for their creativity.”
It’s true that society cannot abide by an unkind icon, and maybe there is a cognitive dissonance in this, some kind of egoism. What did Steve Jobs’ fall from grace mean for those who had invested fully in the Apple ecosystem? To endorse the brand was also to endorse the man who was its face, and to believe in his goodness, because—deeply, even subconsciously, but irrevocably—we believe that we are good.
As Castro points out elsewhere, this is doubly true with those legends who died long enough ago that their imperfections have been swept aside. It is easier to remember Thomas Edison in a single, pure phrase — the inventor of the light bulb — than it is to delve into the questionable way he treated inventor Nikola Tesla. And it is vastly preferable to avoid dredging up George Washington’s affair with one of his slaves (or, really, that he was a slave owner at all). And this is as logical as the way we looked on our parents as children: godlike, infallible, the predecessors on whom we rely for our history, our political institutions, the light bulbs above us.
Put simply, we just don’t want to revere jerks, as brilliant as they may be.
But on reading Castro’s argument, my first thought was of writers, and artists at large, who are often famed for—even thought to be creatively charged by—their imperfections. There’s an underlying association between artists and suffering, that the two often correlate, that an interesting (imperfect) life has produced some of our finest, wrought creative minds.
Why are artists exempt from this standard of personal perfection, to the extent that alcoholism bears some strange association with brilliance? William Faulkner, who, after finishing revisions for The Sound and Fury in 1929, “locked the door and drank until he blacked out,”1 isn’t considered any less remarkable for his tortured life. He is only more fascinating, maybe privy to life and the human condition in ways that we regular folk are not.
There’s a certain worthiness conferred by an artist’s personal suffering, as though things must happen in the artist’s life that will render her wholly flawed, and thus wiser, a better fount for the understanding we seek in paintings, in novels.
The common thread between the inventor and the artist is that he must still be good. Tortured, an alcoholic, yes, but striving toward goodness, operating from a fundamental place of light. We can forgive the artist her imperfections because they seem inherent to the darkness that often accompanies good art—that unveiling of all the parts of the human condition—in ways that we envision are separate from those masterworks that seem undiluted: drafting the Declaration of Independence, discovering the theory of relativity, pioneering the personal computer.
Artists are allowed, arguably encouraged to be imperfect, uncertain. “Almost all creative genius is deeply flawed,” Castro writes, and perhaps selfish, envious, sometimes full of humanity’s worst parts. But that doesn’t make their genius—or that of our inventors, scientists, or social and technological innovators—any less impactful.
It just makes them like us.