Is The Idea Of ‘Genius’ Helpful? An NLP View

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Note: this is a video from an NLP Master Practitioner course that I ran in about 2009. What follows is a tidied-up transcript.

In Voltaire’s Candide, there’s a scene of a medical student being examined for his medical degree on the effectiveness of a sleeping draught.

They’re asking the medical student what makes the sleeping draught work – what makes it actually put people to sleep. The medical student that the draught’s effectiveness is due to its “dormitive quality”.

You’ll recognise this is a nominalisation – so it’s basically a circular explanation. It’s saying that the sleeping draught has this dormitive quality, which actually means it puts people to sleep. And it puts people to sleep because it has a dormitive quality. It’s not a real explanation.

So similarly, people who aren’t aware of NLP, people who don’t think in those terms, people who haven’t got that curiosity, when they encounter somebody who is absolutely brilliant at doing something, who has abilities far and away beyond the average person – when you encounter somebody who is really brilliant at doing stuff, then the average person will probably reply, if you ask them “Why are they so great?'” they’d say “Oh it’s because they’re a genius.” It’s not explaining anything.

So the whole idea, I think, of genius, the whole sort of ideology, this concept of genius is a little bit disempowering.

The word ‘genius’ comes from the Latin. In Ancient Rome, it was believed that people were born with a guardian spirit that looked after them and guided them through their lives. So they ‘had a genius’ which might make them good at certain things.

In English, this usage eventually mutated into ‘they ARE a genius’, as if the person in question was a kind of non-human prodigy.

This is not very useful for explaining how a person can get exceptional results, so the co-founders of NLP, Richard Bandler and John Grinder, didn’t think in those terms.

Rather than just thinking “Fritz Perls is a genius, and that’s why he can get these results” or “Virginia Satir, she’s a genius, and MiltonErickson, he’s a genius, that’s why they can get those results”, instead they asked more basic questions:

“What are they actually doing? How are they doing it? What are they saying to themselves? What behaviour are they doing that we can observe? How are they thinking? What modality are they thinking in – visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or what?”

“What feedback are they looking for? What do they believe about themselves? What do they believe about their clients? What do they believe about the world in general? What strategies are they using? How do they stand? How do they breathe? What facial expressions do they use in their communication? What questions do they ask at what times?”

And more questions: “Are they looking at the big picture or small details? How do they know when they’re doing something right? What makes the difference for them between an average performance and a really brilliant one? What are they noticing that other people aren’t?”

Those kind of questions – it was curiosity, curiosity, curiosity, all the way.

Because when you know the answers to those questions and you start doing it yourself, when your unconscious mind knows the answers to those questions and you start applying the answers to your own performance, then maybe you can start getting similar results.

Possibly even better results, or at least vastly improved results compared to what you could get before. You can accelerate your learning by modelling somebody else. This is how little kids learn to walk. They imitate other people, they imitate adults.

In the street or in a shopping mall, you sometimes see families walking along and not only are they dressed alike but it can be quite comical because the little boy, who’s like five, the dad has his own distinctive style of walking and you can see the little son walking along in exactly the same style.

This is how children learn. It’s the most primal, basic way of learning. It’s like “monkey see, monkey do”.

When I used to do martial arts,quite often they’d have teenage lads who joined the class after me and within about a year they’d gone past me, they were a belt above.

The reason was, not just that they were younger and therefore possibly learned quicker, but they really lived and breathed it, they were watching kung fu movies every night. They had that poster of Bruce Lee on the wall, so they were just strutting around like they were Bruce Lee.

No wonder they went past me, they were living and breathing martial arts. They had that role model. They were unconsciously absorbing kung fu moves – whereas I was just going to the class once a week and absorbing what I could from the teacher.

So modelling is the quickest way to learn, especially for an ability which is as much physical and emotional as it is cognitive and perceptual. I trust that I may have made you look at the concept of genius in a slightly different way, and changed your view of it slightly.

Let’s remember that ‘geniuses’ are people. There is some research that suggests that people with amazing abilities are actually not that different to us, they just enjoy something and practice the hell out of it, probably to the point where you and I would get bored with it and way beyond that. Consequently they get really good. In principle, anyone can do anything. That’s what modelling’s about.

For lots more NLP stuff, including resources for trainers, ebooks (for less than you would get them on Amazon), self-help audios, Practical NLP Podcast back episodes, and free downloads, visit the Coaching Leaders Webstore.

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