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Geniuses Are People, Too

Creative geniuses don’t succeed despite their flaws, they succeed because they are flawed.

Three creative giants—Steve Jobs, John Lennon, and Ernest Hemingway—have been receiving significant media attention lately, and for good reason. Two changed the world, one changed the world of writing, and all three died too soon.

They were impressive, inspirational, and…flawed? Yes, that too.

Steve Jobs’ global influence has been recognized and rightly lauded in obituaries, op-eds, cover stories, and tweets since his death from complications due to pancreatic cancer on 5 October. As Andrew Sullivan perfectly encapsulated in an article in The Daily Beast, Jobs was “the hippie capitalist. He was the fusion of two great American forces -- personal actualization and a free market”. Sullivan pointed to Jobs’ beautiful 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University (that’s so far received 11.5 million views on YouTube) as a great exemplar of this fusion.

Jobs reportedly also fathered a child with his girlfriend when he was 23, denied paternity for two years (while the mother, an artist, and daughter lived on Welfare), and only later acknowledged that he was the father and accepted responsibility.

John Lennon is the subject of a new biography, Lennon: The Man, The Myth, The Music—The Definitive Life by Tim Riley. He continues to be revered by each new generation as a cultural icon, not only for his status as one of the Fab Four but also for his later role as a solo artist and peace activist.

Like Jobs, Lennon also fathered a child with his girlfriend when he was young. Unlike Jobs, he married his girlfriend, Cynthia, but, caught up in Beatlemania, he was rarely around. Later, he more or less abandoned Julian when he and Cynthia divorced and he married Yoko Ono and moved to New York City.

Lennon himself was famously left by his own parents to be raised by his Aunt Mimi, and this was the cause of extreme anguish (and artistry) throughout his life. It raises the obvious paradox of how someone so haunted by his own abandonment could inflict the same pain on his son.

Papa Hemingway has also been enjoying a resurgence in interest this past year too due to the release of the novel The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (about Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley), the movie Midnight in Paris and, most recently, a new biography by Paul Hendrickson called Hemingway’s Boat.

Hemingway not only envisioned a different style of writing, he wrote it into existence, and received acclaim for his original style in his own lifetime and for decades since.

Yet, his reputation as a macho, alcoholic, bullying, sometimes backstabbing man with an outsized ego is almost as embedded in our consciousness as is our appreciation for his talent.

The risk in learning about the personal lives of creative geniuses is that you’re likely to discover their undeniable weaknesses as human beings. Especially when it comes to relationships.

In his review of Papa’s Boat in The Washington Post, Howell Raines writes, “A writer’s life can contain two conflicting existences, one of purely original genius and one of irreversible destructiveness.” And in a previously published book by Matthew J. Bruccoli called Fitzgerald and Hemingway: A Dangerous Friendship, the author makes the following observation: “Writers tend to be bad risks as friends—probably for much the same reasons that they are bad matrimonial risks. They expend the best part of themselves in their work.”

Would we, the beneficiaries of these geniuses’ vision and creative output really have it any other way?

Let’s consider the potential impact on the world as we know it if Jobs and Lennon had done” the right thing” from the outset. What if Jobs had gotten married and “settled down” at 23? What if Lennon, at the height of the Beatles’ mind-blowing popularity, had decided to quit the band? Would their creative impulse have found a means of expression regardless, or would it have been stifled by the quotidian pleasures and frustrations of domesticity? To use Lennon’s famous lyric, “imagine” a world without Macs or iPhones or iPods or “Strawberry Fields” or, well, “Imagine”.

What if Hemingway hadn’t experienced (and often induced) turmoil in so many of his personal relationships? While those high schoolers who only know him through Spark Notes might only associate his writings with “manly” activities like fishing and fighting, much of his best writing—in The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms and A Moveable Feast—is about love and heartbreak in relationships between women and men. And much of that writing was drawn from his life.

Creative geniuses don’t succeed despite their flaws, they succeed because they are flawed. And while the people in their lives sometimes serve as sacrificial lambs, the rest of us are immeasurably enriched by their vision, their devotion, and, yes, their personal failings.

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