My mom used this great expression — “If you’re so smart, how come you ain’t rich?” — which I learned only recently is the title of a Louis Jordan song from the 1950s. She’d say it to me every now and then, which might account for my own love of sarcasm and weak sense of self-esteem.
I always think of the expression when the MacArthur Foundation announces its annual “genius” grants. This year’s recipients include four members of the Jewish community (or what my parents and Richard Nixon would have called “Jews”). They are artist Nicole Eisenman, health-care activist Gary Cohen (my second-favorite Gary Cohen, by the way, after the New York Mets play-by-play guy), novelist Ben Lerner, and Princeton historian Marina Rustow, an expert on Jews in medieval Egypt.
I’m not sure why these awards always annoy me a little. I mean, if these folks are so smart, why do they need a $625,000 grant over the next five years? Shouldn’t they just do their jobs? You don’t see anyone giving me a bonus just for being the genius that I am.
Oh, wait a sec — I think I just figured out why these awards annoy me.
I think anyone who does something even mildly creative for a living secretly harbors the hope that someone will tap him as a genius. Admit it: Are you slightly disappointed each year when they announce the awards and you are not on the list? (I’m not talking here about people who actually deserve such a prize. That must be its own kind of torture.) I imagine most people think they do one thing better than anyone else on the planet, even if it’s the ability to imitate a cymbal sound with one’s tongue and teeth or pack a car trunk efficiently (I don’t mean to brag).
To console yourself on not being included among those who have “shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction,” perhaps you refer to yourself as an “underachiever.” You remember the teachers who told you as much, and think, “I’d be a genius too, if not for my marked incapacity for self-direction.”
And then you realize, after years of telling yourself that you are an underachiever, that maybe, just maybe, you’ve achieved exactly what you’ve deserved. Or, if anything, you might even be an overachiever, and it’s amazing that you’ve gotten this far!
I think part of being an adult is accepting yourself for who you are, neither regretting the choices you made or didn’t make in the past, nor believing that the present is just a detour from a magnificent future, nor imagining that someone smarter and more successful has stolen your life. That’s the point of Buber’s famous hasidic tale about Rabbi Zusya: “Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”
Or, as the kids say, “You do you.”
I struggle with this. Most days I think, kein ayin hara — I like who I am, the choices I made, and the things I’ve accomplished. And then they announce the MacArthurs, and I hear about the writer who is “emerging as a leading interpreter of American concerns to a new generation of media-savvy audiences,” or the scientist who prompted a “fundamental shift in thinking about brain development,” and I feel like crawling back into bed with a pint of Trader Joe’s Soy Creamy Cherry Chocolate Chip.
The late Rabbi Louis Jacobs, writing about humility, tells the story about a hasidic man who came to the tzadik with a complaint. “All my life,” he said, “I have tried to follow the advice of the rabbis that one who runs away from fame will find that fame pursues him, and yet while I run away from fame, fame never seems to pursue me.” The tzadik replied: “The trouble is that while you do run away from fame you are always looking over your shoulder to see if fame is chasing after you.”
In other words, act honorably, but don’t expect any honors. And don’t resent those who do win honors, or you’ll spend your life consumed by envy. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.