Failed Genius


Genius speaks for itself.


We find ourselves in a media environment fascinated by genius. I’ve brought up the topic before, to certain extents (see: Genius and Companion, Perfect Person). And one of the core elements of why it’s so interesting is that geniuses are, in some way, fundamentally “different” from us. That is, assuming you’re not a “genius” or that we are referring to people in a different area of excellence.

But even the most exceptional of people find themselves living in the same, unexceptional world as everyone else. And that forces an issue, an inconsistency.

Talent is not an end in and of itself. There’s more to it than that. Born ability can be seen as a means to an end, a tool, even, and with or without the opportunity to foster genius, one can make something, or nothing, of oneself.

This premise makes up a two-chapter segment of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, his book in which he makes a case for the environmental and ethno-cultural conditions for “success.” Although Gladwell never explicitly defines “success,” he does argue a compelling case for how opportunity and cultural legacy outweigh ‘just’ exceptional ability as precursors and predictors for an individual’s success.

Success is just one outcome, a singular goal. It is not always the end product of genius, in which case media deems that genius, “failed genius,” often with some obstacle getting in the way of “success.”

What obstacle?

I present my three cases: Christopher Langan, real person, the primary case study for said chapters of Outliers; Malcolm from Malcom in the Middle; and Will Hunting from Good Will Hunting.


Christopher Langan has one of the highest recorded IQs ever (for all that’s worth). He is also said to have demonstrated virtuosic ability playing guitar and drawing portraits. His background is not the most fertile for these abilities, though. He was raised in poverty by part-time-single mother, each of whose sons has a different father. And the father who stuck around longest (Jack Langan) was abusive to both Christopher’s mother and reportedly Christopher himself, until Christopher bulked up and physically kicked him out of the house.

Langan attended some college. He dropped out when he failed to complete all the necessary financial aid paperwork and failed to fix course scheduling issues do to shortcomings communications with his professor. Langan has spent most of his life since in blue collar, usually physical labor, jobs, quietly working on his “Cognitive Theoretic Model of the Universe” without academic accreditation to get it peer-reviewed or published.

Gladwell implicitly condemns Langan for being a “failed genius” (my words, not his). And it is because Langan is not “successful,” for cited reasons mostly outside of his control.

Is Langan a “failure”?


Titular Malcolm, of Malcolm in the Middle, has a tested IQ of 165. All the conventional genius stuff, in addition to all the relevant tropes of early-2000s nerd culture.

But he’s also a kid in the throes of puberty, and living in a lower-middle-class household of 5-then-6, and stuck in the middle of a wacky family sit com. Cultivating that genius isn’t the highest priority, and we don’t see many episodes of Malcolm finding mentors and having the resources to strive for academic accomplishments. No. Episodes are about Malcolm and his brothers being rebellious, not thinking things through, and usually causing massive property damage in the end. Again: wacky family sit com. Lots of frenetic Bryan Cranston screaming.

So, another story in which genius as a tool for success is left by the wayside. But here’s that question again:

Is Malcolm a “failure” as a genius?


Lastly, and perhaps the loveliest of interpretations: Will Hunting (Matt Damon). Good Will Hunting gives us a heartwarming-yet-tragic tale of emotional growth and decision.

Will is in a similar-enough position as Christopher and Malcolm are. Blue-collar job: check. Janitor. Impoverished early life: check. South Boston. Less-than-genius pursuits and pastimes: check. Batting cages, drinking with buddies, and hitting on girls by flaunting intellect.

But Will is given the opportunity to use his genius. He is brought into a mathematics research position at MIT and offered a number of high-class math and computer science positions over a short period of time.

Yet Will has no passion for being used for his abilities. And eventually (after a super-touching scene of emotional growth with mentor-character Robin Williams: cue, “It’s not your fault”) he decides to run away from all of: that, in pursuit of the love of his life.

Here’s a statement:

Will “failed” at genius.


Three “failed geniuses,” each in different capacities, for different reasons, under different circumstances.

I purposely ordered the cases like this: Langan, Malcolm, Will. It’s in an increasingly-redeeming attitude by the writers whose account we’re following. Langan is a failure. Malcom is a kid without opportunity. And Will…Will is a hero, I guess.

Will Hunting “overcame” genius. Gladwell’s perspective on opportunity can also be spun in the opposite direction. Genius is an adversity to overcome. Gladwell himself is perfectly demonstrative of the expectations put on those who are labelled “geniuses.” Given talent in conjunction with opportunity or legacy, Gladwell expects success. (Whatever that means.)

Failing at genius is not failing at life. Achievement, accolades, and affluence are not the only ways to succeed.

“With great power comes great responsibility” (Uncle Ben from Spiderman, allegedly paraphrased or similar-in-content to quotes by Churchill, Voltaire, and Jesus).


Is it then so wrong to fail as a genius?


Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. Back Bay Books: New York. 2008.

Malcolm in the Middle. Fox. Created by Linwood Boomer.

Good Will Hunting. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Written by Matt Damon & Ben Affleck.