Nietzsche on Genius

Human, All to Human is considered one of Nietzsche’s lesser works, and I would tend to agree. But in one particular area he seems particularly prescient: that masterful work is more the result of blood, sweat and tears than native genius.

Basically, Nietzsche’s Human, All to Human beat Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers to the punch by over a hundred years. They even both agree that about ten years of hard work is required to attain that level of mastery we define as genius in a particular field.

Here’s Nietzsche in his own words:

163. The seriousness of craft.

Speak not of gifts, or innate talents! One can name all kinds of great men who were not very gifted. But they acquired greatness, became “geniuses” (as we say) through qualities about whose lack no man aware of them likes to speak; all of them had that diligent seriousness of a craftsman, learning first to form the parts perfectly before daring to make a great whole. They took time for it, because they had more pleasure in making well something little or less important, than in the effect of a dazzling whole. For example, it is easy to prescribe how to become a good short story writer, but to do it presumes qualities which are habitually overlooked when one says, “I don’t have enough talent.” Let a person make a hundred or more drafts of short stories, none longer than two pages, yet each of a clarity such that each word in it is necessary; let him write down anecdotes each day until he learns how to find their most concise, effective form; let him be inexhaustible in collecting and depicting human types and characters; let him above all tell tales as often as possible, and listen to tales, with a sharp eye and ear for the effect on the audience; let him travel like a landscape painter and costume designer; let him excerpt from the various sciences everything that has an artistic effect if well portrayed; finally, let him contemplate the motives for human behavior, and disdain no hint of information about them, and be a collector of such things day and night. In this diverse exercise, let some ten years pass: and then what is created in the workshop may also be brought before the public eye.

But how do most people do it? They begin not with the part but with the whole. Perhaps they once make a good choice, excite notice, and thereafter make ever worse choices for good, natural reasons.

Sometimes when reason and character are lacking to plan this kind of artistic life, fate and necessity take over their function, and lead the future master step by step through all the requisites of his craft.

And interestingly, it would seem that Nietzsche developed this line of reasoning to spite Wagner, his erstwhile friend, who believed very much in his own native genius.

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