By necessity, my mouth is always open when I’m at my dentist’s office. There’s no other way to get your teeth cleaned. So it was a good thing it was already open when my dentist told me his recent news. Had it not been, I might have been unable to prevent myself from responding with the kind of slack-jawed surprise that is the wrong way to react to someone’s good news.
“She’s extraordinary,” he says, holding one of those sharp instruments that command attention. “There’s something about the way she notices everything. It’s very unusual.” He pauses, not looking at my teeth, but into space, into the glorious future. “I think she’s a genius.”
He’s talking about his one year old daughter. It’s true that, at this point, she can’t yet talk or walk, hold a spoon, or solve quadratic equations. Not yet, anyway. But her genius is unquestioned. I nod and watch the sharp instrument carefully. Standing there, holding his stainless steel scaler in the air, he reminds me of the fairies who stood around Snow White’s cradle and gave her gifts with the wave of a wand — beauty, intelligence, a nice voice. With a wave of his scaler, he seems to be bestowing the gift of genius on his daughter.
There’s not so much as a hint of self-awareness about my dentist, and there never has been. He doesn’t reflect. He acts. His office is full of color photographs he’s taken from places he’s been to around the globe. They mostly all involve water and water sports, with a heavy emphasis on surfing — him surfing, I mean.
I really like my dentist, by the way. I called him once thinking I was dying, only to learn I had a sinus infection that could be treated in a matter of seconds with an antibiotic. I am very grateful to him for this. He has never been grumpy with my husband, even though he routinely arrives late to all his appointments (the ones he remembers anyway). My dentist has the kind of enthusiasm and competence that is the essence of the American spirit.
Which is why I wish he knew that genius is not something to be wished for, and certainly not something to wish for your child. “They’re luckiest,” Adrienne Rich said, “who know they’re not unique.” Knowing you’re not unique can be very liberating.
On the other hand, the expectation of genius or the suggestion of its presence is corrosive. People worship what’s unusual and special. And they also devour it, often destroying it in the process. We all know this. We have read enough issues of People magazine to be certain of it. Just look at McCauley Culkin or Michael Jackson, men who’ve made terrible mistakes in their lives, mostly because they were told from a young age that the only thing that mattered about them was that they were geniuses.
I know that for my dentist, the gift of genius he is bestowing on his daughter is well-intended. In his view, genius will make her bullet-proof. It will insulate her from really hard work, from occasional failure, from having to stand in line, from doubt. Beyond an expression of his love for his daughter, his hope for her genius is a shortcut to what he wants most for her, which is success. He wants her to have plenty of money, and for people to like her, and maybe also for people to see her on television and say to him, “well golly, she’s as smart as you are.”
It’s likely he wants this for her because he thinks this is what will make her happy. The trouble is that he’s got the success-happiness thing all wrong.
Here’s my working theory, which begins with something you’ve probably heard quite often: If you stop worrying about whether you’re a genius or a success, if you tell yourself you’re really not all that special or unique (that, in fact, you’re pretty ordinary), you will be able to devote yourself to what makes you happy, mostly because you will not have the burden of needing to be a success. And then you’re much more likely to be, well, happy. On the other hand, if you abandon the pursuit of happiness and take up the pursuit of success you may well be successful (if you don’t burn out first), but you are not assured of happiness. I’d choose the first path any old time.
Not everyone agrees. I recently polled my household on this question: Which kind of person would you rather be: (a) someone who’s an incredible soccer player who hates to play soccer or (b) someone who’s an average soccer player who loves to play soccer. Apparently, when you’re six years old the answer is (a) and by the time you’re 10 years old the answer is (b). I hope we get unanimity on this before a few more years go by or the six year old is doomed to live the life of a pampered European soccer star.
This “find what you love and all else will follow” notion, which can be found in nine out of ten magazines devoted to the simple life, and in 90% of the books in the self-help section at Borders has apparently not made its way into the hearts and minds of many Americans. And maybe that’s just as well, because it’s an incomplete idea. It’s not enough to identify the thing you love. You actually have to do this thing you love. A lot. Over and over. There will be times when the thing you love seems difficult, or you lose your nerve, or you worry you’ll be an embarrassing flop. In this dark night of the soul, the only thing that will keep you going is love for this activity. If you are pursuing not what you love, but what you think will bring you success, this kind of roadblock will simply make you miserable. You will see no way out and then you will become the sort of person who drinks too much.
But if you’ve been lucky enough to figure out what you truly love to do, chances are you will keep going when you hit obstacles, along the way seeking advice and criticism, and listening to it even if you don’t always follow it. And then, at some point, you will become a decent practitioner of the thing you love. After a while, you won’t even notice how you compare to other people because you will have found your groove and you’ll be too busy to wonder how good you are.
Which brings me to another point. As you devote yourself to the thing you love, it’s good to have a day job. The thing you love should not be burdened with the obligation of earning you a living, although if you can earn a living doing this thing, that’s pretty wonderful. If not, possibly the day job could be somewhat related to the thing you love, although that’s not strictly necessary either. It just can’t be a day job that sucks the life out of you to such an extent that you can’t do the thing you love.
My dentist actually does live his life this way, he just doesn’t think it has anything to do with his daughter. But I think she will get it. She and her parents live close to Ocean Beach in San Francisco. Her father surfs every single day of the year. He’s good at it because he loves it so much. He has a day job he finds interesting and likes. All day long he gets to talk to people who pretty much always agree with him and not necessarily because the only option open to them when they’re sitting in the dentist chair is a cheery, affirmative nod.
His daughter may or may not be a genius. Were I standing at her cradle I would hope for her something other than the burden of being special. Instead I’d wish for her a life like her father’s in his moments of greatest happiness: A big blond man in a wetsuit closing the door to his garage, balancing his board on his shoulder, walking a few blocks, and then crossing the street and running into the water, a mad gleam in his eye. And, if he’s really lucky, and shuts up about the genius thing, she might even be running into the water with him.