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Relative Brilliance

Originally written June 20, 2005


“I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

Stephen Jay Gould


I once had a professor at my university who, in answer to my query about what qualities a student’s work must contain in order to be worthy of that oh-so-elusive Ivy League A, replied that all she required was for the work — and by extension the student who produced it — to be brilliant. Now, one could make an excellent case in support of this professor’s request. After all, one could say, you speak of the Ivy League! The crème de la crème! The best of the best of the best. Why should we, the world, one could ask with one’s eyebrows delicately aloft, expect anything less from such an intellectually elevated people than sheer, indisputable, grade-A worthy brilliance from every single one of you?

One possible answer is that brilliance shouldn’t be unilaterally expected because it doesn’t unilaterally exist. Now this may be a very controversial statement to make, but I shall make it. Not everyone who is given the questionable privilege of attending and subsequently graduating from an Ivy League university is brilliant. One could certainly object to that statement, eyebrows still elegantly raised, by protesting in oh-so-deferential terms that really all of us are quite brilliant, in our own unique way.


Precious few of us are really brilliant. Most of us are just intelligent. Many of us are simply smart. And still more of us are just hard workers. Hard workers are just as capable of producing results as brilliant people — more likely I should say, because so often truly brilliant people are brilliant enough to know how brilliant they are, and are content to rest on their brilliant laurels and wait for the light to start radiating from their brilliant fingertips.

I switched very abruptly there from using the inclusive pronoun “us” to the exclusive pronoun “they” — did you notice? Alas, a necessary adjustment. For I did not receive an A in that course, and have, in fact, already begun to accept my life as one of the myriad non-illuminated. For I shall never cure a disease, nor shall I invent a world-altering device, nor even harness the power of the universe in the palm of my hand. When my life ends, all people will say is that I wrote things down and people read them. That is the measure of my existence, and it would appear to be brilliance-free.

But who is the judge of that, really? Don’t mistake this question. I have no intention of going back on what I have previously stated. To try and make a case that there is brilliance in all human souls is the same as saying that everyone is special. No, everyone is not. Everyone can’t be. There are those among us who actually can not walk and chew gum at the same time. They have our sympathy. My question is really better phrased thusly: What qualifies those of us who are emphatically not brilliant to judge the brilliance of others? How do we know it when we see it, if we are not capable of producing it ourselves? Ah, but there are tools! one points out, one’s voice growing shrill. There are ways of measuring, of testing, of being sure. But who creates these tests, and who administers them? Can a man limited by the extents of his mere intelligence truly look another man in the face after all is said and done, and recognize within that man a real glimmer of brilliance? How can so intangible a thing be judged — except by the works that man produces?

If a man paints a picture and it takes our breath away, we call him a brilliant artist. Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Van Gogh, Picasso, Dali — the heavens ring with their names and the earth is still haunted by the products of their brilliant hands and brilliant minds. If a man expounds a scientific theory and makes inroads into understanding the world which birthed us from the nothingness, we call him a brilliant scientist. Galileo, Copernicus, Einstein, Darwin — the world still trembles in the light of their brilliant discoveries even as it eagerly steps forward and offers us more. We speak today in reverent tones these names and so many others and in the same breath we use the word: brilliant. We toss it about like so much confetti at an Ivy League graduation party. We rarely stop to consider the fact that we only know of the brilliance of these men because they did something with that brilliance. They used it to produce something that has lasted generations beyond their own. If Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had spent his childhood playing in the mud instead of in royal halls before the crowned heads of Europe, no one would know his name. Had Newton absently picked up that fallen apple, rubbed it on his shirt, and bitten into it as a snack before taking his lunch, his brilliance might have remained shrouded in the garbs of ordinary intelligence for the rest of his life. These great men could have been bright lights hidden from the rest of us, who were too dull with the darkness of our ignorance to see them for what they were. How many walk among us today whose brilliance is unknown, and dulled by lack of production? And perhaps an even more pertinent question is this: how many of the most enduring legacies of human history are merely products of hard work sheathed in the cloth of brilliance?

The great pyramids of Egypt were built stone by stone over decades by hundreds of thousands of slaves who worked hard, and the product of that work remains long after their bones have vanished into the dust from which they came. The United States of America was built on the backs of slaves — it is a product of men and women whose brilliance may never be known since the tools needed to foster brilliance were kept from them at cost of death. Deny brilliance the tools it requires, and it becomes less than brilliance. Deny it paintbrushes, deny it exposure to art, deny it science and math classes, deny it books, deny it food, deny it instruments, and it fades away. It becomes a glimmer, and it becomes impossible to see. It becomes relative, and it becomes something that anyone can have.

A man can be brilliant at basketball, but perhaps if he’d had the necessary tools, he could have been a brilliant scientist too. A man can be a brilliant bricklayer, but perhaps if he’d had the right instruments, he could have been a brilliant composer. And perhaps a man who works all his life and produces something that lasts beyond that life is just as brilliant — just as full of the light needed to move people, to lead cities, to build nations — as the man who receives an A in his Ivy League class. Hard work should be recognized and rewarded as brilliance is recognized and rewarded: by its output alone. No more, no less. There is nothing wrong with being very good at basketball, or being very good at laying brick. We must recognize however that these are both firmly in the category of relative brilliance. We call these people brilliant simply because we see the results, and we know them to be better than our own. Truly brilliant people are no better than hardworking people, and no more deserving of an A grade than someone who simply works hard for it and earns it through sweat and perhaps even blood or tears. It is the product that matters — whether or not that product is the result of brilliance or hard work should not even be an issue. If we believed that Leonardo DaVinci was simply an ordinary man who just worked hard, would that take away the value of his contributions to mankind? Would thinking of Shakespeare as an average man who sweated out his poetry line by line make it any less poignant or beautiful? I say that it would not. The brilliance lies in what these men created. Whether or not they themselves are brilliant is immaterial to me.

In the end, my grade in the aforementioned class was less immaterial, if only because I worked so hard for that B+. My professor did not see the seeds of brilliance in my work, and she judged my performance accordingly. It is up to me, in the end, to locate brilliance within myself, if there is any to be found. Perhaps then I can produce something that will stand not merely the scrutiny of an assistant professor at an Ivy League university, but the more difficult and far more subjective test of time.

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