The Genius Dream Team

Interview with Michael Gelb, author of "Discover Your Genius", "How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci", "Innovate Like Edison" and eight other books
By Vern Burkhardt
Was your mother right when she looked into your eyes when you were born and saw the 'spark of the genius', the miraculous potential of the human brain?

"You can learn anything you want to, and you'll surprise yourself with what you can achieve when you know how to learn." We are not taught how to use our full potential. We are not taught how to learn from the great thinkers and doers of the past.

In his book Discover Your Genius, Michael Gelb mines the lives, minds and accomplishments of ten carefully chosen geniuses – beginning with Plato and ending with Einstein – and shows how we can emulate them in order to find our own genius, regardless of what we do or how old we are.

Vern Burkhardt (VB): What do you think causes people to not develop their own capacity for genius?

Michael GelbMichael Gelb: First of all there's a general ignorance across society. Parents, teachers, and others don't understand that every child is born with genius capacity. If you don't know it's there, you won't orient educational approaches to help develop that capacity.

The problem starts with our fundamental understanding of the capacity of the mind. Many years ago I interviewed Glenn Doman of the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia. He is a pioneer in working with brain-damaged children. In one of his first books called Teach Your Baby to Read, published about 1964, he tells a story of a young boy who had been diagnosed with severe brain damage, would never be able to function normally, and certainly would never learn to read. And after a year and a half with Doman and his team, this boy was functioning pretty well and was already reading two years above his grade level. They asked: "If a brain damaged child is capability of reading two years above his grade level, what are so called normal children capable of?"

Doman wrote, "Every child is born with the genius capacity of a Leonardo da Vinci". But, he added, "We go about de-geniusing them".

VB: De-geniusing them?

Michael Gelb: My work involves re-geniusing. And the first step in re-geniusing is recognizing that we are all born with genius potential.

cover of Discover your GeniusVB: Discover Your Genius offers guidance in all aspects of life, exploring all that humans are capable of experiencing. There is no conflict between science and art, religion and psychology, business and philosophy. But many people live fairly narrow lives in terms of the areas they are willing to explore. The poetry aisles in bookstores are lonely places. Do you recommend pushing oneself in directions one is not 'naturally' inclined to go?

Michael Gelb: Yes, I do. As a child you most often have to do whatever you are told. A lot of times it's humiliating and embarrassing. When you become an adult you have the freedom to only do the things you choose. So you just do the things you like, and you keep doing them – that's all you do. It is therefore too easy to become narrower as you become older.

Most people are ignorant about the potential we all have for genius, and they are also ignorant about the strategies of learning how to learn. Once you understand how the learning process works you can follow the way the brain is designed to learn. If you follow brain-friendly learning strategies, then you can learn anything. And once you have that "aha", once you realize you can learn anything you want to, you are not going to only do the things you are automatically and effortlessly good at. You will be willing to try new things, to push your limits.

VB: You say, "The most effective leaders make wise decisions by encouraging a democracy of ideas, mining the intellectual capital at every level of the organization. The way to invest in the intellectual capital around you is, of course, to ask questions." What is the secret to knowing what questions to ask and of whom?

Michael Gelb: Listening and paying attention. In a way you answered your own question. If you are the kind of person asking the question, "What's the right question to ask?" the odds that you are going to ask the right question go up dramatically. But if you are the person who thinks you already know the answer, or are following some preset pattern of questioning, then success will be more elusive.

VB: And you won't ask the right questions.

Michael Gelb: Unlikely.

VB: You say "The love of wisdom – philosophy – and its manifestation in the quest for truth, beauty, and goodness, is the thread that weaves through the lives of all the great minds you'll get to know in the pages that follow". "Truth, beauty, and goodness" are words normally relegated to philosophy and the arts, not science, business or politics and yet you present them here for use by all in every context. Would you talk about that?

Michael Gelb: I don't know about politics.

VB: Perhaps that's the exception.

Michael Gelb: These are the fundamental underlying goals of western civilization. Greek philosophy was oriented around the quest for Truth, Beauty and Goodness. What is the ultimate truth? Arts and science are different ways of exploring ultimate truth.

Beauty is normally considered to be more in the province of the arts. But as one studies science more and more, one sees integration. Of course, there was no greater champion of this integration than Leonardo da Vinci. As one studies the structure of an atom, as we learn more secrets about the nature of life, as we learn about the workings of the human brain, and, as we apply ever more elegant and amazing mathematical models, we realize that in its essence science also touches on the beautiful.

And the good is what makes life worth living. Part of the notion, my notion anyway, is that these are all interconnected. If you are in a sincere quest for truth and beauty, goodness goes hand in hand with these other two elements.

VB: You say "The knowledge of learning how to learn is perhaps the most important knowledge we can possess", and that learning should be a life long pursuit. Are many of the large corporations you encounter dedicated to this idea as a corporate-wide goal?

Michael Gelb: I can't speak for the whole corporation. I can just say that the people who hire me are.

VB: Plato "formulated the concept of education as drawing out the knowledge of the student, rather than stuffing it in". Most of us were probably taught by the "stuffing it in" method. I imagine the "drawing out" method would result in happier, livelier brains and a quite different experience of life. Would you comment on that?

Michael Gelb: It relates to the question we discussed earlier about the kind of leader who is asking, "What is the right question to ask?" And that's the kind of leader Socrates was.

It is to Socrates that we owe the whole notion of education as a process of drawing out. Socrates and Plato believed, as we discussed earlier, that each person is born with the capacity for genius. Their understanding was that the essence of truth, beauty, and goodness was effectively deep within the soul of each human being. And so education was a process of drawing out the innate understanding of truth, beauty, and goodness rather than trying to stuff it in.

VB: You say Plato's fundamental questions "What is virtue and how can we cultivate it?" and "How can we live in a way that nurtures the soul?" are "perhaps more important now than ever". Does this mean you think his questions need to be asked by business people, politicians and scientists as much as by those more esoterically inclined?

Michael Gelb: Absolutely. Part of what has got to happen, and what I think is happening, is a much greater bridge between what used to be considered esoteric and spiritual and what is considered scientific or business related. I am speaking in a few weeks at a conference called the International Conference for Science and Consciousness. One of the presentations will be by a Ph D physicist whose topic is provocatively entitled "The Existence of God Can Be Proven. What Are You Going To Do About It?" We are coming to an unprecedented integration of societal institutions and esoteric teachings.

I was lucky enough to be one of the speakers at an extraordinary event in the fall of 2008 called "Catalyzing Conscious Capitalism". John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods Market, sponsored it. It was a gathering of people from a wide diversity of organizations that were interested in exploring how to bring more consciousness and awareness to their own lives, the lives of their organizations, and to the world in general. This kind of thing is happening more and more, and I think you will see it accelerate.

VB: According to the Socratic/Platonic perspective "the quest for morality in our lives is the highest priority for our examination, even if it makes us uncomfortable." Do you think there is an absolute and universal morality toward which all humans could and should strive?

Michael Gelb: Treat your neighbor as yourself. That's a good place to start. It's the proverbial golden rule.

Some anthropologists went around the entire world surveying people from every culture, all different religions, all different backgrounds and nationalities. And they found in the core teaching of every human tradition there is tremendous commonality and alignment in terms of the fundamental values of goodness, and learning to put other people's concerns first.

VB: You describe the primacy of the individual as a concept that came into being during the Renaissance. We are now very used to that concept, indeed we take it for granted. Do you think anything of value was lost in mankind's experience at that time? Is there a downside to our very individualistic society?

Michael Gelb: Great question. I would say the primacy of the individual or the rebirth of the sense of individual power or potentiality that came through the Renaissance was a necessary step in the evolution of human consciousness.

There was no sense of the individual in medieval Europe. For example, artists didn't sign their paintings and the subjects of paintings were never regular individuals; they were always holy figures. The paintings were two dimensional, flat, and not very realistic looking. Of course, individuality gets mixed up with egotism, which hasn't served us well, but prior to the Renaissance there was lots of mass unconsciousness. It was not a pristine, totally integrated harmonious society. It was a dog eat dog, brutal world without a sense of individual potentiality.

The Renaissance gave us the sense of individual potentiality, but it still was not enshrined in the nature of society. Because kings and class structures ruled, governments around the world were very rigid, it wasn't until the genius of the founding fathers of the United States that you got for the first time a nation founded on the principle of equality and life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The notion of universal human rights is now largely accepted although we are still working towards realizing it.

We are going through another evolution, probably having taken the notion of developing your individuality as far as it can go. I think we're moving towards a consciousness of our 'interconnectiveness'. For example, it's obvious to everyone that now all of the world's economies are connected.

We are connected whether we like it or not. And if we ruin the environment of the planet, we all go down together. It's a very practical way of moving us towards the conclusion that we have to develop a sense of interconnectedness. And yet we can leverage our unique individualities to help contribute to the common good.

VB: Do you think the future might hold a presently unknown paradigm shift in a whole new direction regarding mankind's relationship with himself/herself and with the world?

Michael Gelb: I would say it definitely is. Yes, indeed.

VB: "Brunelleschi offers us a vital lesson in the value of good, old-fashioned persistence, dedication, and hard work." These sound like reassuring behavioral mantras that everyone can understand and use. Are these our best route to finding our own genius?

Michael Gelb: They are certainly necessary ingredients. Every one of the geniuses profiled in Discover your Genius had profound vision, a guiding dream and desire. They had unrelenting passion, drive, and persistence.

There was something that they wanted to accomplish, achieve, or understand. They wound up overcoming every obstacle in their way no matter how seemingly impossible it was.

VB: Passion and persistence are the key components, aren't they?

Michael Gelb: Yes, they go hand in hand. When your passion is strong you don't give up.

VB: "Optimism and resilience in the face of adversity – like that shown by Columbus – is the greatest long-term predictor of success for individuals and organizations." Do you think the world's economic challenge can be fixed using this type of mental approach or does it need something different?

Michael Gelb: I think these fundamental principles are essential for us to work our way through the current economic difficulties. I see it happening already. People haven't got the perfect answer of what to do. They are struggling and changing plans. People like to think those in power have everything worked out, know exactly what to do, are rolling out a plan, and that it will all go ABC and step by step.

But this is such a huge and unprecedented challenge. People have to think on their feet, and change what they are doing on the fly. Instead of beating them up and focusing on the mistakes that are being made, it's important to look at the continuing effort to solve the financial problems. Everyone wants to solve it, and there are different ideas on how to it. The good news is that we have enough of an open society, open communication, and dialogue. Despite all our challenges and problems there is a good chance that, even if it looks like we are muddling our way through it, we will get through it.

Besides staying engaged and not giving up, which would then become a self-fulfilling prophecy, the key is to focus on solutions – not constantly harping on the problems. When you listen to the news, the media rarely talks about solutions. We know it's terrible and it's a mess, but what are we going to do about it? What can every individual do? What can towns do? What can communities do? What can the various organizations do that are charged with specific aspects of cleaning up this mess? Every day we should be thinking and asking what are the solutions?

VB: The media generally don't offer solutions, and addresses problems with sensationalism. Are they appealing to the basic nature of a lot of people?

Michael Gelb: They are appealing to fear. It's the same reason that people watch horror movies. Now you can just watch the news – from murders to drug problems to economic disaster. The newscasters use the words 'panic' and 'crisis' over and over again. Very rarely do they lead with an optimistic story about all the good things that are being done to try to address the situation.

VB: Do you see the current economic situation as a game changer? What can your geniuses teach individuals and businesses about how they should now be thinking, planning, and doing?

Michael Gelb: I think we are going through a game-changing time. No one yet knows how we are going to come out of it. We can either come out of it much worse and in a big mess that lasts a very long time, or we can come out of it with a greater sense of community, more down to earth, and with less materialistic values. I can't tell how it's going to turn out.

The lessons of the ten geniuses in Discover Your Genius are all incredibly important for potential insights. These insights become more important when there is a time of great stress.

Brunelleschi's principle of keeping your perspective is wise counsel. I am looking out the window at the snow-covered mountains of Santa Fe, New Mexico and those mountains are just as beautiful as they were when my stock portfolio was in much better shape. Life is about enjoying the beauty of those mountains and other aspects of life. It is all too easy to forget that when you are distracted by economic bad news. If you take the time to appreciate the beauty of the mountains, you are opening yourself to a more expansive way of thinking so you can figure out new possibilities for helping other people, strengthening your business, or whatever else it happens to be.

VB: Do you think the economic crisis contains opportunities for positive things to happen?

Michael Gelb: Of course, but it is like the Columbus principle of persistence and optimism. If you are saying "woe is me" and focusing on the negative all the time, your mind is not working on coming up with ideas about what we going to do about it. And you won't be looking for opportunities.

The people who will find the opportunities, and come out ahead are the ones who are looking for them. By definition, if you are not looking for opportunities and you think things are impossible and opportunities don't exist, how are you going to find any? It's not going to knock on your door and say, "We want to deliver this to you today." It's a function of your mindset.

The Copernicus principle is about changing paradigms and revolutionizing your worldview. If your worldview has been organized around the acquisition of material wealth and external position, then you are going through an internal Copernican revolution.

We can go through every genius in the book; they are all relevant to dealing with any kind of problem or challenge. And the bigger the problem or challenge the more relevant they are.

VB: Queen Elizabeth I's genius included balancing feminine sensitivity with masculine assertiveness. You say, "the integration of masculine and feminine principles is more than just a key to individual creativity and fulfillment: it is a social and cultural imperative." In what particular ways would this be of benefit in today's world?

Michael Gelb: Oh gosh..we tend to suffer from this split between these two modalities. We tend to be overly left brain, overly analytical, and we suffer accordingly because we lose sight of the whole picture. We lose sight of the importance of intuition. A genius like Queen Elizabeth I was able to deal with very thorny and difficult problems, and she did it by a combination of tremendous analysis and information gathering. Plus she had patience, receptivity and intuition. Whether you are leading your own family, are part of an organization, or you're a leader in a community, your first step is to integrate those abilities Queen Elizabeth I exhibited in your own life. If enough of us do it we may then be able to have more integration of it into society.

VB: You say emotional intelligence is "life's most important skill" and describe it as "the combination of two distinct types of intelligence: intrapersonal intelligence, or getting along with oneself, and interpersonal intelligence, or getting along with others." Would you talk about why intrapersonal intelligence is so important?

Michael Gelb: It helps to be emotionally intelligent, which is what we learn from Shakespeare. He was the supreme master at teaching us the underlying inner game of emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence has two key aspects. The first is intrapersonal. In other words, to your own self be true – knowing yourself, know your own strengths and weaknesses.

And then interpersonal intelligence, which is knowing others. This gives us a simple guide to be successful because self-knowledge is critically important to a sense of fulfillment and wholeness – and to interpersonal intelligence. The only way you get results in just about anything you are trying to do is through collaboration or cooperation with others. So the better you are at understanding, working with, anticipating the needs of, and being sensitive to others, the more effective you will be in the world. Emotional intelligence is probably the single most important ingredient to attaining happiness and success.

VB: Gandhi is included in your book because of his genius for affecting political and social change by peaceful means, for the simplicity with which he lived his life, and for his dedication to service. Yet he said his personal goal in life was self-realization and these things were all means to that end. Do you think genius is a natural by-product of self-realization, no matter what one's route to self-realization?

Michael Gelb: Not necessarily. There are plenty of geniuses that did not achieve self-realization. It's certainly much nicer when you do.

VB: It's interesting that people like Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were put under incredible adversity and yet they reached self-realization. Why would that be?

Michael Gelb: Well, they are gifted with a certain degree of spiritual intelligence, which is another way of thinking about emotional intelligence. They have a profound sense of self-knowledge and a profound sense of understanding others.

One of my favorite contemporary examples is the Dali Llama. He projects a sense of inner peace and humility, but also of incredible strength, humor and gentleness. He is dealing with challenging issues, having been expelled from his homeland and trying to negotiate with the Chinese. He remains engaged even in the face of incredible adversity. He doesn't judge or condemn the people he has a great conflict with, and he never stops seeking creative solutions. What a great role model for emotional or spiritual intelligence.

VB: You portray your geniuses as real human beings who achieved monumental things, but also had very real weaknesses. What can we learn from this?

Michael Gelb: It should be encouraging. When someone makes a mistake one of the classic lines is "oh, I am only human". As if being only human is all about messing up. The truth is part of it is about messing up.

What is distinctive about these great figures is they don't let mistakes or failures stop them from pursuing their dream. They do their best to learn from their mistakes. And they integrate their learning quickly so they can move forward and realize their dreams.

VB: Each of the geniuses profiled in your book contributed a different aspect of profound knowledge or understanding to the world. What do you foresee or hope to see as the next contribution by a genius of the caliber of those in your book?

Michael Gelb: It would be great to have a financial genius show up right now and help us out of our current mess. That person would have to be a genius at problem solving and communication.

Much of what is going on in the world is a function of fear and panic. A lot of it is about shifts in perception that are driven by fear. Fear breeds more fear. Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped the U.S. out of the Great Depression with the famous line, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." And ultimately, the same is true now.

Even though there are some very real problems, not just with the economy but other aspects of the world as well, the only way we won't be able to solve them is if we let fear trump hope. When fear is so great people stop thinking about solutions and opportunities. They only focus on the pain and that is not constructive. I empathize with it. If you aren't feeling some fear you aren't paying attention. But the question is what do you do with that fear, how do you transform it, and how do you continue to move forward and seek solutions and opportunities?

VB: Who might that genius today be?

Michael Gelb: It's too early to tell whether President Obama is a candidate – a genius with a revolutionary mind.

VB: Are you hopeful?

Michael Gelb: I am hopeful. He is certainly a political genius. Like Bill Clinton was. I remember many years ago a friend of mine said he had just been at an event and met the Governor of Arkansas. He said, "You are not going to believe this but I guarantee this guy will be our next president." Clinton had an uncanny ability to win people over.

Obama has shown the same political ability, rising out of nowhere. But the ability to get elected and the ability to lead are not necessarily the same. I hope he rises to the occasion; he has all the fundamental ingredients. And I am encouraged by the fact that he is described as being patient, thoughtful, and a comprehensive listener. He is going to have to be on the ball to overcome the inertia, habitual thinking and conditioned reflexes, and fundamental greed and selfishness that dominate the political landscape in Washington, DC.

VB: Your approach in your books and in life is a holistic one. The body, mind and spirit must all be considered and included in one's pursuit of a fulfilled and meaningful life. When and how did you come to the realization that this is a necessary approach?

Michael Gelb: Very early on it occurred to me that you have to understand the human being as a whole system. You have to look at the body, emotions, mind, and spirit. Those are the dimensions you have to nurture in order to be whole and to experience fulfillment.

If you want to grow and fulfill your potential as a human being you need to have the means for maintaining the health of your body, and developing your balance, poise and coordination throughout your life.

You want to cultivate emotional intelligence and self-knowledge so you are aware and comfortable with your own feelings so you don't unconsciously act them out to the detriment of yourself and others.

You want to be sharpening your mind using both logic and imagination, and understand the underlying principles of how to learn and do creative problem solving.

And then, the spiritual is framing your life in the context of some higher purpose. It's being outside of your own self-aggrandizement. And providing some kind of service, and aligning to something greater than you.

VB: IdeaConnection has a website where people from various disciplines collaborate, using online tools to solve problems. Some of them are world problems, some of are problems that businesses or other organizations are experiencing. Is there one or two genius skills that you think would be particularly useful for such problem solvers to cultivate?

Michael Gelb: I would say journaling as I describe it in the book. All the great geniuses I studied kept notebooks in one manner or other. One of the differences between normal people and geniuses is that when a normal person wakes up at 4 am with a quirky idea, they roll over and say, "I am no genius." But when Einstein woke up at 4 am he wrote it down. That is one simple thing.

The other skill is mind mapping that was originated by my friend, Tony Buzan. It is a fantastic way to generate more ideas in less time, and use more of your whole brain.

VB: Mind mapping uses the whole brain?

Michael Gelb: That is only part of it. It lets you get more ideas in less time. You see connections between your ideas that you wouldn't otherwise.

VB: Any other ways to cultivate problem solving?

Michael Gelb: Incubation is another great one. It's recognizing that you are usually not going to solve a really challenging problem the first time you dedicate yourself to working on it. Ultimately the single most important thing is to learn to work really hard on a problem, think hard about it, and then let it go and be in a receptive mode. Pay attention to your intuition. Learn to listen to the voice of your own intuition. That's where journaling or keeping a notebook helps. Mind mapping helps stimulate the intuitive as well.

One way of thinking about this is we are all born with genius abilities. It's almost like there is a universal field of intelligence, and each one of us is an antenna for that universal field of intelligence. Unfortunately the antennae are little bit rusty, and not everything is connected to everything else. One way to think about genius is we need to clean up, line up, and polish the antennae that we are so we can start to receive the intuitive understanding at a more efficient and deeper level.

VB: There is a lot in your book and in others I have read about the importance of being a good listener. But what if the person speaking is being totally boring?

Michael Gelb: This is why I teach my students the principles of effective communication and great presentation, because one thing that can make a boring speech much more interesting is to know why it is boring.

VB: Help the person to not be boring or just to know the reasons?

Michael Gelb: You may not be able to help them – that depends on the context and whether it is appropriate or not. But it helps to understand if the reason this person is boring is because they are speaking in a monotone, not making eye contact, using rigid language, or their framework is fundamentally self-referential. And then consider what is underlying that reason? What is it the person is trying to communicate?

What is the real message? That is a powerful, magical question in any kind of relationship. What are we really trying to say? What is the underlying communication? What's the deeper meaning of this?

VB: So when you ask that question and get to understand the reason the person is being boring, it helps you to listen to the real meaning that they are trying to impart, albeit in a boring way?

Michael Gelb: If there is any real meaning. Sometimes it just helps to be compassionate. Sometimes people are merely droning on and on, let's face it. One has to be careful; however, that you aren't one of those people!

VB: Your books are well organized and beautifully written. Do you do all the planning, organizing and writing yourself?

Michael Gelb: Yes, I do. I do it with mind maps.

VB: With mind maps. Is that how you develop your ideas, themes, and the structure?

Michael Gelb: Yes, it is.

VB: How else does a mind map help you when writing a book?

Michael Gelb: I never get writer's block. If I start to feel stuck, I take a break. I listen to Mozart, practice my juggling, or go for a walk. Then I come back and rather than focusing too hard on where I just left off, I say, "Well, start anywhere" and "What do you have to say about this now?" I let my mind keep moving, permit the words to keep flowing, and I organize it later.

VB: The advice you received when you first wanted to learn to juggle was "don't drop the ball". That's quite a powerful message for a lot of things, isn't it?

Michael Gelb: It was a great turning point for me. I listened to my juggling teacher say, "Don't let them drop" and I remember thinking 'that is a sure way to set people up for failure'. Wouldn't it be better to reframe that instruction to help people laugh when they drop the ball? They would be more comfortable throwing the balls in the air, and ultimately juggling would be easier.

Here's my secret confession for the IdeaConnection. Most of the important things I've learned, I learned from my worst teachers. I learned what not to do. As a student a number of times I listened to really boring speakers, and I decided if I ever get to teach anything, I am going to make it interesting. I have tried to learn from observing many of my worst teachers, and use these lessons of what not to do to hopefully be a more effective teacher myself.

VB: What was your inspiration for Discover your Genius?

cover of How to Think Like Leonardo Da VinciMichael Gelb: After I wrote How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci a lot of people said, "Why Leonardo? What are you going to write next? Who are the other people you think are the greatest minds ever?"

I established the criteria, which I explain at the beginning of the book, and asked all of the smartest people I know, "Who do you think are the greatest geniuses who ever lived?" Whose influence is universal? Who contributed something that ultimately served humanity where we can attribute the break through to a given individual?" And I left out of the consideration Christ, Buddha, Mohammad and other great religious leaders because that would be another kind of book. I facilitated a lot of conversation with really smart people, who often debated and argued passionately, and I listened carefully.

In the meantime, I read through the history of science and philosophy looking for the breakthroughs that met my established criteria. Ultimately I chose the ten. It was a phenomenal education for me.

I was teaching a course based on Discover Your Genius to the faculty at the University of Virginia, and one of the professors came to me a said, "This is so cool because your book goes through all of human history looking for the greatest revolutionary breakthroughs." As academics, so often we are focusing on a very short period of time or history, and we get locked up in specific and minute considerations.

It's like a mental vacation to pose the question, 'Who are the greatest minds in all of human history, and what can we learn from them?' I ask those questions at everything from dinner parties to seminars that I am facilitating. It invariably gets everybody engaged, and people seem to like the opportunity to think about the whole span and scope of human intelligence.

VB: You go beyond those questions and ask, 'What can we learn and apply to ourselves?'

Michael Gelb: Exactly. That's why I have a lot of fun. It's not just academically studying these great figures. My aim is to guide people to use them as personal mentors.

VB: Is there another book in the works and, if so, what will it be about?

Michael Gelb: I have two books in the works. One is on brainwave synchronization technology, which I am very excited about. The other book I am working on is about wine and creativity. It will be out in the spring of 2010.

VB: We will watch for their release from the publisher.

Michael Gelb: If you want we could do another IdeaConnection conversation when the books are available.

VB: I'll look forward to talking to you next year.

"Any great achievement involves the ability to embrace the unknown." Would you talk about that?

Michael Gelb: By definition if we already knew how to do something it would be known! Discovering a new world meant going out into unknown, uncharted waters. If Columbus wasn't willing to face the unknown, uncharted territory, he wouldn't have discovered the new world.

Copernicus questioned the accepted understanding of the structure of our solar system. He was willing to suspend what everyone at the time assumed was the way it was. If he wasn't willing to let those assumptions go, obviously he couldn't have come up with a whole new model – a whole new paradigm. Finding something new often means letting go of something old. That involves a willingness to embrace the unknown and to go into uncharted waters.

Sometimes you chose to go into uncharted waters, and other times you are thrown into it. We are thrown into it now whether we like it or not. We are in uncharted waters in terms of the economy and the implications of the economic meltdown for society. That's why we had better keep looking for solutions.

VB: Why is Florence your favorite city?

Michael Gelb: It's an incredible treasure house of art and genius. Everywhere you go there is something incredibly beautiful. And it's all in a very concentrated space. Plus I love the food and wine.

VB: And it stimulates your creativity, and your thinking about creativity?

Michael Gelb: Yes, for sure. I find being in a beautiful place makes it easier to think creatively. That is partly why I live in Santa Fe. It is part of why I like Florence, Kyoto and so many other beautiful places and cities. Soon I expect to be in Vancouver, British Columbia, and I will let you know about that city.

VB: What was it like to perform with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan?

Michael Gelb: I had a lot of fun. A lot of my friends were big fans of Dylan and the Stones, and I figured it would make a good story, which indeed it has.

It's so funny. When I am introduced to an audience the thing that gets the biggest attention is the fact that I juggled with the Rolling Stones. They don't care about the best selling books or that I have Fortune 500 clients. The response is, "Oh, you juggled with the Rolling Stones?"

VB: I understand that Mick Jagger is well read, and on stage he has a lot of energy. Is he as high energy off stage?

Michael Gelb: He was when I met him. Mick was actually a very impressive character. He was very fit and lithe, and very kind.

His fitness was in contrast with the other Stones who didn't look very healthy, and didn't look particularly fit. Mick wasn't only fit. He had charisma, and he was very welcoming and friendly. He invited us to the cast party after the concert, which was very gracious.

He actually came over to me, and put his arm around me when the photographer came by. But by the time the photographer had snapped the picture other people in the cast were so excited about being around Mick Jagger they were in front of us when the photo was taken. The result was you couldn't even discern that I was in the photo.

VB: And you didn't drop the ball even though it was the Stones concert?

Michael Gelb: At one point my partner and I were juggling a rubber chicken, a big chicken fork, and a turnip. The stage was shaped like Mick Jagger's mouth, and we were literally juggling out on the tip of the tongue in front of a quarter of a million people at the Knebworth Rock Festival. We did actually drop our turnips, people in the audience threw them back to us, and we successfully completed the trick. That added to the fun. (Vern's note: Michael Gelb juggled during the 1976 Rolling Stones concert at the Knebworth Park Festival, a village located north of Hertfordshire, England.)

VB: In 1978 you were certified as a teacher of the FM Alexander technique. Do you still teach this technique, and what are its benefits?

Michael Gelb: I do still teach the Alexander technique.

It is a marvelous and unique discipline. With all the different types of body/mind workouts and therapy that have emerged, and the popularity of yoga, what's great about Alexander is he was a western character who he made his own independent discovery of a method for helping people develop greater balance, poise, ease of movement, and, in very practical terms, stage presence. The Alexander technique is taught at the Julliard School, and at the Royal Academy of Drama and Music.

It's one of the secrets of the inner game of life. If you want to move through life in a more balanced, poised way and have the right amount of energy in the right place and the right time, there is nothing like the Alexander technique to learn that.

That was my first book, Body Learning: an Introduction to the Alexander Technique. It was published twenty-eight years ago. (Vern's note: A second edition was published in 1994.)

VB: You are a corporate consultant, professional speaker, and seminar leader. Would you talk about these services?

Michael Gelb: I do a range of different things for my clients. I give keynote speeches. I provide quite a lot of one and two day seminars, especially about how to be more creative and innovative. I do team building retreats when people need to get aligned and organized around a particular project or goal. Another service is executive coaching, in which I work with clients mostly over the telephone to help them solve a lot of their most important problems. And my favorite is longer-term organizational development work to help organizations cultivate a culture that supports innovation.

VB: Changing the culture of an organization leaves a lasting legacy.

Michael Gelb: Exactly. Change the culture rather than only motivate people and teach them individually. Shift the fundamental environment in which people are operating so it's easier to be creative. That's why my greatest passion is helping organizations change things in a more long-term sustainable way. It usually starts when I am invited to do a keynote address, and someone asks, "Can you come and do a seminar for us?" After the seminar they often ask, "How do we go forward with this?" and then I design a longer-term program for them.

VB: Of all of the historical figures you have studied and featured in your writings, and even if you haven't featured them, who is your favorite?

Michael Gelb: Leonardo da Vinci still reigns supreme.

VB: Why does he still reign supreme?

Michael Gelb: No one else has ever combined the level of creativity and accomplishment in science, art and invention. There are great scientists that changed the world. There are today, and have been in the past, incredible artists. There are amazing inventors. But no other person has been able to be incredible in all three.

Leonardo da Vinci was also renowned for his kindness and grace as a human being, his sense of humor, his athleticism, and his musicality. He is more than just an individual figure; he is like an archetype that embodies and represents all of our human potential.

My real passion relates to all the people who are reading all the material on the IdeaConnection website and in the newsletters. All of the geniuses I have written about can help readers, if they are willing, fulfill more of their potential and be more self-realized and happy. I find Leonardo to be the most useful metaphor for them to consider, because he is comprehensive and so inspiring.

Even so, as you can tell, I am passionate about all the leaders in my books.

VB: Bureaucracy and many layers of management are the enemies of innovation. What does that tell us about the future of large corporate structures?

Michael Gelb: Every large corporation that I work with is trying to become more agile, be better at communicating, and break down hierarchies. It's not easy but it's necessary if they want to be competitive and survive into the future.

VB: Is the spirit of 'Yankee ingenuity' something we should all strive for?

Michael Gelb: That is just one way to think about innovation as embodied by Thomas Edison. That phrase represents the notion of what I have been talking about throughout this conversation. Be focused on solutions, maintain intelligent but prudent optimism, and commit yourself to finding a solution. And don't stop until you find a solution.

VB: The experience of oneness with all creation is an essential feature of genius. Would you talk about that?

Michael Gelb: This comes back to the notion of the antennae that we talked about earlier. You have to realize that you are just an antenna, and where the genius comes from is this field that's greater than your individuality. As a matter of fact, your egotism can easily get in the way of your receptivity.

So, the more you put yourself into the background and open yourself to something greater, the more you tune into that something greater and the more humbled you become. But you become humbled in a way that gives you confidence. I think the greatest confidence comes from genuine humility.

There are principles of nature, of the universe, that are greater than you. One of the great philosophers, Frank Zappa, said, "In the battle between you and the universe, I am betting on the universe." It is important to learn to harmonize with the universe.

VB: The interconnectivity that the Internet is providing is not just an accident? Is it also helping to integrate the universe?

Michael Gelb: It is an extension of this kind of global mind, the global brain. You are right; the Internet is a perfect contemporary metaphor for our interconnectiveness. It is has become a global nervous system.

VB: How do China, India, other parts of Asia, Brazil, Africa, and other emerging countries fit into the global genius?

Michael Gelb: It's great that we now have access to the genius behind those cultures. Those of us in North America and Europe, for example, can get access to the great wisdom of the Chinese sages, Hindu gurus, Brazilian shamans, and religious leaders in Africa, as well as to their music, food, and poetry. Similarly, the people in India, China, Brazil and these other countries can access to the wisdom of great figures in our world.

I hear from people all over the world. My books are in 25 languages. What's great is to have a sense that people all around the world are more interested in the development of their own abilities, the development of their children's abilities, and the possibilities that come with the birthright of genius.

VB: Do you have any other advice to our readers about how they can discover their genius?

Michael Gelb: I'll repeat by saying start with understanding that genius is there to be developed. The reason I write all these books is to provide as much practical stuff as I possibly can to help people develop their own abilities.

And I include bibliographies of all the other books that I recommend. So that is a great place to start. You will be kept busy for ten or twenty years if you just read everything in my books and the bibliographies, and apply it.

VB: Are there one or two books that you especially recommend other than yours?

cover of Innovate Like EdisonMichael Gelb: There are lots. The book that has influenced me the most is called Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. The other is Courage to Create by Rollo May. Those are the two most seminal and inspiring books that sent me on the path of what I do today.

VB: Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. His purpose, his meaning, was to survive so he could write about why some people in the concentration camp gave up the will to live and others didn't.

Michael Gelb: And his answer was to have an overriding purpose greater than even your own survival, which he effectively defined as love. He had this enlightened experience in an environment where, as he said, 'They can take away all my external freedoms but no one can take away my internal freedom to choose how I think'. From that he built a whole system of existential therapy. Frankl lived into his 90's. He was a great influence on a generation of people who was interested in what humans are capable of.

VB: You have been very generous of your time. Thank you so much. Anything else we should talk about?

Michael Gelb: I think we have covered plenty of things. It was a great pleasure.

"All of our geniuses possessed the ability to embrace the unknown. Indeed, the capacity to welcome uncertainty, be comfortable with ambiguity, and delight in paradox is one of the most distinguishing qualities of the finest minds."

Michael Gelb's ten important geniuses, all of whom made significant and lasting contributions to world knowledge, are Plato, Filippo Brunelleschi, Christopher Columbus, Nicolaus Copernicus, Queen Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Einstein. You don't have to just read about them. Gelb includes exercises that will help you think like each member of his "Genius Dream Team", with an ultimate exercise to enable you to look at the world from the perspective of your favorite of the ten geniuses.

The great minds of the past can inspire and guide us on how to use our brains to our fullest potential, and be creative and innovative.

Michael Gelb's bio:
Michael Gelb specializes in creative thinking, accelerated learning, and innovative leadership. He has been a professional speaker, seminar leader and organizational consultant for over 28 years.

Michael Gelb is a former professional juggler. He also performed with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. He introduced the idea of teaching juggling as a means to promote accelerated learning and team building. Gelb is a fourth degree black belt in the Japanese martial art of Aikido.

In 1999 Gelb shared the Brain Trust Charity's Brain of the Year award with former USA Senator John Glenn. In 2003 he was awarded a Batten Fellowship by the Darden Business School, University of Virginia.

Michael Gelb has written extensively about the application of genius thinking to personal and organizational development. He has written eleven books including Innovate Like Edison: The Success System of America's Greatest Inventor, Discover Your Genius: How to Think Like History's Ten Most Revolutionary Minds, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day, Da Vinci Decoded: Discovering the Spiritual Secrets of Leonardo's Seven Principals, Body Learning: An Introduction to the Alexander Technique, Samurai Chess: Mastering Strategic Thinking Through the Martial Art of the Mind, and Present Yourself! Captivate Your Audience with Great Presentation Skills. He has also produced a number of audio programs including "Mind Mapping: How to Liberate Your Natural Genius," and "Work Like Da Vinci: Gaining the Creative Advantage in Your Business and Career."

Hi Vern,
Great interview! The part of the interview where you drew Michael out about the power of determination and persistence reminds me of a quote I really like:
"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education alone will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent." – Calvin Coolidge
– R. Williams

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