Like every eight-year-old girl in 1984, I wanted a Barbie Dream House for Christmas. Three floors of Pepto-Bismol pink plastic, a roof that cranked open, stainless steel appliances and granite slab counters. Maybe a dedicated bedroom for Barbie’s Afghan Hound.
Even at that age, I understood spending hundreds of dollars on a silly dollhouse was not an option for my blue-collar family Christmas. Still, while dutifully adding more practical gifts to my wish list, I ached quietly for a Dream House of my own.
On Christmas morning, there was an enormous mound in front of the tree. My parents pointed me toward it and I kneeled before the oddly-shaped present which was as tall as me and as wide as our fake Northern pine.
I tore away the wrapping paper cautiously to reveal a Barbie Dream House like the world had never seen.
It was built not out of pink plastic, but honeyed oak. The roof was patterned with tiny hand-cut shingles. Each room was lined with real wallpaper and wall-to-wall carpeting. Little comforters, miniature shutters on the windows. My head spun as I examined the details.
And then I realized that each room of this Barbie Dream House was modeled after one in my own house. The mint green carpet of my bedroom, the family room’s earth-toned wallpaper, our sunshine-yellow linoleum kitchen floor. The same exterior palette as the big colonial I lived in. Not only was there a bedroom for Barbie’s Afghan Hound, but it looked just like mine.
It was an undeniable work of art.
My dad built this Dream House. From scratch. He looked at a picture in the Sears catalog, pulled out some scrap paper, and drew a blueprint. Like much of the house I grew up in, he built the walls, wired the electricity, raised the roof. Painted, wallpapered and carpeted each room himself. Laid the mosaic tiles in the bathroom floor, sanded and stained the crown moulding.
My dad’s not an architect. In fact, the way he tells it, he just barely graduated from high school. He can’t spell and his handwriting is atrocious. He spent the majority of his employed years installing sheet metal duct work in commercial buildings. He’ll remind you regularly that he’s “not real bright.”
But he can build a dream house from a thumbnail photograph using scraps of wood unearthed in the basement.
If that’s not genius, I don’t know what is.
Fish Can’t Climb Trees, Silly!
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
I think we’ve all got a streak of genius. A gift we’ve been given that is uniquely ours.
But early on, we encounter a problem. Somebody else decides our gift is not worth opening. Or they compare the gift we’ve got with the one they wish we had.
So we learn to devalue our gift. We hide it. Or we call it a “hobby.” And we move forward with a different skill set – something more practical, something more acceptable.
How many times have you doubted your own genius? Or discounted it as less worthy than the genius of your friends or coworkers? Compared what you’re naturally good at with what somebody else told you to be good at?
I have no sense of direction. I’ve lived in Seattle for nearly six years, and I still get lost on my way home from the grocery store. Despite my best efforts, terms like “northeast” and “west” remain largely meaningless.
But animals come to me when I call them, and I’ve written a novel in twenty-seven days.
There’s a reason they invented GPS.
What’s your bailiwick?
You need to know your brand of genius. If the word “genius” makes you uncomfortable (it certainly wouldn’t work for my dad), try “knack.” The more spiritually-oriented among us might choose “blessing.” If you’re legally-minded, use “bailiwick.” I prefer “gift.”
When you know what your gift is, you can work it. You can build it and embrace it and nurture it. It feels pretty awesome to do a bang-up job at something. To be the person folks go to when they need your exact brand of expertise.
If you have a grammar question or a kitten up a tree, I’m your girl.
Your gift translates into all areas of your life. Knowledge and skill increase your self-confidence. So when you’re talking to that braniac programmer at work, you can say, “Sure he’s smart. But can he whip up a flawless Quiche Lorraine?”
And we begin to realize that everyone has a gift. So we can stop judging ourselves and others using the same scale of smart. We can stop being a dumb fish who can’t climb a tree.
Journaling for Genius
Try the following exercises in your journal to get in touch with your brand of genius.
Working with Compliments
Learn to accept compliments. Instead of playing down a compliment, look the person in the eye, smile, and say, “Thank you.” Then document it in your journal.
Each time someone pays you a compliment, write it down. Create a special section just for compliments. In fact, make it a lifelong habit, if you can. You may discover new areas of talent you’d never considered before.
Also keep an eye out for those indirect compliments that can slip under the radar. One guy I work with never doles out positive feedback, so hearing him say, “This report’s not half bad,” is cause for documentation.
Put one of those compliments at the top of a blank page and write about it for ten minutes.
How did it make you feel when the UPS guy said, “Your window boxes are so beautifully planted. I admire them every time I bring a package to this building. You’ve really got a green thumb!”
Did you feel proud? Embarrassed? Do you feel there’s truth to that statement? Have you received that compliment before? What does it say about you?
What were you good at when you were a kid? In your journal, make a list of some of the things you enjoyed when you were young. See if you can recall awards or prizes you won in school, acknowledging a job well done.
Don’t write off these seemingly insignificant talents. And don’t jump straight to judging whether or not they’re useful skills as an adult. I know you have bills to pay. Don’t start worrying that you’ll discover finger painting is your true calling. Just write it down.
We’re not quitting our day jobs this week to take up full-time basket weaving. But is there any harm in spending a rainy Sunday afternoon weaving baskets if it fills you with pride, soothes your soul, and makes you happy?
For a few minutes, just write. Set aside any preconceived notions you have about what you’re good at. Don’t wonder whether that talent is of any use.
It’s not about utility. It’s about finding your genius.