William James maintained, “Genius, in truth, means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.” People like you and me do not achieve this through mental power, but through knowledge and practice. For example, people could have made gliders hundreds of years earlier than they did, except that inventors, such as Leonardo da Vinci, were obsessed with the ?apping wings of birds. Once people separated lift (the wing) from propulsion (the engine), they made rapid progress in airplane technology. In this sense, the airplane was what’s called a “postmature discovery.” Where did the breakthrough come from? Johann Bernoulli worked out the mathematics in 1738. If the development of the airplane was a function of Newton-like genius, humanity should have had airplanes soon after. It was not until 1799 that George Cayley successfully built a glider that could carry a person (some unsung ten-year old boy). It took another eighty-five years until someone came up with a usable wing. According to John Anderson’s Introduction to Flight, in 1884 Horatio Phillips made this contribution by experimenting with “every conceivable form and combination of forms” in a wind tunnel.

Surprisingly, even some big pure-science breakthroughs are the result of the kind of genius that you and I (can) have. Earth scientist Robert Hazen observed, “Watson and Crick’s brilliant deduction [of the structure of DNA] was arrived at more by inspired guesswork and tinkering with models than by any step-by-step logic.” The point is that Watson and Crick contributed by breaking the known rules of the day—not with genius of mind but with persistence of hand. They did so by tinkering and by knowing everything there was to know about the domain—and then learning one more thing. Bronowski grasped, “The hand is more important than the eye.” This kind of genius is within the reach of each of us. In their book The Social Life of Information, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid provided an example:

There’s a story told of a typesetter working on a Greek text at the Oxford University Press who announced he’d found a mistake in the text. As the typesetter couldn’t read Greek, his colleagues and then his superiors dismissed the claim. But the man insisted. So finally an editor came down to the compositing room. At first, she, too, dismissed the idea, but checking more closely, she found there was an error. Asked how he knew, the typesetter said he had been hand-picking letters for Greek texts for most of his professional life and was sure that he’d never made the physical move to pick the two letters in that order before.

In short, we can all tinker with our work until we get it right and therein is the fount of genius.

Constitutive Rules
Some say God said, ‘“Let there be light;” and there was light’ (Genesis 1:3). Mortals, too, have the power of making manifest the word. We do it with constitutive rules. Constitutive rules describe a way in which lower-level entities count as higher-level entities simply because you say they do. The philosopher John Searle contended:

[S]ome rules do not merely regulate, they also create the very possibility of certain activities. Thus the rules of chess do not regulate an antecedently existing activity. It is not the case that there were a lot of people pushing bits of wood around on boards, and in order to prevent them from bumping into each other all the time and creating traffic jams, we had to regulate the activity. Rather, the rules of chess create the very possibility of playing chess. The rules are constitutive of chess in the sense that playing chess is constituted in part by acting in accord with the rules.

Searle cited marriage as an example. Saying certain words under certain conditions counts as making a promise, which under certain conditions, counts as a contract, which under certain conditions counts as a marriage, which is an institutional fact. Moreover, explained Searle, “[I]nstitutions are not worn out by continued use, but each use of the institution is in a sense a renewal of that institution. Cars and shirts wear out as we use them but constant use renews and strengthens institutions such as marriage, property, and universities.” Searle went on:

At this point, I am just calling attention to a peculiar logical feature that distinguishes social concepts from such natural concepts as “mountain” or “molecule.” Something can be a mountain even if no one believes it is a mountain; something can be a molecule even if no one thinks anything at all about it. But for social facts, the attitude that we take toward the phenomenon is partly constitutive of the phenomenon. If, for example, we give a big cocktail party, and invite everyone in Paris, and if things get out of hand, and it turns out that the casualty rate is greater than the Battle of Austerlitz—all the same, it is not a war; it is just one amazing cocktail party. Part of being a cocktail party is being thought to be a cocktail party; part of being a war is being thought to be a war.

How does this relate to how people like you and me can make a lasting contribution? Searle gave us the answer: “One way to impose a function on an object is just to start using the object to perform that function.” Cooking dinner for somebody is an act of courtship if you say it is (and it isn’t if you say it isn’t). You impose a function (meaning) on an object (dinner) and begin to use your actions as the institution of courtship. In short, your actions can count as contributing, in part, because you say they do.

Anderson, J. 1978. Introduction to Flight. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Bronowski, J. 1974. The Ascent of Man. London: Little, Brown and Company.
Brown, J. and P. Duguid. 2002. The Social Life of Information. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Hazen, R. 2002. “The Joy of Science.” Produced by The Teach¬ing Company. Chantilly, VA.
James, W. 1978. The Writings of William James: A Compre¬hensive Edition, Edited by J. McDermott. Chicago: Univer¬sity of Chicago Press.
Searle, J. 1983. Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Searle, J. 1995. The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Free Press.

Excerpted from Lasting Contribution: How to Think, Plan, and Act to Accomplish Meaningful Work by Tad Waddington

Author's Bio: 

Tad Waddington is the author of a book that has won seven prestigious awards, Lasting Contribution: How to Think, Plan, and Act to Accomplish Meaningful Work.