Misfortunes occur only when a person is false to their genius. —Goethe

The essence of art is highly perishable, and it is the first thing to go when art becomes a skill to be performed rather than a journey to be taken. This fragile essence is personal creativity, the expression of inspiration. To understand what creativity is, we must revive the forgotten meanings of genius.

The Latin base word gen means to produce or beget, and is connected with both genesis (creation, origin, generation, birth) and genus. By Roman times, the word genius referred to the spirit a person is born with, what today we might call an inner voice or inspiration.

Genius speaks quietly of that which I can be and do in this life. It has a distinctive character that seeks expression in our lives.

Before Michelangelo’s time, artists didn’t sign their work because they considered themselves channels for their genius, servants of a muse. However, by the beginning of the Romantic period, genius had become identified with those individuals who publicly brought the gifts of their genius down to earth. Beethoven was now considered to be a genius rather than one who had expressed his genius.

Once genius became identified with certain individuals, a thick line was drawn between them and the rest of us. Geniuses create masterworks, and we re-create them. Yet according to the ancient conception, Beethoven was not a genius, and neither are you, and neither am I. Rather, we all have the capacity to create according to that unique essence which is our birthright. It is no accident that the word genial lives in the same family of words as genius and genesis, suggesting, by implication, that we are “good natured” when we live in accordance with our genius.

Beethoven earned the title of genius because he absolutely insisted on making the music that only Ludwig van Beethoven could make, despite the shrill protests of his critics and their demands that he reform himself and do things correctly for a change. Beethoven found fulfillment in his art, not because of his competence and accomplishments, but because he created music according to the dictates of his own inner nature. Though we may find fulfillment in recreating the works of others, our greatest fulfillment can come only when we do what the masters did: express our particular genius.

Beethoven often said that he was honoring his Creator by being true to the genius that had graciously been bestowed upon him. Art practiced in this spirit becomes a spiritual adventure, an activity that connects us with the force that is creating us.

In the present day, we are taught to think of ourselves as expressions of genes, not expressers of genius. The word gene was coined in the first part of the 20th century from that same root word gen, but genius and genes are radically different. Genius is not subject to the stream of heredity; it is a timeless inspiration for creation unconditioned by the past. Genius should also not be confused with talent—I will attempt to dispel that common confusion later. Genius could be considered a “higher self,” an inspiring presence that can perhaps only be expressed and experienced in the moment of creation.

This is not to say that genius is a bolt of lightning or a flashing neon sign. It is rarely immediately apparent, but usually obscure and quirky, preferring to reveal itself in subtle gestures. Genius doesn’t appear as a sparkling crown, but rather as tiny flecks of gold in a moving stream that can be glimpsed only by an alert and patient eye. Our artistic practice is the daily gathering of flecks of gold. Though we won’t find a crown in a mountain stream, if we gather enough gold dust over time, we may eventually have enough material to make that crown.

So little of our lives are devoted to exploring and expressing genius. Working, sleeping, eating, shopping, showering, exercising, and another day is already gone. We perform our expected routines day and night, but how often do we willingly open ourselves to inspiration? Perhaps in moments of meditation or prayer, but at what other times? Our artistic practice can be a time we set aside to receive inspirations and explore what sets us apart from all other people. As it turns out, what sets us apart from others is also our gift to them.

In restoring the original meanings of genius and exposing our modern misconceptions about it, we have a taste of art’s true purposes. The practice of art is not merely for the public and skillful re-creation of the genius of others, but for the discovery and expression of our own hidden and quite personal genius. Art is not for attaining fame and social standing, but for revealing what lies beyond our social selves. We do not become fulfilled or deliriously joyous when we become a “pianist” or a “painter,” but only in those fleeting moments when we receive guidance from our genius and are inspired to bring forth something never created before.