Gumptionade Blog

Genius is not Gumption

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Gumption is courage + common sense + resourcefulness. Geniuses often lack gumption, particularly the common sense component (Tiger Woods, Vincent van Gogh, Marie Curie, and Bobby Fischer, for example).

Genius is an endowment. A few people are born with it. Some fraction of those people find themselves in a family or field where their genius is recognizable and applicable.

The rest of us can be inspired by the likes of Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, George Washington, Mozart, Albert Einstein, Michael Jordan, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Paul McCartney, Sam Walton, Oprah Winfrey, and others. But we ought not to hold ourselves up to them, lest we become discouraged. As the Earl of Lytton once wrote: “Genius does what it must and talent does what it can.”[i]

Their colossal accomplishments are not a testimony to gumption but instead to a unique combination of inherited genes, a superhuman appetite for hard work—and phenomenal luck. You cannot successfully imitate this combination.

Mark Twain tells us to forget the idea that “Franklin acquired his great genius by working for nothing, studying by moonlight, and getting up in the night instead of waiting ’til morning … these execrable eccentricities of instinct and conduct are only the evidences of genius, not the creators of it.”[ii]

Genius, by the way, is not usually transferable outside of its niche.

Michael Jordan retired from basketball and joined minor league baseball’s Birmingham Barons. He achieved an on-base percentage of only .289 in his one season. He returned to basketball and won another three NBA championships.

Linus Pauling won the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for research on chemical bonds published when he was thirty. For his heroic and unstinting work as a peace activist—during which time he told Senator Joe McCarthy to go to hell—he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962. In the 1970s Pauling produced widely followed medical advice— including a national bestseller, Vitamin C and the Common Cold—on the power of vitamin C to cure colds, the flu, and even cancer.

Pauling was mistaken. His ideas about vitamin C were—with some hesitation, given Pauling’s accomplishments—resisted by scientists at the time and have never been proven valid. This made him, in the words of physician Paul Offit, “a man who was so spectacularly right that he won two Nobel Prizes and so spectacularly wrong that he was arguably the world’s greatest quack.”[iii]  But still a genius.

Sir Isaac Newton lost ?20,000 ($4 million in today’s money) in 1720 speculating on stock in the South Sea Company Newton said: “I can calculate the movement of stars, but not the madness of men.” Least of all could he calculate his own lack of common sense.


Genius is not gumption.



[i]Genius does what it must and talent does what it can”: Robert Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton, English dramatist, novelist, and politician (1803–73),_1st_Earl_of_Lytton. Retrieved August 13, 2014.

[ii] “…these execrable eccentricities of instinct and conduct are only the evidences of genius, not the creators of it”: Mark Twain, The Late Ben Franklin, 1870, quoted in Blooms Classic Critical Views: Ben Franklin, Edited by Harold Bloom (New York: InfoBase Publishing, 2008), 56.

[iii] Pauling was…“arguably the world’s greatest quack”: Paul Offit, “The Vitamin Myth: Why We Think We Need Supplements,” The Atlantic, July 19, 2013;

Sheriff Andy Taylor Had Gumption

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As used in American English, gumption is an old-timey, folksy word that conjures up a picture of a plainspoken person with a lot of common sense, spunk, and spirit. People with gumption—often seemingly unsophisticated characters who happen to be wiser and more clearheaded than the rest of us—are staples of folklore the world over.

This classic role was played to great effect by the American humorist Will Rogers (“Why don’t they pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything? If it works as good as Prohibition did, in five years we will have the smartest people on earth.”).

A more recent example of gumption that resonated strongly in American popular culture was Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, the central character of the 1960s sitcom The Andy Griffith Show. Andy’s unassuming, folksy persona gave cover to a courageous and resourceful master of human nature who quietly and effectively functioned as the guardian of his eccentric community. Some of Sheriff Taylor’s best work was guarding the self-esteem of the anti-Andy, his incompetent, timid, and superbly grandiose deputy, Barney Fife.

I think Sheriff Taylor would agree with Robert Pirsig’s definition of gumption in his 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:  “psychic gasoline,” fuel for getting work done. “If you are going to repair a motorcycle,” he wrote, “an adequate supply of gumption is the first and most important tool.”[i] But the motorcycle he is writing about is, as he says, “primarily a mental phenomenon.” And, as he also makes clear from the very beginning, “the real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called ‘yourself.’”[ii]


Notes:[i] “If you are going to repair a motorcycle…” Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1974), 303. [ii] “the real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called ‘yourself.”: Ibid. 325