Elizabeth Gilbert: Genius and how we ruin it

I’m standing in for Ethan Zuckerman, blogging from TED today. This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

The author of “Eat, Pray, Love“, Elizabeth Gilbert has thought long and hard about some large topics. Her next fascination: genius, and how we ruin it.


Elizabeth weaves an insightful story of artists, success and pressure. She asks if she’s doomed. What if she never replicates the success of her past book? Is it rational or logical to be afraid of the work that we were put on this earth to do? Why have artists and writers had this history of manic depressive and mental illnesses? Why does artistry always lead to mental anguish?

“I think it might be better if we encouraged our great creative minds to live.”

“It’s exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me. That’s the kind of thought that can lead a person to start drinking gin at 9:00 in the morning.”

She states that she now needs to create some safe psychological construct. She’s looking at other societies and understanding how they have dealt with this same issue. That led her to ancient Greece and Rome. In their world, the brilliance and genius around ancient artists were attributed to daemons and spirits. It protected them from narcissism in success and suicidal failure.

The big change happened when we decided that the person, who is this artist, is the center of the universe. It’s too much pressure to ask one person to think of themselves as this single vessel of all artistic understanding of the world.

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