A One-Trick Genius Isn’t a One-Trick Pony

By Marshall Goldsmith

Do not confuse “one-trick genius” (OTG) with the pejorative “one-trick pony.” 

The term “one-trick pony” is judgmental and denigrating, referring to people who abuse a limited skill set—whether it’s the same predictable response to every situation or one slick move on the basketball court—because they have no choice. It’s all they’ve got. 

An OTG, by contrast, is a deeply considered choice. It represents what we aspire to rather than what we settle for. We rummage around our toolkit, discarding the skills that lack the potential for excellence, and zero in on a talent we wouldn’t mind perfecting over a lifetime. 

The specific talent—your one trick—doesn’t matter as much as the sincere attempt to perfect it does. In that sense, anyone can be a one-trick genius. You don’t have to be supernaturally gifted like a math, music, or tennis prodigy to earn the OTG title. The best sushi chef in town is a one-trick genius (the chef’s “one trick” is working with the lone ingredient of raw fish; the “genius” is demonstrating that raw fish doesn’t limit the chef at all). So are the busiest bankruptcy lawyer, the always-booked haircutter, and the high school choirmaster whose singers perennially win the state championship. Odds are high that, given the internal and external validation that goes along with being the best in town, each has found fulfillment in his or her OTG. 

Along these lines, your uniqueness can be your genius. 

Betsy Wills, founder of YouScience, an aptitude testing firm in Nashville, suggests that, as possible sources of our “genius,” we examine not only the inclinations and habits that delight us, but the ones that frustrate us as well. 

She observed this in the career choice of her husband, Ridley Wills. In his teens, Ridley developed an eye for aesthetic order and refinement. His maternal grandfather was an architect and his father was an historic preservation scholar, so Ridley was well versed in the building trades. He could discern the difference between thirty shades of blue. He could tell when a carpenter’s handiwork was not level. If something was off in the design or construction of a building, not only could he see it immediately, but he’d want to fix it. The same with an untidy room — he’d have to clean it up. This was his gift and his curse:—a maddening, exhausting way to live. 

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Things didn’t get better during Ridley’s first two years of college, until he realized he was meant to be an architect. He transferred from Stanford to the University of Virginia for its strong architecture faculty and beautiful neoclassical campus. After college, he set up his own shop back home in Nashville, where he quickly established himself as the city’s top residential design-and-build firm. 

In his mid-thirties, he participated in a research project matching psychological profiles and careers. After two days of testing, the researchers concluded that Ridley had a very powerful sense of “pitch discrimination.” It was similar to a musician with perfect pitch for musical notes or a wine sommelier with a perfect nose. In Ridley’s case, he applied his pitch discrimination to design, constantly perceiving tiny distinctions in the quality and beauty of a home. The researchers, unaware of Ridley’s profession, told him he was best suited for work that required precision, attention to detail, and highly refined aesthetic discernment. They suggested he become either a fine art photographer or a high-end home renovation specialist. 

“Most of us are satisfied with delivering work that’s ninety percent perfect,” Betsy told me. “My husband aims for ninety-nine percent. Somehow he chose the one field where he could release that ninety-nine percent compulsion and be happy rather than miserable.” 

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard that a potential talent source evolved into an individual’s OTG. Years earlier, I had met a man at a dinner party who could tell me what was being prepared for dinner in the kitchen two rooms away. He claimed to have such a keen sense of smell that he could detect mental illness (evidently caused by a metabolic flaw, particularly in schizophrenics). When a mentally ill person boarded a bus in his hometown of Amsterdam, he’d immediately get off the bus to escape the noxious odor. 

“That would be a very valuable talent for a mental health professional,” I said. “Is that what you do back in Amsterdam?” 

“No, that would be hell for me, “he said. “I’m a parfumier. I custom-blend perfumes for wealthy people who want their own signature scent.” 

“There’s a living in that?” I asked.

“People will always want to smell good. I make them happy.” 

A special talent can elevate or torment you. 

You can let it be your ally or your nemesis. 

It’s your choice.

Marshall Goldsmith Meme
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