Does genius hate comfort?

Education | Brighten Youth Education Centre 5 Dec 2017

If you're going to be a genius, do you need to renounce comfort? Not necessarily material comfort.

Yasnaya Polyana, the family estate of Russian writer and aristocrat Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), is so large its grounds comprise a school founded for peasant children, formal French and English gardens, an ensemble of work buildings and a 32-room house that once contained Tolstoy's 22,000-volume library.

Perhaps physical comfort then? Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini (1920-1993) claimed to sleep only three hours a night and was always awake by 6am.

Swedish director Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) argued that filmmaking was eight hours of hard work for three minutes of footage. Within that time, he felt that an individual might experience 10 minutes of genuine creativity at most. Bergman adopted this approach after less than five hours of sleep per night and on a stomach full of very austere meals.

American novelist Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938), having primed himself with awesome quantities of tea and coffee, worked from midnight until dawn.

At 1.98 meters tall, he rarely found a chair or desk that was comfortable, and so wrote using the top of the refrigerator as a desk, scattering pages over the floor for his typist to find in the morning. Wolfe would pause only for cigarettes and a brief stroll around his apartment before having a short mid-morning sleep and beginning another stretch of work.

American writer Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) adopted a slovenly approach aimed to ensure that writing remained as enjoyable as possible, and felt nothing like actual work.

Sitting in bed surrounded by ashtrays, coffee, doughnuts and other detritus, she would ease herself into her work. She was also a chain smoker and hard drinker who kept a bottle of vodka beside the bed in later years.

She ate only American bacon, fried eggs and cereal, and she formed stronger bonds with animals than people (she once took a handbag filled with lettuce and 100 snails to a London cocktail party as her companions for the evening).

For her, writing was a compulsion, and, as she noted in her journal, she felt that: "There is no real life, except in working." From this chaos she produced 22 novels, including the incredibly successful Ripley series.

So is that what it takes? Sleepless nights of work, a strange diet and a portmanteau full of gastropods?

No necessarily, but we are trying to make the point that success requires devotion and hard work.

For some, sacrifices may come in the form of personal relationships, for others the denial of comfort is necessary.

Very few of history's prodigies were well-rested, clear-skinned, properly nourish, financially secure and at the center of a large, loving and functional family.

If you're not keen on excellence, history suggests you go and cook a balanced meal, and then take a nap.

If you have any questions about our column, or the issues raised within it, please e-mail them to us: or contact Brighten Youth Education Centre

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