Growing up in Bulgaria with an engineer father and a library scientist mother, there was no dearth of passion for learning around Maria. In search of greener pastures, she moved to the United States where she held down first a copywriting role, then strategist roles at several advertising agencies. But even as she did all this, there was another gravitational force pulling at her: a genuine sense of curiosity about the human condition. In 2006, she made the leap from regular strategist to “a young mind only just becoming literate in the language of life”.
15 years later, that leap is now The Marginalian, an evolving record of the whims and glories of life and living, with as many devoted monthly readers as the population of Singapore. Maria Popova combines her passion for literature, philosophy and psychology with empathetic commentary and a lifelong dedication to exploring the human condition. She operates from this seemingly elusive intersection of strengths, skills and talents that, if it had a signboard, would be called the Zone of Genius.
What is the zone of genius?
The Zone of Genius evokes images of exclusivity and intrigue, a sort of Bullingdon Club that only the top 1% in any industry can get into. But, in reality, everyone has their own Zone of Genius. It's not just for a select few who possess some kind of special talent or skill.
According to Gay Hendricks, author of The Big Leap, Your Zone of Genius is when you're doing what you're truly passionate about, and you're really good at it. It's where your natural talents and skills intersect, allowing you to reach your full potential and make a real impact.
But to truly understand the Zone of Genius, we first have to meet its counterparts: the Zones of Incompetence, Competence and Excellence.
In the Zone of Incompetence, we spend time doing things we’re not good at, drain us of energy and don’t bring us any joy or satisfaction. But if we’re really keen about picking up this new skill, we’ll find ourselves in the Zone of Competence. We spend time doing things we are good at but don't bring us joy or fulfillment. They may be necessary for work or personal life, but we’re not tapping into our natural talent or passion for it.
But here’s where we really spend a huge chunk of our lives: the Zone of Excellence. It's where we do things we're really good at, get recognised for, and feel accomplished about.
It seems like the Zone of Excellence is the perfect place to be in: it’s familiar, comfortable, and rewarding. It’s also probably where your family, colleagues and bosses want you to stay, because you can reliably keep up a supply of what they thrive on. You might find yourself thinking, “Why fix something that isn’t broken?”
Because comfort zones morph into golden handcuffs.
When we stay in our Zone of Excellence for too long, we start to experience a sense of stagnation. We find we’ve become so good at what we do that there are no new mountains to climb, and no real opportunities for growth. Even though in the eyes of others, we’re achieving high levels of success, we personally feel a deep dissonance. We grow comfortably numb. As Dostoevsky wrote,
“If one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment, all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.”
For a human being, one of the best ways to feel liberated from cookie-cutter roles is to find good work and do good work. The longer we stay in our Zone of Excellence, catering to external gravitational pulls, the more we insulate ourselves from our innate gifts. To be on the path to discovering work that fulfills us, we need to be faithful to the template of our own nature.
And that means finding our respective Zones of Genius.
The Zone of Genius
The Latin originality of the word “genius” refers to the tutelary spirit that was believed to be assigned to every person at birth. That means everyone has genius — that wonderful secret sauce of skill, strength and talent that turns plenty of ordinary people extraordinary.
Skill x Strength x Talent = Zone of Genius
Let's consider Hayao Miyazaki, a Japanese filmmaker and animator whose work for Studio Ghibli has quite literally changed lives. Miyazaki is a master storyteller, crafting narratives into visually stunning films that resonate with audiences worldwide. From Spirited Away to Princess Mononoke, all his films are a study in meticulous attention to detail, both in the animation process and narrative construction. He has a gift for expressing complex themes and emotions in a way that connects emotionally with audiences, irrespective of their age and culture.
The building blocks of his Zone of Genius, then, are:
Storytelling (skill) x attention to detail (strength) x emotional connection and visual expression (talent)
Another example is Tim Ferriss, a well-known American entrepreneur and author who changed how many of us think about workweeks. He’s superbly capable of dissecting and understanding high performance, skilled at writing and communicating, and has an innate talent for building relationships with some of the most high-performing people in the world. Small wonder, then, that operating from this Zone of Genius has earned his podcast millions of followers.
This Zone of Genius isn’t elusive. Take a minute to scroll through the list of people you know. Choose anyone you’d describe as “exemplary", “a force of nature”, or “thriving”, and apply this formula to them. Ten to one, you’ll find that quite a few of them are at this perfect intersection of skills, strengths and talents already.
How to find your Zone of Genius?
Finding your Zone of Genius is an act of bravery. We need courage to both identify what our skills, strengths and talents are, and to reimagine ourselves within that triangle of possibility.
It begins, as it almost always does, when you:
Ask the right questions
In The Big Leap, Gay Hendrick suggests you ask yourself four questions to identify your Zone of Genius:
- What do I most love to do — something I can do for long stretches of time without getting tired or bored?
- What work do I do that doesn’t seem like work?
- What produces the highest ratio of satisfaction and abundance to the amount of time spent?
- What is an ability that is distinctly unique to me?
New York Times bestselling author Debbie Ford also introduces us to some more questions that we might repurpose for this exploration:
- Is this work an act of faith or an act of fear?
- Am I standing in my power or trying to please another?
- Will this choice of work bring me long-term fulfillment or short-term gratification?
- What problems or issues do I feel most compelled to solve or address?
Look for patterns in your responses
Make a list of your top five learned skills, things that you are innately talented at, and purposes or causes that you care deeply about.
Are there any strengths, passions, or purposes that overlap or complement each other? Brainstorm ways in which you can combine your strengths, passions, and purpose to create something unique and fulfilling.
Figure out how to start right now
Identify one or two action steps that you can take in the next week to move towards your Zone of Genius. Set a clear and specific goal, and break that down into smaller, actionable steps. Give yourself weekly deadlines to hold yourself accountable, and make sure you reward yourself for each step you take.
The final word
Finding your Zone of Genius is a pilgrimage, which means there will be many mountains to climb and U-turns to take. But patience pays off, and so does a steady trust that by taking small steps each day, you will eventually assume agency and captaincy over the life you want to live.
One of the greatest accomplishments in life is to firmly believe that the work we do is both personally fulfilling and beneficial for the world around us. And that conviction is a true triumph of human existence!