When rejected thoughts coming back

I was struck by this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, even though I’m not sure I understand what he meant.

In every work of genius, we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.

Maybe Emerson was referring to that why-didn’t-I-think-of-that feeling when you see that someone else connected one or two more dots than you did. You thought about a challenge, and maybe you were close to resolving it, but you lacked a key insight to pull it all together. You decided your approach wouldn’t work, but someone did make it work.

If that’s what Emerson had in mind, it’s puzzling that he speaks of “every work of genius.” It would be incredibly arrogant to think that you almost came up with every great idea you see. Maybe he means that we recognize genius best when it relates to something we’ve struggled with.

What do you think Emerson meant? When have your rejected ideas come back to you?

14 thoughts on “When rejected thoughts coming back

  1. They have. I was trying to solve a riddle, and after 10 minutes, while I had found the solution and I was testing it, I stopped right in the middle of it. I’d decided it wasn’t the right answer, and although a friend who knew the answer told me to continue , I stopped.
    Your interpretation seems quite accurate. Maybe he also wanted to mention the similarity between the way we solve our own little problems, and the same principles and ways, maybe a little tweaked, that works of genius use.

  2. Nothing is objectively genius. We may have a consensus of subjective genius.

    Try inverting the logic.

    When you deem a work as “genius” it’s probably because the insight appealed to you. If it appealed to you on a deep level, it’s probably because you considered the issue before. As you mention, you didn’t quite reach the conclusion for one reason or the other, so whatever you’re reading seems brilliant.

    Now, there are certainly cases in which I appreciated the insights in a work that I had never considered before (that’s what learning is, right?), so this isn’t a perfect interpretation, but might shed a little more light.

  3. Maybe the “we” and “every” are just in aggregate. That is, for every work of genius there exists at least somebody in the collective “we” that will recognize some of their own rejected or unexecuted ideas in it.

    That would make it less arrogant in that any given individual may only experience that recognition for a handful of the various works of genius they see.

  4. The quote is interesting, but I think you need to supply more context. The preceding sentences are “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within…. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his.”

    He is speaking of the fact that the genius does not diminish his creativity in order to conform to popular wisdom or in fear of how he might be perceived. The genius has boldness and confidence enough to take that “flash” and do something with it. When we see the work of the genius, we remember those times in which we suppressed our own creative sparks, that, if pursued, might have led us towards our own version of greatness. Yes, it would be arrogant to assume that you or I can achieve the same greatness as Einstein, Monet, and Mozart, but we can become all that our talents and abilities allow, if only we do not suppress them.

  5. I think that’s pretty close. I think the key is “alienated majesty”. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I also feel that he is conveying a sense of castigation for rejecting the thought, and vindication for the rejected thought.

    I would be interested to know the context. I suspect “every work of genius” refers to a specific kind of work, such as literary or philosphical. I would not be surprised if this were from an essay on the creative process or appreciation.

    Great works of literature and philosophy contain and use a multitude of ideas, and it is not far-fetched to imagine that Emerson discovered ones he previously rejected.

    My impression is that he spent an awful lot of his time thinking, lecturing, and writing, and his writing is still highly esteemed today, so if his statement was arrogant it may have been with just cause. I see it more as a statement of humility, that he recognized that he failed to see the value or potential of his rejected thoughts.

    My own rejected ideas come back to me in this way more in the context of design, but also to a degree in philosophy.

  6. John: Thanks for the link! I think the first paragraph explains the quote pretty well, unless I am missing the point completely.

    His writing reminds me of many assigned readings printed in tiny typeface. Probably it is the style.

    In any case, it sure got me thinking. Thanks!

  7. It means that there is no genius but somebody by chance or support or fraud advertises that those two connected (probably) dots are of importance right now! Because he/she needs to get some fame.

  8. Counter examples: Steve Jobs (or Apple) created products no one knew they needed, but now everyone must have.

    Of Richard Feynman: “We all know people who are just like we are but smarter — Feynman is not like we are.” — I forget who said it, one of the other physicists taking the Nobel prize.

  9. Interesting that you brought Feynman into the discussion. He has several stories in “Surely you’re Joking” in which he assumed other people were far ahead of him because they finished something he’d started. For example, I think one story was about electroplating plastic. It turns out he wasn’t far from success, though he didn’t realize it.

  10. I think the “every” might be a bit of rhetorical hyperbole,
    for “works of genius,” I’m mainly thinking in terms great businesses/products,
    what I recognize in that statement isn’t the why-didn’t-I-think-of-that feeling, but the subtle realization that a “work of genius” arose from some common frustration that you experienced, but never gave much thought to.

    Paul Graham has said something similar about how startup ideas are all around you, but you reject them because they don’t seem substantial enough build a company around.

  11. I ran across another quote, by Henry Miller that reminded me of this post:

    Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. there is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there.

  12. I agree with Patrick there, its surprising how we ignore silent thoughts only to see someone build an empire around the very fact we flippantly dismissed, perhaps just because the thought originated in us.
    and somehow we tacitly agreed we’re incapable of anything new/ revolutionary.
    Ive seen two businesses spring up from novel ideas I ve been thinking about years

  13. What I have understood by Emerson statement is that if we don’t pay attention to our passion in the early years of life and we forgo our nudge to create, then that thought goes into our subconscious only to become more powerful than before and then when we make a masterpiece out of urgency with a confused state of mind. Then we recognize our own rejected thoughts. These thoughts now have an authority over us and everyone else who see the work of genius.

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