In 1865, a substitute teacher and Augustinian friar with a passion for botany presented research on crossbreeding pea plants to a room of about 40 people. The audience left largely unimpressed and the presentation made few waves. The friar returned to his abbey defeated and certain that his dreams of a career in science had been dashed once and for all.
The presenter had already failed the certification exam to become a high school science teacher twice. He was convinced his results were important, monumental even, but experts simply didn’t agree. Eventually he managed to publish a condensed paper on his work in a local science journal, but it was cited only four times in the next 35 years. Copies were sent to the Royal Society in England and the Smithsonian in Washington, but the letters went unanswered. A respected botanist, the author’s colleague, told him that the results “cannot be proved rational.” The jury was out and the verdict ambivalent if not damning.
It was only many years later, after the author had long since passed away, that the consensus started to shift. Three other scientists started to converge on the same results independently of one another and when the race to publish first started to intensify, it was discovered that someone had beaten them to it. The original paper was dug up and received newfound attention. When reviewed in this new light, expert opinion changed in a hurry.
At a conference in London, a leading scientist soon declared, “We are in the presence of a new principle of the highest importance.” He advised a friend, “to look up the paper,” explaining that it “seems to me one of the most remarkable investigations yet made on heredity and it is extraordinary that it should have got forgotten.” A geneticist described the paper’s obscurity as “one of the strangest silences in the history of biology.” The paper’s author was of course Gregor Mendel, now known as the “father of genetics.”
Mendel is not the only example of an unappreciated genius. In fact, they are far more common than you think. Consider Pyotr Tchaikovsky, for instance. When he first wrote his now wildly popular Violin Concerto, the response was harsh. His friend and student refused to debut as the soloist. The first performance had to be postponed again when the next violinist backed out, calling the piece “unplayable.”
When Tchaikovsky finally found a soloist, the performance was blasted by the prominent music critic Eduard Hanslick:
“Tchaikovsky is surely not an ordinary talent, but rather an inflated one, with a genius-obsession without discrimination or taste. Such is also his latest, long and pretentious Violin Concerto (…) [by] the end of the first movement, the violin is no longer played…it is beaten black and blue.”
Hanslick added insult to injury when he claimed he could “smell vodka” when listening to the Russian composer’s Concerto, and that it proved “for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks to the ear.” Tchaikovsky was so sensitive to the review that he read it again and again until he knew it by heart.
Needless to say, expert opinions on the concerto have done a 180-degree reversal in much the same way as Mendel’s genetics research. Hundreds of soloists have defied the notion that it is “unplayable,” instead making it one of the most popular violin pieces of all time and a mainstay in orchestras around the world. It was performed a few weeks ago by the Utah Symphony at Abravanel Hall and received a rousing standing ovation.
Examples of so-called experts getting it wrong abound in nearly every field. Working as a journalist, Walt Disney was fired because, as his editor explained, he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” Steven Spielberg was denied entrance to USC’s film school multiple times. Legend has it that Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime; although this claim has been disputed in recent years, the fact that Van Gogh was hugely unsuccessful until after his death is well-documented. The story of the professional athlete who was told he or she would never make it is so often repeated it is now considered cliché.
Literature, however, might well be the realm in which talent is least often recognized by experts. The phenomenon of rejected manuscripts turning into bestsellers is so common that it has its own entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. The record holder — “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” — was rejected 121 times before selling more than five million copies.
Stephen King’s first novel was rejected 30 times. King became so distraught that he threw the manuscript in the trash. It was only thanks to his wife, who retrieved it and talked him out of giving up, that it was later published, becoming a launching pad for his career.
J.K. Rowling’s first novel, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” was also rejected multiple times before someone finally took a chance on it. Even more amusing, after publishing seven Harry Potter novels and becoming the first billionaire author, Rowling wrote a crime novel under the pseudonym “Robert Galbraith.” By this point, you can guess what happened next. It was rejected by multiple publishing houses. One rejection letter, which Rowling has since posted to her Twitter, recommended she take a writing course.
The examples go on and on. “Gone With the Wind” was rejected 38 times. George Orwell, Agatha Christie, C.S. Lewis and Dr. Seuss all had their first books rejected. One of 15 rejection letters for “The Diary of Anne Frank” concluded, “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”
These stories, and many, many others just like them offer hope and encouragement to budding talents everywhere. Expert opinion is fickle. Subjective views should never be interpreted as universal truth. Rejection should not be taken personally or seen as final.
On the other hand, these stories also stand as cautionary tales to the inner critic in all of us. In a world that considers sacred Rotten Tomatoes scores and Yelp ratings and the like, we must not forfeit our independence of thought. We must be our own judge of art, literature, music and of talent more generally. If we rely on “experts,” we are doomed to miss out on many of the best and brightest that our generation has to offer.