What is brilliance? What skill or quality does a person have that makes them brilliant in the eyes of others?

As I’ve been thinking about these questions lately, I’ve come up with my own definition of the term:

Brilliance is the ability to describe something in a way that you’ve never seen before, but makes the concept completely obvious to you.

When someone says something brilliant, my initial reaction is, “Of course! That’s so obvious!” Except that, until I heard or read that description, it wasn’t obvious at all. It takes care on my part to recognize the brilliance and not trivialize it.

This definition is very contextual. What seems brilliant to me might be commonplace to you.

Among her many other gifts and talents, my wife is an editor. She and I will read the same piece of writing-in-progress. I can find the typos and awkward sentences. But she’ll identify ways to improve or restructure it that dramatically improve the end product. Once she points out these ideas, they seem totally obvious. But I don’t see them until she mentions them.

I’ve had the pleasure of having several conversations with Kent Beck over the years. I’ve learned that I really need to bring a notebook on these occasions, because he will regularly say something mind-blowing in the course of casual conversation. Once again, what he says will seem completely obvious once he says it.

Even Martin Fowler has the same experience with Kent. In a recent article, he wrote about a refactoring pattern that Kent mentioned to him:

Like many great patterns it has that notion of obviousness - I feel like it’s just putting a name to something that I’ve been doing for decades. But such a name isn’t a small thing, once you name an oft-used technique like this, it makes it easier to talk to other people about and alters my own thinking: giving it a more central role and more deliberate usage than comes when it’s done unconsciously.

I think that each of us has the capacity to be brilliant in someone else’s eyes. As I wrote about several weeks ago, we all have a unique combination of knowledge and experience that give us insights that other people don’t have.

I was reminded of this recently. I was part of a group that had the opportunity to tour the production facilities of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. While theater is not generally my thing, I was blown away by what I saw. I met passionate people who love what they do working in an organization with 80 years of shared experience at presenting live theater. These people have insights, experiences, and knowledge that are incredible. The anecdotes they shared demonstrate the same kind of brilliance I’m talking about here.

To those people, their ideas seem commonplace – just part of their job. To an outsider, they are brilliant.

The same is true of your insights, experiences, and knowledge. Please share those with the world and allow us to see your brilliance.