The Genius Zone by Gay Hendricks: Overview & Takeaways

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Do you feel unfulfilled in life? Does it seem like you’re wasting your time and squandering your potential?

You can spend your time thinking about the things you can control or the things you can’t. Stanford-trained psychologist Gay Hendricks writes that the way to be happy is to let go of the things you can’t control and instead devote your time and energy to things you can change. 

Continue reading for an overview of Hendricks’s book The Genius Zone.

The Genius Zone by Gay Hendricks

Gay Hendricks recommends living your life in what he calls the “Genius Zone,” where you’re expressing your “genius” by doing the things you love to do, speaking honestly and listening mindfully in your relationships, and committing (and recommitting) yourself to expressing your creativity every day. Spending your time in the Genius Zone enables you to live a fulfilling life, one where you’re engaged in the ongoing process of pursuing your creative potential and cultivating joy in your everyday routines. 

Hendricks is behind the Hendricks Institute, a learning center for “conscious living and loving,” which he founded with his wife Kathlyn Hendricks. He’s also the author of The Big Leap (2009), Conscious Luck (2020), Conscious Living (2009), and other books. In 2021’s The Genius Zone, Hendricks expands on the ideas of The Big Leap to share more of his strategies for discovering your inner genius and living a more fulfilling life by doing the things you love to do. 

We’ll explore what the Genius Zone is, what distinguishes the activities that tap into your genius from the other tasks you spend your time and energy on, and why spending time in the Genius Zone makes you feel happier and more fulfilled. Then we’ll examine the methods that Hendricks teaches for getting in touch with your genius and pursuing your full creative potential.

What Is the Genius Zone? 

To understand how you can feel happier and more fulfilled by living your life in the Genius Zone, you first have to understand what the Genius Zone is, why it’s special, and how you might recognize it in your life. 

Hendricks uses the term “Genius Zone” to refer to the mind-body space that you enter when two conditions are met: You’re doing what you love to do, and you’re using your skills to make a positive impact in the world—in other words, it’s the space where you can access your “genius.” 

Hendricks writes that when you engage with tasks in your Genius Zone, you devote a deeper level of attention to them, a kind of attention that’s different from what you exercise even when you’re engaged in activities you’re really good at. You’re also able to freely access and express your creativity, pursue your creative potential, and find a new level of fulfillment and joy in your life.

What’s Special About the Genius Zone? 

The Genius Zone is a unique mind-body space that you enter only when you’re working on tasks that align with your particular genius. Hendricks differentiates the Genius Zone from other zones—the Incompetence Zone, the Competence Zone, and the Excellence Zone—which are characterized by the ability and affinity you have for the tasks in each category. 

  • In the Incompetence Zone, you spend your time and attention on things that you aren’t any good at. These are tasks you could and probably should delegate to someone else. 
  • In the Competence Zone, you devote time and attention to things that you do well, but not better than most other people. There’s nothing special about your skill with these tasks or your enjoyment of them, even though you’re competent at them. 
  • In the Excellence Zone, you spend time and attention on tasks that you’re great at but don’t truly love. Though you have a high level of skill at these tasks, they don’t satisfy you. Your skills in this zone are likely in demand (and you may even be well-compensated to use them), but work in this zone doesn’t make you feel fulfilled.

It’s only in the Genius Zone that you access what Hendricks calls “true creativity,” which involves serving yourself and others with your natural abilities—even if they’re not in traditionally creative fields.

The Genius Zone differs from the other zones (particularly the Excellence Zone) because when you’re inside it, you use your creativity to do things that you love and to make a positive contribution to the world. You can reach a deeper level of creative fulfillment by working in the Genius Zone.

How to Recognize What’s in Your Genius Zone

To identify what’s in your Genius Zone, Hendricks recommends considering a few criteria. You can pinpoint areas where you have remarkable abilities, or ask yourself what you really love to do. You can also think about which activities you find the most fulfilling or whether you do any work that doesn’t feel like work to you. Those all serve as hints that an activity might fall into your Genius Zone. For example, you might recognize that writing is in your Genius Zone if you feel deeply satisfied when working on an essay or find that writing a blog post doesn’t feel like work. 

Another hallmark of tasks in your Genius Zone is that you probably experience them in a distinctive way with your body. The embodied experience of engaging your genius feels different for everyone: Some people lose track of time, others experience time slowing down, and still others feel a physical sense of joy or freedom.

Why Is Living in the Genius Zone the Best Way to Be Happy and Fulfilled? 

Now that we know what the Genius Zone is, we’ll explore why devoting your time and attention to the tasks in this zone will help you feel more satisfied in your everyday life.

In Hendricks’s view, striving to live in the Genius Zone offers a more fulfilling alternative to what might be your status quo: going through your daily life doing work that doesn’t fulfill you, criticizing yourself for things you have or haven’t done, worrying about things you can’t change, and wishing that you could control what other people do or what they think of you. He writes that you’ll become happier by stepping outside of these negative thought patterns and replacing them with efforts to spend your time and energy in the Genius Zone instead.

What Are the Benefits of Living in the Genius Zone? 

Hendricks writes that spending your time in the Genius Zone has a number of benefits, both direct and indirect. He explains that as you shift your focus to tasks that engage your genius, you’ll make changes that have two direct effects: You’ll decrease the frequency of your negative thinking, and you’ll increase your ability to access and express your creativity. Also as an indirect result of the change in your thinking and behavior, you’ll improve how you relate to other people. Next, we’ll take a closer look at each of these benefits.

You’ll Curb Patterns of Negative Thinking

The first benefit of living in the Genius Zone involves reducing your negative thoughts. Hendricks writes that every day, you have hundreds of opportunities to enter the Genius Zone, and each one comes to you through your tendency to worry about things you can’t control. When you’re thinking negatively about something outside of your control—maybe something that happened in the past, or what other people think of you, or things you can’t change about your circumstances—you can either keep doing what you’re doing, or you can let go of your negative thinking and self-criticism to engage your “genius” instead.

Hendricks characterizes cycles of self-blame and self-criticism as addictions that sabotage you in the pursuit of your goals. When you redirect your attention away from the negative thoughts that you habitually think about yourself, then those thoughts have a way of receding into the background. He explains that this is much more effective than fighting negative thoughts, which just become more persistent the more you try to suppress them.

You’ll Gain More Access to Your Creativity

The second direct benefit of living in the Genius Zone is learning to access your creative skills more readily. Hendricks writes that to live your life in the Genius Zone, you have to commit to pursuing your full creative potential. By making this commitment (and following through on it), you’ll spend more time exercising your creativity. You’ll also learn to avoid the negative emotions and coping mechanisms that accompany the feeling of unfulfilled creative potential.

Hendricks writes that when people feel that their creativity is stifled or that they’ve stalled, they compensate by developing various “addictions” to distract themselves. This might look like what we traditionally think of as addiction—such as drinking or smoking—but it could also manifest as another coping mechanism that helps you forget that you’re feeling creatively unfulfilled. (Maybe you watch Netflix all evening instead of working on your own screenplay.) Hendricks notes that you probably always have time for these habits, even when you don’t have time for creative pursuits. When you stop telling yourself you don’t have time for your creative work, you can confront your sense of unfulfillment and recommit to pursuing what you love.

You’ll Improve Your Relationships

A benefit indirectly associated with living in the Genius Zone is improving your relationships. Hendricks writes that learning to let go of things that are outside of your control to pursue life in the Genius Zone can have profound effects on how you relate to others because you’ll learn to accept other people as they are, without trying to control them or worrying about what they think of you. 

Additionally, taking stock of how you’re spending time can help you evaluate whether you’re dedicating your time to relationships where you’re appreciated for your creativity. Hendricks writes that many people dedicate significant time and energy to relationships that hold back their creativity. But if you want to spend more of your time in the Genius Zone, you’ll need to cultivate the relationships that support your creativity.

How Can You Access the Genius Zone? 

Living in the Genius Zone requires practice with consciously choosing how to allocate your time and attention. It also involves a process of committing and recommitting to your goals, and gently correcting course when you realize that you’ve strayed. Hendricks explains that, instead of chasing perfection and considering success an all-or-nothing endeavor, you can realize that it’s inevitable to make mistakes. When you slip up, take concrete steps to get back on track instead of criticizing yourself.

Hendricks outlines a variety of methods and tools to access the Genius Zone, pursue your creative potential, and minimize your negative thinking. Each one is either a tool you can use when you realize you’re trying to control something you can’t or a practice you can cultivate over time to work toward the goal of doing the things you love while making a positive impact on the world around you.

In this section, we’ll explore Hendricks’s tools to help you access your Genius Zone, based on a range of “Hands-On Activities” he offers throughout the book.

Commit to Letting Go of Negative Thoughts and Pursuing Your Full Creative Potential

To find and live in your Genius Zone, the first thing that Hendricks says you should do is to explicitly make a commitment to yourself: Resolve to stop your habit of negative thinking and pursue your true creativity. Hendricks writes that if you don’t feel that you can sincerely make this commitment, then you shouldn’t proceed with the rest of the process until you’ve figured out what stands in your way.

Perform the “Genius Move” When You Start Thinking About Things You Can’t Control

Next, the key method of the book is a technique that Hendricks calls the “Genius Move.” Hendricks writes that when you feel unhappy, it’s because your thoughts have turned to something that’s outside of your control. The solution is to switch your focus to something that you can change.

  1. First, notice that you’re feeling unhappy, that you’re carrying tension in your body, or that you feel stuck in a cycle of negative thoughts. 
  2. Next, try to identify the situation that you’re trying to control. (That could be anything that you’re worrying about, from the impression you made on a new neighbor to the odds that Amazon is going to deliver the book you ordered in time for your weekend trip.)
  3. You might be able to figure out what it is and why you’re trying to control it. Or, that might not become clear. Either way, the important thing is to sit with the question. 
  4. Then, even if you’re not sure what you’re trying to control, acknowledge that it’s outside of your control and state that you’re letting go of trying to control it. 
  5. Finally, identify something positive and productive you can do to affect something that’s within your control and then take that action.

Use Your Breath to Tune in to Your Emotions

Next, Hendricks advises cultivating an awareness of your breathing as a useful tool for pursuing life in the Genius Zone, a process that he believes should involve both the mind and the body. He explains that you can learn to tune in to your emotions by becoming aware of your breathing. Breathing involves both the autonomic nervous system and conscious control, so learning to pay attention to your breath might be one way to access the connection between your conscious and unconscious minds.

Commit to Communicating Honestly and Thoughtfully

Another strategy Hendricks recommends adopting if you want to live in the Genius Zone is to cultivate relationships with people who not only support and appreciate your creativity but with whom you can communicate honestly and thoughtfully. He explains that you probably leave things unsaid, even in conversations with the people you’re closest to. But you don’t want to be lied to, and so you shouldn’t lie to other people.

Hendricks advises that in addition to practicing the skill of communicating honestly, you should cultivate the skill of listening generously and thoughtfully, without interrupting or criticizing what the other person says. He explains that you can’t control what other people think or say, and letting go of trying to control them will make it easier for you to live in your Genius Zone.

Accept Negative Thoughts Without Trying to Change Them

The next strategy that can help you pursue your genius is to learn to overcome your negative thoughts about the past, the future, other people, and yourself. Hendricks writes that to stop dwelling on your negative thoughts, you have to first acknowledge that you can’t control your thoughts. When you accept your negative thoughts for what they are, then you loosen their hold on you. By using the “Genius Move” to change your focus, you can stop expending energy on fighting negative thoughts and instead focus it on something you can change.

Stop Leaving Tasks Incomplete

Another simple tool for living in your Genius Zone involves learning to finish what you start. Hendricks writes that much of our negative thinking begins because we have a tendency to leave tasks and conversations unfinished. When we leave these things incomplete, then we feel negative emotions ranging from guilt to sadness to shame to denial, as well as a physical sense of that negative feeling. 

Unfinished tasks could be as small as an email you left in your “drafts” folder or as big as brushing off an important conversation with your partner. The solution is to identify the tasks that you’ve left incomplete and, one by one, go back and finish them. If you have a long list of the things you’ve left undone, take it day by day, and you’ll cross items off your list and eliminate sources of negative thoughts.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

Another tool that Hendricks recommends using is the open-ended question (what he calls “wonder questions”). Hendricks writes that the sensation of wonder lies at the heart of creativity: It’s what you feel when you let your mind explore, free of your efforts to control or criticize it. He explains that asking yourself open-ended questions that relate to the things that you’d most like to know in your life can engage your creativity, genius, and wonder. 

These questions don’t have a single right answer; instead, they have a number of possible answers, each of which might open a different avenue for you to explore. You might want to know, “What can I do every day to make the most of my time with my family?” or “How can I use my skills to make the biggest difference in my community?” Hendricks notes that discovering answers to these questions could change your life. But even if you don’t find a complete answer, the process of contemplating the question can still help you gain insight into how to do what you love to do while making a positive contribution.

Cultivate Relationships With People Who Support Your Creativity

Next, if you want to pursue the highest expression of your creativity, it helps to surround yourself with people who support your creative pursuits and appreciate your creativity. Hendricks recommends taking a clear-eyed look at the people to whom you devote your time and energy. When you build relationships with people who support your creativity, you can do the things you love to do and help them do the same.

However, when you choose to spend time and energy with people who don’t encourage your creativity, Hendricks recommends acknowledging the role of your own choices instead of blaming others when you fail to reach your creative potential. Letting go of blame frees up more space for creativity.

Appreciate and Cultivate Your Creativity

Another tool to tap into your creativity is simple appreciation. Hendricks writes that the more deeply you appreciate your creativity, the more freely you’ll be able to access and express it—which is necessary for your happiness. According to Hendricks, you need to treat your creativity as you would a partner, one whom you value and want to keep around. When you express your appreciation for your creativity, you not only feel grateful for it but you also pay particular attention to it, tuning in to it and choosing to spend your time with it. 

When you tell yourself that you feel grateful for your creativity, you may need to tune out negative thoughts that tell you that actually, you aren’t grateful for your creativity, or maybe that you aren’t creative at all. Hendricks recommends simply acknowledging those thoughts and putting them aside to focus on deepening your relationship with your creativity instead.

Commit to Spending a Specific Percentage of Your Time in the Genius Zone

Time commitments are another simple tool that Hendricks advises using as you pursue creative fulfillment. He recommends considering how much time you want to commit to spending in your Genius Zone and setting a specific goal. For instance, he suggests that you might want to focus on your genius for an hour a day, for half of your waking hours, or for all of your waking hours. By making a commitment to spending a portion of your day in the Genius Zone, you make room in your life for your creativity, in the capacity that makes the most sense for you.

Set Goals to Measure What You’re Accomplishing in the Genius Zone

The final strategy that Hendricks recommends is to set goals for your work in the Genius Zone. He visualizes the Genius Zone as a spiral: It doesn’t have a ceiling and doesn’t impose limits on you, your creativity, or the amount of time you can devote to pursuing your genius. When you commit to spending significant amounts of time in the Genius Zone, you’ll progress toward higher expressions of your creativity. 

Hendricks recommends taking some time to identify what your goals might look like. Because they function as milestones along your journey, Hendricks advises thinking about what you might want to accomplish in the next year, in five years, and by the end of your life. The idea is to think concretely about what it would look like for you to spend your time doing what you love and making a meaningful contribution to the world. For instance, you might set the goal of publishing an essay in the next year, writing a book in the next five years, and making a difference to at least a few readers with your body of work by the end of your life. 

The Genius Zone by Gay Hendricks: Overview & Takeaways

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Genius Zone summary:

  • Why you should be devoting your time to creative work
  • How tapping into your creativity helps you build a happier life
  • Hands-on methods for getting in touch with your creativity

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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