Future Tense

Where Genius Comes From

Whether it’s Silicon Valley today or 1900 Vienna, the places that spur true innovation have a few things in common.

Mozart, Steve Jobs, Plato.
Mozart, Steve Jobs, Plato.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Robyn Beck/Getty Images, The Bridgeman Art Library, and Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. On Thursday, Feb. 11, Eric Weiner will discuss his new book The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places From Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley at Civic Hall in New York. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

Creativity is a very new concept. The word wasn’t invented until 1870 and wasn’t in widespread use until the 1950s. Yet today it is nothing short of an obsession—and an industry. Every day across the land “creativity consultants” descend upon beleaguered companies promising to show employees how to think more creatively or be more innovative. They guide participants through a series of creativity exercises, such as the “cocktail party phenomenon,” where employees are asked to home in on a single conversation in a crowded room; or are dispatched to toy stores in search of a “metaphor for the solution” to a business problem, as one such consultant, Dev Patnaik, explained to the New York Times.

More often than not, these well-intentioned efforts fail and for a simple reason: Creativity is not only a what, it’s also a where. The creative act is inextricably intertwined with the circumstances in which it takes place, a fact that the “creativity industry” largely ignores. Rather than exerting so much effort teaching illusory creative-thinking skills, corporations would be better off cultivating the sort of workplaces where truly creative ideas are recognized and more likely to take root in the first place. In other words, they should follow the lead of history’s golden ages.  

There is no such thing as free-floating, untethered “creative thinking.” All creativity, like all athletics, exists only in context. You can teach someone tennis. You can teach them basketball. You cannot teach them athletics. Likewise, you cannot teach creative thinking (whatever that means) but only creative approaches to certain subjects. Furthermore, psychologists have yet to identify a single “creative personality-type,” and it’s doubtful they ever will. Geniuses can be sullen introverts like Michelangelo or garrulous extroverts like Titian.

Creativity requires a beholder. Even the most innovative idea won’t gain traction if no one realizes its genius. The Chinese invented woodblock printing centuries before Guttenberg’s press yet the technology failed to catch on. Or consider the case of Cornelis Drebbel. Drebbel was a 17th-century Dutch inventor, the Thomas Edison of his day. He invented telescopes and microscopes, and self-playing instruments, among other creations. In 1620, Drebbel completed what he expected to be his greatest invention: a fully functioning submarine. It could hold 12 sailors, who steered the vessel with oars and could stay underwater for long periods, thanks to the pure oxygen Drebbel had bottled and fitted on board. The submarine, successfully tested in the Thames, flopped. It was seen as a curiosity, not a useful innovation. Drebbel’s reputation nose-dived. Broke, he spent his later years running a pub. Innovation that doesn’t resonate is no innovation at all.

This is where creative places excel—not only at producing creative geniuses but also at recognizing them. Radically new ideas such as Freud’s theory of the unconscious, couldn’t have emerged anywhere or anytime. Vienna of 1900 was already accustomed to new ideas, new ways of thinking, by the time Freud came along. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi puts it, “creativity is more likely in places where new ideas require less effort to be perceived.”

Yet we continue to treat geniuses like shooting stars: beautiful to behold but beyond our ken, and wholly unpredictable. Mozart is often held up as Exhibit A in the case for the shooting-star myth of genius. He played the piano at age 3 and was composing by age 8, the argument goes, so surely his was a wholly genetic genius. Yet this ignores the fact that his father, Leopold, was an accomplished, if uninspired, musician determined to find the glory he felt cheated of through his son. It also ignores the fact that Mozart was born in a musical country, Austria, at a very musical time. Did Mozart bring a particular set of talents to the table, not to mention an awful lot of sweat? Absolutely, but that was not enough. It never is.

Creative genius (as opposed to raw IQ) is a social verdict, a natural outcome of where we direct our energies and our attention. We get the geniuses who we want and who we deserve. Or, as Plato said, “What is honored in a country is cultivated there.” What was honored in 18th-century Vienna? Music. So we got Mozart, Beethoven and other great composers. What do we honor today? Digital technology, and the connectivity and convenience it represents. Naturally, our geniuses are Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and the like.

Plot the appearance of genius across the centuries and around the world and something quickly becomes apparent. Geniuses do not pop up randomly—one in Siberia, another in Bolivia—but in groupings. Genius clusters. Athens in 450 B.C. Florence in 1500. Certain places, at certain times, produced a bumper crop of brilliant minds and good ideas.

These places were, of course, very different, but they share some common traits. They all contain, in varying proportions, a mix of diversity, discernment, and disorder.

Discernment is perhaps the most important, and overlooked, ingredient. Linus Pauling, the renowned chemist and two-time Nobel Prize winner, was once asked by a student how to come up with good ideas. It’s easy, replied Pauling. “You have a lot of ideas and throw away the bad ones.” Creative places do much the same, only on a larger scale. They are colanders as well as magnets. In Renaissance Florence, it was the Medici family who chose which projects to back. In Silicon Valley, it is the venture capitalists (among others) who play that role, albeit imperfectly.  

All creative places are open systems. They are more receptive—to foreign people, yes, but mainly to foreign ideas. The ancient Greeks recognized this truth. Pericles, leader of Athens, boasted of the city’s open-door policy, even while he acknowledged that “the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit from our liberality.” The Greeks borrowed liberally from abroad but, as Plato said, “What the Greeks borrow from foreigners, they improve upon in the end.”

Creative places also contain a good dose of disorder, and turmoil even. As Graham Greene pointed out in his cutting comment about Switzerland: “They had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!” (Actually, not even that. The cuckoo clock is a German invention.)

In his study of golden ages, Dean Simonton, a professor of psychology at the University of California–Davis, found that places riddled with political intrigue, turmoil, and uncertainty thrived creatively. “It is as if the conflicts that plague the political world encourage young developing minds to consider more radical worldviews,” he says. That old Chinese expression “May you live in interesting times” applies to the creative world as well as the political one.

Finally, despite the trope of the absent-minded professor, true geniuses are, in fact, attuned to their surroundings. Beethoven was intimately familiar with the natural rhythms of the Wienerwald, the forests on the outskirts of Vienna where he found inspiration. The Finnish composer Sibelius was stirred by the foul order of a bog he traversed by foot. Adam Smith honed his ideas for his seminal work, The Wealth of Nations¸ not only in the library but also by conversing with Glasgow’s merchants and dockworkers.

These creative geniuses accomplished all of this not by withdrawing from the world but engaging with it more deeply—and without a creativity consultant in sight.

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