February 26, 2016

Rodin's Thinker

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin. Credit: Fredrik Rubensson / Flickr Creative Commons

There are places throughout history - Florence in the Renaissance, Edinburgh in the 19th century, Hangzhou during Europe’s Dark Ages - where there’s a flourishing of creativity.

Eric Weiner calls these places ‘genius clusters,’ and he thinks their role in the development of genius has been seriously underestimated:

“We just have this myth that you’re just born a genius like Mozart. Or the 10,000 hour rule, you’ve got to put in the 10,000 hours and then you’ll be a genius. I think that’s wrong. I think you need some genetics, you need some hard work, but you need the right environment or it’s not going to happen.”

Weiner, the author of The Geography of Genius, says that there are a lot of different reasons why genius clusters happen, but there’s no magic formula.

We talked with him about where the next genius clusters were likely to pop up - and which locales might be in decline.

Weiner is bullish about Estonia, a country you may not have heard much about. But, it's a tech hub.

“Unlike other former Soviet republics, the Estonians were never really Russified… and they have this openness, this free flow of information, and it’s not a coincidence that Skype and other high tech firms started there.”

Throughout history, a willingness to take risks and try out new ideas has been key to success.

Weiner points to the Sistine Chapel, which Michelangelo was commissioned to paint, even though he was known more as a sculptor. Pope Julius II simply took a chance on the relatively young artist.

If you think that Silicon Valley is a modern example of risk-taking, Weiner has a slightly different take:

“Innovation is the buzzword in Silicon Valley, everyone wants to innovate. But do they want to be creative? That’s riskier. Do they want to aim for genius? Innovation, to me, sounds like the safe business way of being creative.”

Silicon Valley, Weiner says, is a reflection of our culture - in much the same way that places like Florence, Hangzhou, and Edinburgh reflected their cultures.

“Silicon Valley represents what we value. We value technology and convenience and speed, and all these things are embodied in Silicon Valley. We get the geniuses that we want and that we deserve. So in 18th century Vienna, they valued beautiful music, and they got it. They got a Mozart and a Beethoven and a Haydn. What do we value? We value technology, so we get a Steve Jobs, and a Mark Zuckerberg, and a Bill Gates.”

Body and Mind, Eric Weiner, The Geography of Genius

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