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Q&A: What Are the Origins of Creative Genius?
Author and Philosophical Traveler
Geniuses do not pop up randomly but, rather, in groupings. Genius clusters. Athens in 450 BC. Florence in AD 1500. Certain places, at certain times, produced a bumper crop of brilliant minds and good ideas.

These places excelled 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. Innovation that doesn’t resonate is no innovation at all.

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.

Yet we continue to treat geniuses like shooting stars: beautiful to behold but beyond our ken, and wholly unpredictable. A better way to think of genius is as flowers in a garden. Yes, you need good seeds, and plenty of water—but also need the right soil. Without that, nothing will grow.

Please find more of my argument here:

I will be speaking at the 92nd Street Y "7 Days of Genius Festival" on March 11. Details here:
This Q&A took place between 3/2/16 and 3/9/16. Unanswered questions have been hidden
15 questions
Wharton professor, author of GIVE AND TAKE and ORIGINALS
You've written two witty, wise books about how our countries shape our lives-- one on happiness and one on creativity. What culture most impressed you most as supporting both bliss and genius?

And I can't resist asking: since you're a self-professed grump, if you could only have one, which would you choose?
Good question. Not many cultures, in fact, manage to nurture both. I think that’s because at the heart of the creative impulse lies a certain discontentment. Paradise (if such a place exists) would be the least creative in the world. Why create anything when life is perfect?

I can think of one country, though, that manages to be both happy and creative: Iceland. It consistently ranks in the top ten of happiest countries in the world (despite its economic woes) and is also an extremely creative place. Think Bjork and Sigur Ros and all of the other musicians to emerge from this tiny nation (pop: 320,000). They publish more books per capita in Iceland than anywhere else, and have a telling expression: “Better to go barefoot than without books. ”

If I had to choose between a happy life and a creative life, I’d choose the latter. Happiness—at least the smiley-face version of our age--- is not enough. Ultimately, I think a meaningful life is what we crave, and creative expression of some kind is an important part of that life.

I do think it’s possible to achieve an accommodation between the two, and again I turn to Iceland for wisdom. In Reykjavik, I met an accomplished composer named Hilmar who seemed both creative and happy. When I asked him about this he told me that, yes, he was a happy person but one who “cherishes my melancholia.” I can’t do any better than that.
Professor of Behavioral Science at Booth (U Chicago)
Hi Eric, I'm curious what you think the effect of a digitally connected world is on the geography of genius. It used to be that geography imposed incredible constraints on access to ideas and their free exchange, but now it's increasingly possible to connect with a community that shares your interests without leaving your home town. What are the key elements still missing for someone on infertile soil, geographically, but who is connected digitally?
I don’t think geography is dead in the digital age. In fact, there's a case to be made that it is more alive than ever. All of these digital connections motivate us to take the next step and have “real” ones. Air travel is more, not less, popular today.

If we believed everything we’re told by the digerati in Silicon Valley, there would be no Silicon Valley. We’re told “you can work anywhere, live anywhere” yet the people telling us this tend to work and live in one place. So, clearly, there is something about physical connections that encourage creativity, genius even. It might be the “interaction opportunities” that an urban setting provides, or the subtle facial cues we get from a colleague at a meeting.

Even if more of our lives do migrate online, culture is not going away. In fact, there isn’t one digital world out there but many worlds—something like the hundreds of Greek city-states we saw in ancient times. I can imagine a future where we see “golden ages” popping up in certain quarters of the Internet. Maybe this one!
I think there are fundamental differences between a genius and a visionary person. I would call Mozart, Newton and Richard Feynman geniuses, while I see Steve Jobs, Galileo, Stravinsky as visionaries, rarely you might find a person encompassing both qualities. I don't want to commit specific definitions to these two notions but I feel that we regularly confuse the two.
I feel that the "seed and soil" argument applies to visionaries, genius sprout on their own, true it will only flourish in the right environment (if Mozart was born in the fifth century, no one would have been aware of his gifts).
What do you think about the distinction between visionaries and genius? Do you think that one is more beneficial than the other in our present day world?
I’m not entirely sure I see the distinction between a genius and a visionary. To my mind, they both make surprising and useful leaps. Schopenhauer said it best: “Talent hits the target no one else can hit; genius hits the target no one else can see.” (I would add: and then, once he’s hit the invisible target, it becomes visible to everyone else. Otherwise, we call this person insane.)

So, call them visionaries or call them geniuses, I think the soil matters in both cases. There is no such thing as an “unrecognized genius” –or an unrecognized visionary.
Author of "Now I Know Who My Comrades Are"
Can true creative genius come out of authoritarian states, where censorship and repressive governments stifle creative expression?
Yes, but it tends to be “small c” creativity. That is, a sort of everyday creativity that you need in order to survive. I’m thinking of those extremely clever East Germans who sneaked across the Berlin Wall by hiding in the transmission of small cars. Or a young Chinese person today who evades the Great Firewall in order to log onto Facebook. These are creative acts, no doubt about it.

All creativity is, I think, a response to a challenge, and these authoritarian states are obviously challenging. But you clearly need a certain amount of freedom to transition from small c to BIG C Creativity. You don’t see a lot of innovation coming out of North Korea. Creative places operate in the sweet spot between constraint and comfort. Most authoritarian regimes exist outside that sweet spot.
Today, while reading a book review, I came across this phrase: "the destructive quality of genius." Do you think such a thing exists?
Yes, in the sense that genius always disturbs the status quo. But that alone doesn’t make you a genius. You need to replace the damage you’ve done, so to speak, with something new and better. That’s why I think the current notion of disruption for disruption’s sake is silly. Disruption is a byproduct of the creative process, not its aim. Taking a hammer to your living room makes you a genius only if you then create a beautiful living space. Otherwise, you’re just a "disrupter" with a serious hammer problem.
Student at the California Institute of Integral Studies
What are your thoughts on Fritjov Capra's (The Turning Point) ideas that, "Living organisms have an inherent potential for reaching out beyond themselves to create new structures and new patterns of behavior. This creative reaching out into novelty, which in time leads to an ordered unfolding of complexity, seems to be a fundamental property of life, a basic characteristic of the universe. * The underlying dynamics of evolution, whose central characteristic is not adaptation but creativity." Thank you.
I agree, and I think the term "reaching out" is important. We tend to think of creative people as operating on a strictly interior level--e.g. the trope of the absent-minded professor. In fact, I'd argue that the genius is more, not less, engaged with the world around her. She just might be engaged in a more selective way.

I'm a bit wary, though, of fixating on the "newness"of the creative act. We (or at least we in the West) tend to overemphasize the novelty aspect of creativity. Every innovation is always, always built on what came before. Something truly “new” would be incomprehensible to us and therefore useless. We certainly couldn't consider it “creative.” The sort of creative evolution that Capra describes is, by definition, incremental, standing solidly on the ground of tradition. I think that's important to remember.
Economist, Senior Editor Impakter Magazine
"Creative genius is a social verdict" you say and I agree. The examples you provide are convincing but counter-examples could be equally brought up, for example, the Warring States period in China. It was a highly productive time: Chinese culture was essentially born then (and stayed that way for some 2000 years - that's how successful it was) Yet, the "soil" was not conducive, on the contrary, intellectuals, far from being "recognized" had to flee persecution (to the next welcoming state). Political division and lack of recognition are at work here. How do you reconcile this with your theory?
Good point. I think the key words in your question, though, are “the next welcoming state.”Surely, these intellectuals were recognized by somebody, If not, we wouldn’t know about them today. It sounds like they were, in effect, intellectual refugees. History is wife with examples of these (including, of course, Einstein.)

A bit of turmoil is good for creativity. As Graham Greene once said of the Swiss, "Five hundred years of peace and stability and what have they brought the world? The cuckoo clock!" So "conducive" to creativity doesn't mean easy, and certainly not boring. I don't think all-out war is good for creativity (you don't see a lot of geniuses coming out of Syria today) but, as I said, a bit of turmoil (or a Cold War) is. I don't know for sure but suspect this was the case during the Warring States period in China.
Education systems have a tendency to encourage "normative" behavior, discouraging creative expression that might be deemed "unruly" or difficult to manage in the classroom. Given that you posit creative genius as a social verdict do you think that educational systems more tolerant of a wider variety of expression might produce more geniuses?
Yes, I do. And that does happen occasionally. In Enlightenment Edinburgh, the university played a constructive--and creative--role. I think that's because it was a more fluid arrangement than we see today. Professors would turn to their students to bounce ideas off of. Adam Smith's "test audience" for his seminal work The Wealth of Nations was his class of 14-year-olds. Also, professors then worked on commission--the more students who enrolled in their class, the more they were paid. Sometimes, there's nothing like a little extrinsic motivation!
Many times genius is also a function of time: some historical figures were not recognized for their work until after they had passed. Do you think humans are getting better at recognizing genius or do we fall prey to the same problems that plague geniuses too early for their time?
You're right. Bach, for instance wasn't considered a "genius" until some 75 years after his death. I guess I would approach the question differently, though. I don't think it's possible to separate the creative act from its recognition, the genius from his audience. So, looking at it this way, Bach was never an "unrecognized genius." He was never a genius in his lifetime. He became a genius not when he composed his music but when we heard something special, something genius, in it 75 years after his death. I'm speaking of a real shift in how we think of genius. Not a a private act of creativity that we either recognize or don't but as a social verdict, one that changes over time and place. We get the geniuses that we want and that we deserve, If we value good music, we will "elevate" someone like Bach to genius status.
Researcher @ Harvard | Parlio community manager
I second Emily Parker's question! I look forward to reading your book.

What do you think generally defines a genius? Are geniuses set apart from their peers based on relative or objective standards?
Unless you're speaking of genius as a high IQ, I think it's almost entirely relative. Genius is a social verdict. If you were convinced you wrote the Great American Novel but no one else agreed, I'm afraid you're not a genius. Hopefully, though, we get the verdict "right." By that I mean we anoint someone a genius if he or she has produced something new, surprising and useful--something for the ages, In golden ages, I think people get the verdict right more than they do during other times.
Senior Mediator and Program Manager at Meridian Institute
I'm currently reading your book and just "arrived" in Florence. Based on your research, do you see opportunities for funding entities such as philanthropic, bilateral, or multilateral donors to "honor" pressing global issues in ways that faciliate creative genius in that space? Or do you see it linked to place-based contexts and cultures?
I use "place" as a kind of shorthand for culture. Some cultures excel at producing (and recognizing) creativity, just as some excel at producing happiness. The people trying to solve these "pressing global issues" don't exist in a vacuum. They exist in a culture. It might be a corporate or organizational culture but it's still a culture. The question I would ask is whether that particular culture has the necessary ingredients to be a creative one. Does it possess "openness to experience"--the single most important trait for creative people and places? Is there the right balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation? So, yes, I think it is possible to apply the principles in my book to any sort of culture.
If the soil is so important, shouldn't we switch the whole angle and focus on the cultures and communities that thrive creativity and innovation instead of focussing on the individuals? In today's connected world, isn't the genius a bit of a 19th century dinosaur?
Yes, but it is such a beautiful dinosaur! We've very enamored of the myth of the "lone genus," and that is not always a bad thing Myths can inspire. They become counterproductive, though, when we adhere to them blindly and ignore the more helpful aspects of reality. So, yes, I'd love to see us focus on creative places and not (only) creative people.
In his book Neurotribes Steve Silberman links past and present genius with autism. Do you see a link and have you done any research in this area?
A month ago I would have said no, but I just read an excellent book called "The Prodigy's Cousin" that also makes a compelling case for this link. I don't think it is ever only about genetics, though. I view our genetic inheritance as a menu of possibilities but ones that are only activated in the "right" environment.
The places you mentioned as sources of genius also had the greatest schools at the time. Do you think it could have been the educational systems that brought forth genius?
Actually, I don't think it's true these places had the best schools at the time, That certainly wasn't the case in Renaissance Florence. And history is rife with examples of geniuses who were terrible students, from Leonardo da Vinci to Einstein. The creative genius is, by definition, rocking the status quo. To the extent that the educational system is rigidly moored to that status quo, there's going to be a clash. Ideally, the school system is fluid enough to accommodate new ideas (see Enlightenment Edinburgh)
You talk about the cluster being about cultivating soil. How important is the artistic community in creating this genius? Like the beat poets for poetry, the Inklings in fiction, or philosophy in Athens, political philosophy in the enlightenment. Would Tolkien be as good as he is without C.S Lewis? Is it that certain circumstances foster genius in clusters, or that society influencing creative genius can only happen with the exchange of ideas that happens naturally in communities?
It's tough being creative, and even tougher being a genius. You're really putting yourself out there. Nobody enjoys that feeling. (Geniuses are people too!) Freud often described himself as a "conquistador," him against the world. He needed a support system, if only to reassure himself that he wasn't going insane. Thus, he formed the Wednesday Circle, a group of like-minded colleagues. It wasn't only supportive, of course, it was also collaborative. You see this a lot. I call it "compensatory genius," One person fills in the gaps in the other's weak spots. Think of Steve Job and Steve Wozniak. Woz was the more brilliant engineer but couldn't market himself out of a wet paper back. He needed Jobs, and Jobs needed him. You see this time and again but--and I think this is key--you see it most often in places where this sort of collaboration is actively encouraged, where creativity is in the air.