“Creativity is a relationship, one that unfolds at the intersection of person and place.” Thus concludes Eric Weiner in The Geography of the Genius, an enjoyable historic and modern romp through Athens, Hangzhou, Florence, Edinburgh, Calcutta, Vienna, and finally Silicon Valley. This book provides no easy answers or simple recipes but gives much insight told as a personal journey. It was a joy to read. The closest Weiner comes to providing a pat answer as to what makes for genius or geographical golden ages is at the end, as a counterpoint to Richard Florida’s 3 T’s (talent, technology, and tolerance).
A better set of attributes, I think, are —and I’ll jump on the alliteration bandwagon here—the Three D’s: disorder, diversity, and discernment. Disorder, as we’ve seen is necessary to shake up the status quo, to create a break in the air. Diversity, of both people and viewpoints, is needed to produce not only more dots, but different kinds of dots. 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 lots of ideas and throw away the bad ones.”
This summarizes Weiner’s conclusions, so if you are looking for ways to create the next Silicon Valley, this book may not be for you. As Weiner explores each of the cities listed, we learn how messy and contextual creativity and genius are. It’s also all about timing. Would Michelangelo, David Hume, or Freud have been able to excel in their fields if they had not been born in their specific time and place? Unlikely, it seems. Genius needs a fertile environment, but also one with a certain degree of tension and in a state of some flux.
One thing seems certain though: golden ages do not last.
Every place of genius contains the seeds of its own destruction. The Greeks, I think, were aware of this. While they didn’t know precisely when their day in the sun would end, surely they knew that just as “human happiness never remains long in the same place,” as Herodotus said, neither does human genius.
These are words that should be considered by those who think that Silicon Valley will continue to dominate our current era, with its techno-centric, libertarian perspective. Vanity, thy name is the Valley.
It doesn’t take an Einstein to see signs of this creeping vanity in the Valley. Bling has reared its shiny head, and that is never a good sign. You’ll recall that this was the case in Athens, too: the city’s decline can be traced almost exactly to a concomitant rise in luxury, and a taste for gourmet food. When it comes to golden ages, bling is the canary in the coalmine.
If you like history, this book is a pleasant read. There is lots of material to draw your own conclusions. It reinforced my own work in promoting personal knowledge mastery as a discipline to try to channel what little genius any of us have. Diversity in our knowledge networks helps to promote creativity but does not guarantee it. The ability to discern what is useful or important takes time and practice, and we will still miss many opportunities. Success is not guaranteed to any of us, or for any place, but one major lesson from history is that those who do not try will not succeed.