With Eric Weiner, Former NPR Foreign Correspondent, Author of The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places. From Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley
Steve is pleased to introduce Eric Weiner, a longtime foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, and the author of New York Times Bestsellers, The Geography of Bliss and Man Seeks God, here to discuss his latest book, The Geography of Genius: Lessons from the World’s Most Creative Places.
Steve starts by asking Eric to define genius. Eric believes genius goes beyond raw IQ score, being a smarty pants or a know it all. He sees geniuses as people who are extremely creative and make a conceptual leap. He quotes German philosopher Schopenhauer, who said, “Talent hits the target no one else can hit. Genius hits the target no one else can see.” But once you hit this target, other people have to see it in order to recognize your genius, otherwise, you’re just a nut job in the corner hitting invisible targets.
Nature And Nurture
Steve believes geniuses are often products of their environment. Eric, similarly, sees genius as a combination of nature and nurture, with nurture referring to the bigger milieu—the environment that gives geniuses opportunities to thrive and be recognized, hence geography plays a vital role.
He believes there are few recognized women geniuses because the milieu was controlled by white men who did not give women much opportunity and denied them recognition when they did succeed.
Genius Is Expensive
The Geography of Genius has a chapter that’s subtitled “Genius is Expensive”. While we don’t think of geniuses as having anything to do with money, that’s generally not true. The city of Florence benefited mightily from the generous patronage of the Medici family, who had money and a keen eye for spotting talent and played a big role in the greatness of Florence.
Athens Thrived On Diluted Wine!
Expanding on the importance of milieu, Eric attributes Athens’ success to its culture of drinking diluted wine, which reduced inhibitions and fostered creativity. In fact, the word “symposium” derives from Greek for “drinking together”, and Eric attributes Athens’ success to providing venues where people could gather and drink and voice their ideas freely. He also attributes it to a culture of walking, which is conducive to creative thinking and perhaps explains why Greeks did their philosophizing while on a stroll.
Eric also attributes Athenians greatness to their dirty little secret of being great moochers who sailed the region, took ideas they liked and perfected them. Athenians had an openness to experience, which psychologists have identified as the single most important trait for a creative person.
Rising To The Challenge
In The Geography of Genius, Eric says genius also springs from overcoming challenges, such as dyslexia, a broken home, or some such. Athens was burned to the ground before its Golden Age, Florence was decimated by the Bubonic Plague before the Renaissance, and Scotland’s creativity sprang from its loss of identity after being taken over by England. These challenges shook up the social order and created the chaos and fluidity that breaks old patterns and fosters creativity.
Steve wonders whether the rise of Silicon Valley was different from Athens or Florence. Surprisingly, Eric connects its success to the sinking of the Titanic! His theory is that the mandate that all ships carry ship-to-shore radios was a boon to a few small firms in Palo Alto, California, that responded to the mandate and sowed the seeds for tech innovation.
The Role Of Education
Finally, Eric notes that more education does not create more geniuses. Someone with a Ph.D. is less likely to become a genius because the high degree of specialization discourages the kind of interdisciplinary thinking that’s essential for creativity.
So the next time you come across a genius, think of Eric Weiner’s book, The Geography of Genius, and try and figure out what factors might have led to the blossoming of the genius in front of you.
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Steve Pomeranz: It’s my pleasure to introduce Eric Weiner. Eric was a long time foreign correspondent for national public radio, writes a regular column for BBC Travel, and his work also appears in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post as well as NPR’s Morning Edition. He has written New York Times Bestsellers The Geography of Bliss and Man Seeks God. He is here to discuss his latest book The Geography of Genius. This is interesting stuff, so let’s meet him. Hey Eric, welcome to the show.
Eric Weiner: Hi Steve, happy to be here.
Steve Pomeranz: I understand that some of your neighbors have recognized your specialness when you were younger,especially when you dropped a water balloon from 15 floors and broke a neighbor’s windshield, and they said, “Hey, way to go Einstein.”
Eric Weiner: They were impressed with my scientific curiosity.
Steve Pomeranz: I see.
Eric Weiner: Just because you write a book with “genius” in the title, Steve, does not mean that you are a genius.
Steve Pomeranz: I think you state pretty categorically that you’re not a genius, but you’ve got some good reason to hope that perhaps someone in your family younger than you may be a genius because you say that … well, first of all, before we get into that, what is the definition of genius?
Eric Weiner: Well, I’ll tell you what it’s not. I really think it’s not just raw IQ score, being a smarty pants or a know it all. It really is creative genius. It’s making a conceptual leap. German philosopher Schopenhauer said, and I love this quote, “Talent hits the target no one else can hit. Genius hits the target no one else can see,” that kind of leap, and I should add that once you hit this target no one else can see, other people have to see it then. Otherwise, you’re just the nut job in the corner hitting invisible targets. At some point, your genius needs to be recognized in order to really become genius. It’s a social verdict in that sense.
Steve Pomeranz: We have these people in history who are notable for hitting a target that no one sees. Einstein comes to mind for certain, Mozart as well, and so many others that we can look back and yet, your philosophy or thinking, is that genius is really not a person, it’s more of a place. Am I correct in that?
Eric Weiner: It’s both. I don’t want to take anything from a Mozart or a Beethoven or an Einstein. But to look at them in isolation is almost like a shooting star in the sky that they just come along randomly, and when they do, we look up at the night sky and we go, “Ooh, wow,” and wonder when the next one will come along. It doesn’t work that way. A better analogy than the shooting star would be the garden, and the genius is the fruit or vegetable that’s grown in the garden, and you need a good seed and good genetics and you need the water and the hard work—but ultimately you need the right soil, the right place, and the right time to make that genius blossom.
Steve Pomeranz: More nurture than nature.
Eric Weiner: Yes, you do need the seed, as they did. You need a little bit of nature, but you need a certain kind of nurture. And it’s more than just when you hear the word “nurture” you tend to think of a mother with her daughter or son or a family and that kind of small scale nurturing of the unit of the family. And that’s important in a way, but I think what’s more important is the bigger milieu that’s going on around that person, the place and time they’re born into, and I really think that gets short shrift. I think we have largely ignored that partly because we just are so in love with this myth of the lone genius against all odds and doing his or her thing without any regard to the world out there, and it doesn’t work that way.
Steve Pomeranz: You mentioned myths. You write in your book that the myths are first of all a genius is born and a genius is made through hard work, and geniuses are grown in the soil somehow. How do you dispel the fact that genius is not born per se?
Eric Weiner: Well, I think a good way to look at this actually is with a slightly controversial subject, a question that always comes up, people say, “Eric, why are there so few women geniuses in your book,” and it’s true, and the reason is because there are so few women geniuses historically. Now why is that? Well, if you subscribe to the genetic theory, you would have to conclude, and I am not concluding, but you would have to conclude that women don’t have the genetic wherewithal to become geniuses. That’s why we’re seeing so few, or that if you believe genius is all about hard work, you’d have to conclude that they don’t work hard. Not true. What is it?
It’s the soil which has been largely controlled by white men for most of history and not giving women A, the opportunity to pursue genius pursuits, and B, even if they managed to against the odds, don’t give them the recognition. I think that’s the best evidence that it’s not genetic.
Steve Pomeranz: The book is The Geography of Genius with the emphasis here on the word “geography”, so it’s place that matters. And you say that we rarely see one genius here, one genius there, but instead we see genius clusters; and I think this talks to the idea that it’s a lot about the cultural environment that one finds themselves, and, in history, women really didn’t get a chance to participate as well in the cultural environment as much as men did. Let’s look at some of these places you talked about. You’ve traveled all over the world—to Greece, Italy, Scotland, China, Silicon Valley—to investigate how genius takes root. Let’s go back in time. You mentioned Florence as a good example.
Eric Weiner: It is. When you think of the Renaissance Man, obviously you think of Leonardo da Vinci, the original Renaissance Man, at least in the Western mind. He also came out of a system. A creative ecology I think is actually the best term and one that I like quite a lot, and that was a creative ecology that was really bolstered through money, and I subtitled that chapter “Genius is Expensive”, and I realized that’s a little bit provocative, because we don’t tend to think of geniuses having anything to do with money, right? They don’t need money. They don’t work for money, but that’s not true.
Florence benefited mightily from the generous and very smart patronage of one family in particular, the Medici, who didn’t just throw their money around haphazardly. They got art, they understood art; and they had a really keen eye for talent, for spotting invisible talent if you will, or talent not yet visible, I’d put it that way. They, more than frankly Leonardo or Michelangelo, helped explain the greatness that was Florence.
Steve Pomeranz: You also speak about Athens before the Golden Age of Athens. You said, “Nobody would have bet on them. They were not particularly special. They were weaker than Sparta, but they had certain characteristics which showed up later on.” What were those characteristics in Athens?
Eric Weiner: Well, they drank a lot. That’s part of it. No, seriously. Recent research shows, Steve, that a little bit of alcohol will make you more creative, although a lot of alcohol will make you fall down. They drank in a certain way. They cut their wine. They watered it down five parts water to two parts wine, perhaps knowing that it’s more conducive to creative thinking, and they did this drinking in very social settings and this is a common trend. They call it the symposium, literally drinking together in Ancient Greek. There’s almost always in these places a venue for people to voice ideas freely, unbridled way. They had that, and they did a lot of walking which is very conducive to creative thinking. In fact, they did their philosophizing while walking, but if I were to point to one thing that explains Athenian greatness, I would say it’s their Port of Piraeus, which they used to sail an entire region and to mooch.
The Athenians were great moochers. This is one of the dirty little secrets of the place is not all that much was invented there, not as much as we think. A lot was perfected there though. Plato said that what the Greeks borrow from foreigners they perfect. Now, the foreigners may have considered it stealing, but still that is important. They had that one trait that psychologists identified as the single most important trait for a creative person, or, I think a creative place, and that is openness to experience, openness to the other. They had what we would characterize in today’s terms as a fairly open or liberal immigration policy.
Steve Pomeranz: You mentioned taking other’s ideas and improving upon them. You also speak about Edinburgh, Scotland which was really a very out of the way place. It was dirty, it was poor, but they were able to take other ideas and really improve upon them, a better plough, a better steam engine. What was it about Edinburgh, Scotland that brought them into this culture of genius?
Eric Weiner: Well, first of all, like many of these places, it was not an easy place. It wasn’t paradise. It was, as you say, small, kind of dirty and smelly to be honest even by the standards of today and isolated, perched up on the edge of the world. They’ve just lost their independence to England. You look at it again, you think they don’t have a lot going for them, but they had something to push against and that’s important. I really do think that creativity is always a response to a challenge. We don’t always rise to that challenge, but some places and some people do—and the Scots did.
They really had, and I think still have, a very practical stream of genius, that they really believe in, as you say, improvability whether it’s a plough or a steam engine or ideas. And they should have married the worlds of ideas and practical innovation, and it really came to the forefront in medicine. It was the place for medical research for a while actually. Some of the Founding Fathers of this country studied at the medical school in Edinburgh, and they returned and signed the Declaration of Independence for instance, a man named Benjamin Rush. It was a place where ideas were only of use and only of interest if they were practical.
Steve Pomeranz: I want to mention, to find out more about Eric Weiner and to hear this interview again, don’t forget to join the conversation at stevepomeranz.com. My guest is Eric Weiner and his book is The Geography of Genius. You mentioned the role of growing up in difficulties. Many of these geniuses you mentioned grew up dyslexic, grew up without a father, or let’s say they had some challenge in their lives. It’s the opposite of perhaps today’s society where employers, for instance, are trying to spur creativity through giving a lot of perks in their business and so on. You mentioned that Athens was burned to the ground before they rebuilt into their Golden Age. What were some of the other places that went into chaos first before coming out?
Eric Weiner: Chaos and trauma really. Florence is a good example. Just a couple of generations before the blossoming of the Renaissance around 1400, the city was decimated by the Black Death, the Bubonic Plague. A third of the population was wiped out. It was horrible, no doubt about it, but it also shook things up. It shook up the social order, and created more fluidity which is really essential for a creative place—fluidity— and that’s almost always the case. There’s a stirring of the pot, something is going on. I saw that time and again in the places I visited.
Steve Pomeranz: Chaos seems to be a necessary ingredient.
Eric Weiner: Yeah. Not anarchy, they’re not exactly the same, but a certain stirring of the pot, a certain fluidity to life. There was a neurologist (neuroscientist actually) named Walter Freeman who studied the brains of rabbits and would hook them up to EEG machines and then introduce these rabbits to odors, some they were familiar with, others they were not familiar with. He noticed that whenever the rabbits were introduced to an unfamiliar odor, their brains would enter a chaotic state, what Freeman called an “I don’t know” state, and I think that’s crucially important.
You really need to enter that state of—you can call it chaos or ignorance or I don’t know— but something that breaks the previous pattern, and there’s an intermediate period where the old pattern is being dissolved, but a new pattern is not yet formed, and you call that chaos. That’s what it is and that’s essential.
Steve Pomeranz: How does that theory explain the burgeoning of Silicon Valley in the United States? We see that as a cluster of genius right now.
Eric Weiner: That’s a good question. I’ve been thinking about this. There was no Black Death, or the Persians did not burn Silicon Valley to the ground.
Steve Pomeranz: And that’s a good thing.
Eric Weiner: And that’s a good thing, but there was the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 which in a strange way I think helped lead to at least the seeds of Silicon Valley being planted, too. Within a year after the sinking of the Titanic, Congress required all ships to carry ship to shore radios. Radios were a new technology at that time. One of the places where there was a huge interest in this new technology was Palo Alto, California and what we now call Silicon Valley, and that requirement helped the industry a lot. And it helped a few small firms, one we call the Federal Telegraph Company in Palo Alto, grow, and it really instilled this sense of tinkering.
Amateur radio took off in what’s now Silicon Valley, and that idea of the amateur having as much of a right as anyone to play with these new toys, that lasts to this day. It wasn’t a catastrophe on the scale of the plague, but it was the sinking of the Titanic, and it was simply, to be honest, the fact that they were so far away from the East Coast establishment, from the money and the elites and the power that they were freed up to think freely.
Steve Pomeranz: Last question, do you think more education creates more geniuses?
Eric Weiner: No, I don’t. In fact, statistically, if you have a PhD, you’re less likely to become a genius than if you do have one. At first, we might find that surprising because again one definition of genius is just someone really smart with a lot of degrees. But if you think about it for a second, it makes sense that the PhD, particularly in today’s university system, is for the most part—not always, but for the most part—really required to learn more and more about less and less to specialize. The creative genius by definition is making surprising and useful connections between different fields or different domains. I think the sub-specialization you see at, not all universities but many universities, actually discourages that kind of interdisciplinary thinking that’s essential for creativity.
Steve Pomeranz: Maybe it has also something to do with Deresiewicz’s book The Excellent Sheep which perhaps we can discuss at another time. My guest Eric Weiner, the author of The Geography of Genius, and to find out more about Eric and to hear this interview again, don’t forget to join the conversation at stevepomeranz.com. Eric, thank you so much for joining us.
Eric Weiner: Thanks Steve. It’s been a pleasure.
Steve Pomeranz: My pleasure.