Today, helicopter and bulldozer parents are ensuring children never fail and have a clear path ahead. In the Golden Ages, failure was a means, not an end. It was one step along a journey of exploration. Silicon Valley, another stop on Weiner’s journey, has an edict to “fail fast,” which has been upgraded to “fail up” and ultimately “fail better”; re-branding at its finest. Failure is an opportunity to learn — to become better. It’s no surprise then that “fail like a scientist” has become an en vogue battle cry for start-ups, venture capital, marketers, and beyond. The new goal is to view failure as one experiment along with many trials and errors. It seems the geniuses knew something that the rest were trying to figure out.
Why this difference in mindset? Perhaps because creatives have cognitive flexibility. Psychologist Albert Rothenberg studied ‘homospatial thinking’ in creative people — the ability to conceive two or more disparate ideas in the same mental space. Whether these two ideas are failure + lesson, or science + art, several creative geniuses perform this particular thinking, even if they don’t know what to call it. “Creative input is excited by starkly contrasted and random images that are juxtaposed, surprising, and perhaps hidden,” tells Weiner. “Such as artists displaying random images on the floor to be inspired.” We cherish the hidden more than the exposed. Genius loves surprise.
Cognitive flexibility is critical for turning chaos into order. “A creative person collaborates with chaos,” writes Weiner. “The possibility of coincidence” and for connection “is greater here than elsewhere”. Where exactly? “Perhaps it’s not in the middle of chaos, but right on the edge of chaos…dancing in between chaos and order.” Weiner describes how chaos is not something to be eschewed but welcomed because chaos is a force for creativity. A person might not understand all of the elements at the time, but chaos can introduce us to new ideas, “so you’d better pay attention.”
If creativity is connecting things, then the more exposure to ideas, the better. Exposure to too many ideas might be considered chaotic, overwhelming, but this is the stuff of creativity. Why? Partially because of constraints. Weiner cited a study where participants chose or were randomly assigned a set of objects and then used them for activity. “Results were overwhelming,” Weiner writes, “those who were randomly assigned objects were more creative.” The skeptic might say that this is not surprising, perhaps, because you need to use unusual things for usual activities. However, would the same results be found if people could choose objects that were either familiar, random, or unfamiliar and then use those? Is it about choice or constraints? Regardless, chaotic exposure to many ideas is the elixir for creativity.
In Genius, Weiner dispels the myth of the lone genius. He argues that at no time in history was a single genius working tirelessly alone. Often genius requires two minds. Like Plato and Aristotle. DaVinci and Michelangelo. Charles Darwin and James Hutton. Partnerships can allow one to plant the seed and the other to grow — for one genius to develop the idea and a partner to describe it. What then separates one group’s ability to develop genius ideas and another group to conclude with stupidity? While there is no consensus, one central element is the ability and desire to hear dissenting views. People with similar backgrounds, intellect, and a strong desire to please the leader will go nowhere. In contrast, the mere presence of dissent, even if wrongheaded, improves performance and creativity and allows groups to go far. Scientists are naturally skeptical, so instead of a desire to please, they typically have a desire to question. This keeps the engine moving forward.
Noting all of the characteristics of geniuses, the question remains: “what was it about a place and time that produced so many creative geniuses?” Was it something about the moment in time? Indeed, genius has an element of “being scrappy,” writes Weiner, “transitional times between the old and the new, rebounding with some struggle.” Several great societies had to rebound, such as Renaissance Florence after the plague. We look for reasons for genius because we need to know the source of a bright light to appreciate its brilliance.