The Place of Creative Genius (part III)

In the end, Weiner concludes no single environmental factor can be attributed to genius, because all the parts are connected. It’s not genius views on: observation, exploration, on risk and failure, cognitive flexibility, embracing chaos, teams, or moments in time; it’s all of them.

The Place of Creative Genius (part III)

In the end, Weiner concludes no single environmental factor can be attributed to genius, because all the parts are connected. It’s not genius views on: observation, exploration, on risk and failure, cognitive flexibility, embracing chaos, teams, or moments in time; it’s all of them.

It is impossible to influence one part of the ecosystem without affecting the whole. David Harrington, professor of Psychology at UCSC, describes an ‘ecology of creativity’ and views genius from a more holistic perspective. As a keystone example, take the concept of selective migration (no shortage of useful analogies in biology). Selective migration describes the behavior of a flock of birds that coordinates migration to a particular location. But this is not because of circadian influence. Nor because of internal geomagnetic GPS. But instead, because the birds have learned that in this environment, they will thrive. The same goes for genius.

Another concept rooted in biology is organism-environment fit, borrowing elements in biology and ecology. It is also perhaps one of the most obvious elements of the relationship between genius and environment. Candidate-fit, lifestyle-fit, relationship-fit are each key determinants of longevity. Without fit, and the organism won’t thrive. However, there is no ideal environment for every organism.

Polar bears will not thrive in the rainforest, just as flowers will not bloom in the Arctic.

What then do Geniuses need to thrive? In many cases, they need other Geniuses. The myth of the lone genius forgets that geniuses perform for other geniuses — their contemporaries. Whether for competition or cooperation, creativity is contagious. Being around creative people drives creativity. In some cases, when Geniuses perform for themselves, they are often making something that society needs. They don’t create for some hypothetical user or imaginary test case. Being more genius-like means creating something that you want to use, even if it’s heretical. Especially if so.

Outsiders often make essential insights. This is in part because those invested in the status quo have little motivation to change it. Weiner tells about how Freud was an outsider. Even more, Freud was a maker. The highest form of genius is not when someone makes a groundbreaking contribution to a field but instead makes a new field entirely. Weiner tells of two kinds of genius: unifiers and revolutionaries. Unifiers connect the dots; revolutionaries make new dots. While unifiers can do it anywhere, revolutionaries need an environment. They need unrest, like Freud had in Vienna in 1900. Vienna was a vastly heterogeneous, multi-ethnic metropolis made up of ethnic Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, Poles, Russians, Romanians, Italians, to name a few. It was a city wrought by political tensions. From 1897 to 1910, the city was governed by the highly popular (and populist) German nationalist, anti-Semitic mayor Karl Lueger. But the political power of the Empire was waning, and ethnic conflicts threatened its internal stability. These struggles culminated in the assassination in 1914 of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife by Serbian nationalists, which ultimately gave rise to World War I. There were so many breaks in the air, and the sense of impending collapse was liberating. When old ideas and regimes die, new ideas thrive.

This all takes guts and foresight. In fact, many we consider geniuses today were not in their time. They lived a life of struggle and never saw the fruits of their labors. But geniuses are overly optimistic. So they proceed despite the risk. Perhaps because of it.

Steve Jobs used to proclaim, “when the lightbulb was invented, no one complained it was too dim!” Still today, Silicon Vally is full of first starters. But Silicon Valley has “Janusian” risk, writes Weiner, from the two-faced Roman God Janus. People take risks there but also have massive safety nets. Dabble here; risk there. Together, this shallow, lack of attachment, high fluidity environment makes it easy to come and go. As a result, ideas are processed smarter and faster than in other places.

Many in Silicon Valley are connectors, not inventors. The whole place operates like a network diagram, affectionately called “hairball diagrams,” where nodes (people) are connected by edges (relationship). When the network crosses a certain threshold, it becomes a tangled mess. Weiner describes Silicon Valley as a network of weak rather than strong connections.

You are more likely to learn something from a weak tie (a loose relationship) because you are more willing to offend weak ties and give harsh/true feedback. Conversely, strong ties can lead to groupthink. The downside to weakly connected networks: there is a lack of support. But if a person has more weak ties, they have the potential to be more creative. If “creativity is just connecting things,” as famously quipped by Steve Jobs, then the network diagram of people can be extended to a network of ideas. Connecting ideas requires exploring new connections, breaking them, re-making them in different combinations. Creativity is a combinatorial act, and in this way, there is strength in weak connections.
Weiner likens Silicon Valley to a modern-day Verrocchio’s Workshop: a culture of apprenticeship where the old transfer knowledge to the young, an environment of learning where the apprentice is expected to surpass the master, and a solid loyalty to the ideas and culture, but not to people.

What then does this quixotic tour of ideas, space, and time tell us about the creativity of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Bacon, Descartes, Newton, and other scientific geniuses? The myth of the lone genius has cracked. While simple narratives overemphasize the importance of individual contributors, Weiner clearly shows how culture is crucial to creativity. Beyond a lone genius or pair of geniuses complimenting one’s Yin to the other’s Yang, an untold number of nameless individuals contribute to the culture — from Workshops to coffee shops, from quiet revelations to thunderous revolutions. Without the kindling of culture, the sparks of creativity never catch fire.

What is honored in a country will be cultivated there, wrote Plato. Culture prioritizes what is honorific and, therefore, what is cultivated. Identifying how places operated or what they valued won’t simply transform a modern-day environment into a genius factory. Because, as Weiner concludes, you cannot separate the parts from the whole. Even with the same recipe, you cannot recreate the exact ingredients of a specific time: the unrest, the tension, the knowns and unknowns.

Instead, we can control the people we associate with and our values — our personal mini-culture. What is honored in a workplace will be cultivated there; what is honored in a home will be grown there. Just as the tools we use shape us, the culture we sow becomes us. If creative genius requires new and useful contributions, then the place of creative genius is where we honor it and where we make it.