Throughout human history, certain areas of the world have experienced short periods of intense creative flourishing. For example, from 500 BC to 300 BC the Greek city-state of Athens produced thinkers and philosophers that laid the foundation of Western Civilization. Between 1330 and 1550, great works of art poured out of Florence, Italy.
Why do certain places have these bursts of creative genius?
My guest today on the podcast explores that question in his book The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places, from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley. His name is Eric Weiner and on today’s episode we explore what Eric uncovered during his wold-wide tour of humanity’s most creative times and places and how we can apply these principles in our own lives to be more innovative.
- The scientific study of genius
- How a dirty, dumpy city-state in Ancient Greece produced some of the most prolific philosophical minds in human history
- Why becoming “foodies” may have contributed to Athens’ demise as a center of genius
- Why chaos is necessary for creative genius
- What a city in ancient China can teach us about how new ideas are formed
- How Leonardo da Vinci got his start in an “art sweatshop”
- What the Scots during the Enlightenment can teach us about the importance of having a chip on your shoulder
- How the Scottish practice of “flyting” — “The ritual humiliation of your opponent through verbal violence” — contributed to creative genius
- Why Silicon Valley is a hotspot for tech innovation
- Why boldness and manliness are necessary traits for creative genius
- And much more!
The Geography of Genius is an enlightening and entertaining read. Eric does a great job of explaining oftentimes complex research in an approachable and humorous way. If you’re looking to harness your own creative genius, pick up a copy today.
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Brett McKay: Eric Weiner, welcome to the show.
Eric Weiner: Thank you. Happy to be here.
Brett McKay: Sir, you’re the author of the book, “Geography of Genius”, where you go on this worldwide tour of genius clusters that have popped up throughout human history. Before we get to the tour, the places you visited, let’s talk about the topic of genius first. I thought it was interesting you began the book saying that in the modern world we are suffering genius inflation. What did you mean by that?
Brett McKay: What I mean is that we toss around the word a bit promiscuously. Everybody these days is a genius. We have marketing geniuses and football geniuses and political geniuses. Well, maybe not so many political geniuses this season, but in the past we’ve had political geniuses. We all want our children to grow up to be little Einsteins and little Mozarts. That’s not the way the word was originally used, at least for the last few centuries. It’s really meant someone who rises to the very top of creativity really. That’s what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about genius as a smarty-pants or someone with a high IQ. I’m talking about people who really change the way we see the world with their creative innovations. An Einstein or a Mozart or a Freud. I think the word has been a bit diminished in recent years.
Brett McKay: This is interesting. In the beginning of the book, you also talk about there’s a small group of academics who study genius on a very scientific approach. Can you tell how this study of genius began? Who is the father of genius science, if you want to call it that?
Eric Weiner: I think that would probably be Sir Francis Galton. Going back to the mid 1800’s here. He was a very odd British scientist and nobleman. He wrote a book called “Hereditary Genius”. It was the first really scientific, in quotes, approach to the subject. Before, creative genius was just this sort of romantic idea people had, but no one had thought to really try to measure it and study it, and he did. He got a lot wrong though. He really concluded that genius was almost entirely hereditary, when in fact now today we know it’s not. He at least started the ball rolling with an attempt to empirically measure this thing called creative genius, and to try to put numbers to it, and therefore to explain it.
Brett McKay: I guess from then on, a lot of the genius study was focused on the individual. There was a fellow by the name of … His last name with Simonton.
Eric Weiner: Dean Simonton, University of California, Davis, who unlike Galton is very much alive and kicking. He really got this field called Historiometrics going, which is again studying history through statistics. He’s a numbers guy who’s taken that numbers approach. He’s really looked at these genius clusters as they call them. Certain places in certain times in history that have flourished creatively, and what was in the water back then? Dean Simonton spent a better part of the last fifty years studying what was going on.
Brett McKay: This was how the book began. You took this idea that you had and you actually went to go visit these genius clusters to find out what was going on. The idea was it’s not so much … There’s a culture I guess, that’s embedded in these areas that foster genius.
Eric Weiner: Right. It is. That’s what I mean by the geography of it. It’s not, oh were there mountains or not? That’s part of the equation, but really it comes down to culture. It comes down to, you get two or three people together and you have a culture. You get two or three thousand together, you definitely have a culture. In these places, there was a certain culture that I think really made genius more likely.
We were so stuck to this myth of the genius as this solitary individual fighting against the odds and persevering. That’s part of it, but that really misses the whole important part of the puzzle, which is they did this in certain places at certain times. Their timing was good. The places they were in, like Mozart in Vienna … The 1700’s was conducive to their particular genius. That’s important.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about some of the places you visited. For example, you start off your tour going to Athens. You didn’t go there to study. Well, I guess you looked at modern day Athens, but you went there to figure out what happened in ancient Athens during this very small period? A lot of people think that the classical era where there was all this flourishing was very long, but it was actually really short on the.
Eric Weiner: Right. They always are, by the way,. These golden ages never last very long. That was true of Athens as well.
Brett McKay: Yeah. How did this small city state in Greece … Like you describe Athens as this … It’s dusty. It’s not very habitable. It’s not that great.
Eric Weiner: It’s not that great.
Brett McKay: It was able to come up with this time period where they produced all these geniuses. Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and a whole bunch of other thinkers and scientists.
Eric Weiner: You’re right that it was, as I say in the book, a dump. It was not a very nice place. We should just disabuse ourselves of this idea that genius requires paradise. In fact paradise, if it existed, would probably be the least creative place in the world because you would have nothing to push against you. You would have no need to be creative. Ancient Athens was not paradise by any means, but they had a few things going for them. They drank a lot of wine, which is no small thing. They watered it down, they diluted it. Five parts water, two parts wine, so they were able to maintain a low level buzz throughout the evening when they held these symposia, which means literally drinking together. They discussed.
That’s, on the ground level, something that happens in all these creative places. There’s conversation going on. Slightly but not too inebriated conversation, and it’s conversation of people from different backgrounds. It’s energized and at times can get a bit nasty, but no hard feelings. Everything’s allowed. That’s what happened in Athens.
They also walked a lot. In fact, they did a lot of their philosophizing while walking. They were not sedentary the way we are. I think that’s a good thing. In fact there have been studies that show that we’re more creative when we walk even fifteen minutes on a treadmill. Never mind in the beautiful outdoors and the Greek countryside. Simply being on the treadmill for fifteen minutes will make you more creative.
I mention those two, the wine and the walking, as important but not the most important factor. I would say the most important factor was their openness. They were open to the outside world. In fact they borrowed or stole, depending on your perspective, a lot of the ideas that we now associate with them. Whether it’s theater or statue making, they imported these ideas, and then they perfected them. They were able to absorb all these foreign ideas and foreign concepts, and then improve upon them. That’s what all these places do. They don’t create something out of nothing. They borrow from other places.
Brett McKay: Why did the fountain of genius run dry in Athens? Why did it end?
Eric Weiner: In a word, arrogance I think. I think that’s what happens to all these places. Their success leads to arrogance. Once you’re arrogant, you’re no longer ignorant and ignorance is actually one of the most important ingredients in creativity, never mind creative genius. You have to know that there’s something you don’t know, right? You have to be open to the possibility that there’s something to learn. The Greeks, the Athenians in particular, became pretty cocky, which annoyed their neighbors. Ultimately I think, led to their demise as a great place. They also just in a way, if you stop importing as they did eventually … You’re like in your kitchen cabinet. You have some ingredients. You can make various dishes with them, but if you stop importing new ingredients, you’re going to run out of new combinations and new dishes to make. That’s what happens as well.
Brett McKay: Hubris.
Eric Weiner: Which is a Greek word.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s a Greek word.
Eric Weiner: Which was a crime against the Gods too, which was a big deal back then. That’s sort of what kept them in check for a while. It was considered very bad to engage in hubris, excess pride, and arrogance. Then all of a sudden, it was okay.
By the way, they became foodies at some point. During the golden age, they were like anti-foodies. They believed in very simple meals, low caloric intake, kind of bland food. Then they became foodies and started shopping at Williams and Sonoma or whatever the equivalent was back then. I’m not saying there’s a direct cause and effect there, but it’s interesting that as they became more into food, they lost their creative spark.
Brett McKay: Interesting. The next place you visit is a Chinese … Excuse me if I don’t pronounce it right. Hangzhou? This was interesting because it’s China. It’s eastern. I think this was a great way that … A lot of us westerners think of this idea of genius being … As you say, it’s we create something out of nothing and it’s like this novel, new thing that transforms the world, but it seems like the Chinese had a different idea of creative genius.
Eric Weiner: They did, and to some extent still do, have a different idea. That is that all creativity must be based on tradition, and it must be useful. As you say, we’re in the west. We’re really focused on this idea of novelty and newness. That something must be really novel in order to be considered creative. The Chinese see it differently. Something must be useful in order to be creative. Yes, it must be new or new enough, but they don’t really live under this illusion that you can create something out of nothing. That’s very much a western idea.
The Latin ex nihilo means literally from nothing. That’s the way God created the earth and heavens was from nothing. In the Chinese mythology, there was always something. There was never nothing. It becomes a job of a creative person to rearrange the stuff that’s already there in perhaps new combinations, but not to create something from nothing. It may sound esoteric and meta-physical, and it is on one level, but it also has a very practical side that everything you create must be linked to what came before.
Brett McKay: Interesting. You talk about how Hangzhou. During this time the Europeans … They weren’t doing that great, but this city had the printing press, they were producing great art.
Eric Weiner: They had woodblock printing. They invented the compass. They had a population of more than a million. We’re talking twelfth, thirteenth century when Europeans were picking lice out of their hair and the biggest city in Europe was maybe fifty thousand people. The west does not have a monopoly on these golden ages, and it doesn’t have a monopoly on creative genius certainly.
Brett McKay: Right. I guess one of the other factors too. It’s similar to all the places you talk about. This city was going through some … There was some political turmoil going on.
Eric Weiner: Yep. These places are never placid and completely stable. There’s always a bit of tumult. Not all out war. Actually, I think that’s bad for creativity. Political intrigue, or just some churning of society. Graham Greene once said of Switzerland, maybe this is a bit unfair, but he said it anyway. Five hundred years of peace and stability, and what have they brought the world but the cuckoo clock? His point … In fact the cuckoo clock was invented in Germany, so there. Not even that. I guess his point is that you need to live in interesting times. That means a bit of turmoil and even chaos at times, which is actually good for creativity.
Brett McKay: I think that’s interesting because a lot of the popular ideas about … You read these blog posts and magazine articles about how to be creative. It’s all about finding your little space and having your routine where it makes peaceful calm. What I found, and what the research shows is that’s actually, that’s not going to help you. You actually need to have a little chaos.
Eric Weiner: Right. I think that’s important. That’s why all these attempts to create the next golden age … Often, governments are trying to create the next Silicon Valley or whatever, and they tend to fail. One reason is you can’t really create one of these places. They grow organically. The other reason is that government trying to mandate creativity is like trying to schedule spontaneity. It’s kind of a contradiction.
Brett McKay: The next place you visited is Florence. To study the renaissance era, right? Where all this great art like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, these guys. What I thought was interesting from this, what you learned from here was that, I think all us modern westerns think of art as … In order for it to be really, real art, like pure art, it has to be unsullied from money. It can’t be connected. It seems like most of the great art that came from Florence, all these great innovations, was created as commercial products in a way.
Eric Weiner: They were created as commercial products. They were backed by one family in particular. The Medici. You’re right. That’s what I try to do in that chapter, is to show that the world of money and the world of creativity are connected. Florence, like many of these creative places, it didn’t have a lot going for it. It was malarial infested, it didn’t have a port, it didn’t have a lot of natural resources, but they used their ingenuity. They developed a cloth trade by importing dyes from around the world, and becoming really perfectionists in creating the best cloth they could.
That led to banking, which led to this family, the Medici’s. They had this almost really intense love of beauty. They wanted to create it. They didn’t want to be patrons for the reason people tend to do today, which is to look good or to feel like you’re doing your share. They actually were into art and beauty for its own sake. They were very good at talent scouting and picking out the artists that showed the most potential. Like a young Michelangelo or a young Leonardo, and backing them. There was a whole system of apprenticeship and a way for … This is always the case for these places, for talent to blossom. That’s what happened in Florence.
Brett McKay: I think it’s interesting because there’s some parallels today. I hear you talking about cities trying to create centers of creativity. They often do this by throwing lots of money, right? Creating these centers or creating these programs. It doesn’t work. Does the money come first, or does the creativity come first?
Eric Weiner: I guess, yeah that’s a good question. I mean, you need to have some money and some resources. Let me put it this way. If you’re starving, you’re not going to create much art. The idea of this truly starving artist is a myth. The starving artist doesn’t create anything but their own misery really. You need some. Then it’s what you do with the money. Do you deploy it in a smart way? In a way that’s likely to lead to changes? You look at some countries in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. They have lots of money, but not lots of creativity because you can’t just buy a culture and import it. It has to be more organic than that.
Brett McKay: Also, what I thought was interesting was the role of the … I guess, bottega? Bottega?
Eric Weiner: Bottega, yes. It means literally workshop.
Brett McKay: Yeah. These sounded like … They weren’t just working, they were like sweatshops almost, of art.
Eric Weiner: Art sweatshops, yeah. They were rough and tumble places where there were chickens running around, and rabbits which they used for various purposes. It was more like a sweatshop than an artist’s studio, as we might have this romantic notion. Yeah. They were essential to the creative ecology of the place really.
Brett McKay: Right. They were getting that chaos aspect. I thought it was interesting too, you talk about how the master artists would let their apprentices work on this art, and it was very collaborative. The art that they made was very collaborative in the bottega.
Eric Weiner: It was. You think about it. There was this artist named Verrocchio who ran a workshop. Certainly prided himself on being good, but he let a young seventeen year old, an apprentice in his shop, paint one part of his painting called Tobias and the Angel. That seventeen year old was named Leonard da Vinci, right? Who was not yet the renaissance man, the famous man we know. It shows there was enough trust there. They were collaborative. They were also competitive at the same time. It was that mix that you always see. Like Leonardo da Vinci and Michael Angelo, they were very competitive. Michelangelo was younger. He was more the upstart, and this really pissed off Leonardo. Somehow, this competition actually brought out the best in both men.
Brett McKay: Then you moved to Scotland, to Edinburgh. A lot of people don’t understand, particularly in America, don’t really understand the influence Scotland has had on America. All the founding fathers read these thinkers that came from Scotland. Adam Smith.
Eric Weiner: Some of them traveled to Scotland, like Benjamin Franklin was a visitor to Edinburgh, yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah. What happened in Edinburgh during this enlightenment that fostered this genius output?
Eric Weiner: They had a chip on their shoulder, which is actually interesting because they had just lost their independence to England. They were certainly on the edge of the world, way up there north in a small city. They wanted to prove they were every bit as good as people in London or Paris. That motivated them. Their particular skill I think, and I think they still have it to some extent today, is combining the theoretical with the practical. This manifests itself mostly in medicine, for instance. A lot of the early forms of anesthesia and other medical advances were made there.
It makes sense because medicine is … You need to have a theory. You need to know how the body works, and understand chemistry and other conceptual ideas, but you also need to be practical. There’s a practical goal here to make people well. Prevent them from getting sick. The Scots were very good at this improvement. They always tried to improve things.
Adam Smith was there at the time. He’s the founder of modern economics, which is a social science and theoretical, but also practical, right? Economics is about creating the wealth of nations, to borrow the title from his book.
Brett McKay: You talk about the practice of flyting.
Eric Weiner: Flyting. F-L-Y-T-I-N-G. Nasty, it sounds. Like the definition I was given as the ritual humiliation of your opponent through verbal violence. It sounds brutal. The historian who told me about it … He said, “The ritual humiliation of your opponent through verbal violence.” I said, “It really sounds nasty.” He says, “Oh, it is.” With a glean in his eye.
It’s this idea again that you can have this conversation that is gloves off, kind of nasty in an honest way, or honest in a nasty way if you will. Everything is on the table. You say what you’re thinking, but then afterwards you all head down to the pub for a pint or five, because there are no hard feelings. That’s kind of important. To be able to have that open conversation, but to not get so personal that you make enemies. The Scots were particularly good at this.
Brett McKay: That’s really interesting. I guess we don’t really have that today too much. I guess people would say social media, but there you can duke it out, but you don’t have the beer afterwards, you just …
Eric Weiner: No, they don’t. You don’t have the intimacy that you know … The true intimacy on social media that these places like Edinburgh and Athens had, where these geniuses were friends with one another. Not always. There was competition, but often friendly competition. Like Adam Smith and the philosopher, David Hume. Best buddies. They didn’t always see eye-to-eye. They disagreed on religion, for instance. Hume was an atheist, Smith wasn’t. They were able to live with these differences. I wonder if we’re able to do that as much today, or we tend to demonize our enemies.
Brett McKay: Then you go to Calcutta. I really wasn’t aware of this genius cluster. This flourishing of genius that happened in Calcutta, India the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Tell us a little bit about what happened during this time.
Eric Weiner: That’s why I included it in the book, because it was so unknown and outside of Indian circles really, and therefore surprising. We’re talking the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries. It’s now known as the Bengal Renaissance, named after the Bengali’s, the ethnic group that’s predominant in Calcutta. You saw more books published at that time than in any city in the world except for London. You saw the world’s first non-westerner to win the Nobel Prize for literature, Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore was kind of a renaissance man. He was a poet, an essayist, an educator, and an activist. There were scientific advances there. There was a lot going on. It was really this convergence of English culture and Indian culture that produced a kind of third culture that was remarkably creative, and not that well known.
Brett McKay: I guess there’s that chaos aspect together. You’ve got this combination of different cultures. Even Calcutta itself, it’s a very chaotic city with lots of people.
Eric Weiner: Right. Anyone who’s been to any Indian city, especially Calcutta, now known as Kolkata, is … Yeah, just think of the visual. The stimuli that your senses are bombarded with. Just walking down an Indian street for one minute, is remarkable, and has been for some time. I think we now know … Psychologists know that this kind of stimulation, varied stimulation, not being stimulated by the same thing but by different inputs, leads to creativity, and an element of chaos as you say. In order to get from an old idea to a new idea, you need to enter through a chaotic state.
That’s literally true of your EEG in your brain. They actually hooked up rabbit’s brains to EEG machines and then introduced them to a bunch of odors. Some they were familiar with, others they weren’t. When they were introduced to a new odor, their EEG got all chaotic, and entered what one neuro-scientist called an, I don’t know state. I think being in a chaotic setting triggers something in us. It triggers that I Don’t Know state. Once you say, “Well, I don’t know. Maybe it’s another way.” You’ve really opened the door to creativity.
Brett McKay: In Calcutta you talk about … There’s that theme of talking with people face-to-face. The adda, I think is what it’s …
Eric Weiner: Yep. The adda was their symposia, or their flyting. It’s a particularly Bengali kind of conversation. I love that they give a name for it. It’s unstructured. I said to one Indian woman, a friend there, “Is there an agenda in an adda ?” She said, “Oh no. An agenda would kill an adda, because the whole idea is it’s free flowing.” It doesn’t always lead anywhere, I got to be honest, but it’s this idea that they value conversation enough to give it a special name, and to set aside some time to just … We would say shoot the breeze today, but it was more than shooting the breeze because they were getting into some pretty deep subjects. Sometimes. Sometimes they talk about cricket. Again, this idea of open-ended conversation is important.
Brett McKay: Then you highlight Vienna. Which interestingly, had two golden ages.
Eric Weiner: A double dip, they call it. It sounds like the double dip of genius should be a Ben and Jerry’s flavor, don’t you think? Maybe they’ll pick up on that. Yeah, because all the other places are kind of one shot and that’s it. Vienna, it was fascinating because you have the Vienna of say roughly 1780, when you had Mozart and Haydn, Schubert, and Beethoven was coming along soon. This musical explosion really, that was taking place.
Then in the 1800’s, not that much happened there. Then, in the late 1800’s, around 1900, all of a sudden you had another explosion of genius, but this time in many more directions. You had Sigmund Freud, who’s probably the best known character to emerge from that milieu. You had an artist named Gustav Klimt, and you had an incredible amount going on.
So much of our modern world came out of the ideas that were talked about and developed in Vienna of 1900. It was unusual that you had this double dip. I think they were different. One was musical, and one was more inter-disciplinary. We don’t think about Vienna and genius that much. We might think of Paris or London, but Vienna probably shaped the way we are more than those other cities I would argue.
Brett McKay: The same factors were in play. I guess Vienna, it’s geographical location, it changed hands.
Eric Weiner: It changed hands, you’re right. Under the Ottomans and then not, and it also was on kind of the crossroads of east and west. During the cold war, it was the sort of spy capitol of Europe. It again was a city of immigrants. Especially during Freud’s time. Thank God.
Freud was an immigrant, and probably a huge percentage of the city was from elsewhere, from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and all kinds of places. That’s something else I found. That these creative places all had a fairly open immigration policy. They allowed in outsiders and their ideas.
Brett McKay: Right. Then the outsiders … That you bring in new ideas, but they also, the outsiders, and you kind of allude to this in your book, but they have a chip on their shoulder, a bit.
Eric Weiner: One is the immigrant. Why are immigrants so successful? One reason is, and this is the more conventional reason I guess, is they have something to prove, right? They’re hungrier. They want it badly. They’re motivated. That definitely explains their success, but what about their creativity? That, I think is that they see the world differently from everyone else. They’re coming from a different orientation, and yet they’re accepted. This is sort of the key. They have to be accepted into the new place. African-Americans in this country during times of slavery were outsiders, but you don’t see many geniuses emerge in that community because they weren’t accepted enough. They were truly outside the system.
An immigrant like Freud who was Jewish in Vienna, was accepted to a point. He was what I call an insider, outsider. That’s that sweet spot I think, for creative people. They’re outside enough to have a fresh perspective, but inside enough so that their ideas resonate.
Brett McKay: Finally, you come back home to America to visit Silicon Valley, which has been the hotbed of technological genius. What’s going on there that’s different from some of these other places you’ve visited?
Eric Weiner: It’s a bit of an outlier in some ways. First of all, the chapters not over on Silicon Valley, right? Unlike these other places I visited are historical, and you can look back and say, ah that was what was going on. Silicon Valley is still writing its story, right? That’s number one. Also, every other place I looked at. Every other golden age I can think of, really was an urban phenomenon. Began in a city. Silicon Valley began in farmland essentially. It was known as The Valley of Heart’s Delight, and The Prune Capital of America. That makes it unusual. To some extent, it is like these other places. It’s like Athens in that it borrows a lot from outside. Not all that much was invented in Silicon Valley. Not the cell phone, not the venture capital, and I think the MP3 player was invented elsewhere. I have to check on that.
What does it do? It picks the good ideas. The venture capitalists hopefully back, they don’t always do it, of course but hopefully they’re trying to back the projects with the most potential. Then there’s a sort of system to move to perfect the idea. Sort of like the Greeks. To some extent it’s like those other places, but it’s different in that they’re not really creating something for all time. Steve Jobs pointed this out actually in an interview. He was asked to compare Silicon Valley with renaissance Florence. He said, “Well, in renaissance Florence they were trying to create art for eternity, that will be for all time. We’re creating something that’s only good until the next upgrade.” There is that difference there.
Brett McKay: I guess also in these other places it seems like intimacy. People interacting with each other on a face-to-face basis was important. It seems like in Silicon Valley, it’s a little weaker than that. There is connections, and lots of them.
Eric Weiner: I’m not so sure about that. On the one hand you would think … Have you ever wondered why Silicon Valley continues to exist? Technically it should not exist because they’re making products, they’re selling products there, that essentially come with this message: You can be anywhere. You don’t have to be in a major city. You can be anywhere with our digital technology, Skype, whatever it is. Yet all these people who are telling us this tend to live in one place, Silicon Valley. I actually do think face-to-face contact does matter, even in the valley. You’re right, that may be changing. I’m not sure. It’s kind of a miracle. It shows something about the persistence of geography, and the importance of place in our culture, that it still exists at all.
Brett McKay: What’s the future of genius? Could a town take this, or a nation state take this and say, “Here’s the blueprint of …
Eric Weiner: Well, if I had the blueprint, I wouldn’t be talking to you now because I’d be on my yacht in the Mediterranean sipping a drink with an umbrella in it. That’s the fact. I’m not going to tell you that I’ve got the formula, and for $9.99 it can be yours.
Brett McKay: Dang it.
Eric Weiner: But…. I think there’s just some things you can do to make it more likely. Have an open society where people with foreign ideas are not automatically rejected. North Korea is not going to be the next place of genius. It’s not because they’re not hard-working or have good genes, it’s because it’s not an open system.
You can have places of conversation. Encourage that kind of Scottish flyting, or the Greeks symposia, or the Bengali adda. Have places where people from different walks of life, that can come together. Be good at discernment. Don’t just come up with lots of ideas, be willing to separate the good ones from the bad ones. That’s one of the keys of creativity, I think.
Even though I’m hesitant to tie things up in a bow, I do present a small bow at the end of the book. I call it The Three D’s. Diversity, discernment, and disorder. We’ve sort of covered those here, I think. Diversity of ideas, not just ethnic diversity. Discernment again, you don’t want to just be a magnet for talent, you have to be a colander that separates things out. That disorder, that chaos that we talked about.
All these places that I investigate, and in the future, all these creative places I think, will have those three D’s. I have to be honest, there’s always that element of mystery. There’s why here and not there? What’s that extra spark? It’s like my publisher said. I asked him what the secret to a best selling book is. He said, “If we knew that, we’d make every book a best seller.” If we could create these places of genius, we would. Hundreds of places have tried to replicate Silicon Valley, and they’ve all failed.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it has a little bit of that roman genius, right?
Eric Weiner: Yeah. There’s this boldness too, in these places. It takes guts. Ultimately, it is a courageous act. Can I even say there’s a little bit of manliness involved? I want to throw that in.
Brett McKay: Yeah, for sure. Yeah, definitely.
Eric Weiner: In the best … I assume you’re using the word in the best possible way.
Brett McKay: Exactly.
Eric Weiner: Yeah.
Brett McKay: The Greek way. The Roman way.
Eric Weiner: Yeah, it just occurred to me now, because I’m on The Art of Manliness that … Women can have this trait too, but it’s a boldness to say, “You know what, I’m going to put my chips down here.” I think we’ve lost that a lot of ways because, like say you’re hiring someone to do job X. You tend to just … Comfortable to just look for somebody who’s already done exactly job X somewhere else. Where’s the risk in that?
In the renaissance, they would place bets on … Like the Pope at the time wanted to have the Sistine Chapel painted. He chose Michelangelo. Unlikely choice, because he was a sculpture mainly. He’d done very little painting. He said, “I think you’ve got talent kid. Come do some ceiling work for me.” Now it’s the Sistine Chapel. If that’s not manliness, I don’t know what is.
Brett McKay: I like that. Eric, it’s been a great conversation. Where can people learn more about your book?
Eric Weiner: I’ve got a great website. EricWeinerbooks.com. All one word. EricWeinerbooks.com. I encourage people to tell me about which places sparked their creativity, to write to me there, and support your local bookseller. Go to your local book store and pick up my book. I can’t guarantee you’ll walk away as a genius, but you’ll have fun I think.
Brett McKay: I love the book. Well Eric …
Eric Weiner: Thank you, I appreciate that.
Brett McKay: Eric Weiner, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Eric Weiner: Thank you so much.