Insights from the Golden Ages of Creative Genius

What do Athens, Hangzhou, Florence, Edinburgh, Calcutta, Vienna, and Silicon Valley have in common? Give up? They are all places that author Eric Weiner visited in his quest to understand the creative genius, defined as an individual “with the ability to come up with ideas that are new, surprising, and valuable.”

Weiner’s interest in this topic was piqued after he learned that creative geniuses aren’t the Lone Ranger types many of us might have imagined. Rather when you find one creative genius you tend to find a bunch of them, all in the same city.  In  The Geography of Genius, Weiner travels the world to answer the question, “What are the conditions in a country’s culture that makes a golden age of creative genius shine?”

There are dozens of insights in Weiner’s fascinating book. In this post I’ll cherry-pick two for each location. One is a cultural condition that Weiner suggests is supportive of creative genius. A second is a suggestion of what we as individuals can do to further our own creativity in whatever form it takes. (Note: If you doubt that you are creative, check out the five very manageable definitions of creativity in my post – Manifesto for a Creative Life.)Fresco mural School of Athens

Athens, Greece

In a 24-year-period, Ancient Greece was responsible for democracy, science, philosophy, written contracts, taxes, writing, school, commercial loans, and large sailing ships, among other things. As historian Edith Hamilton concludes, “We think and feel different because of the Greeks.”

Creative Genius Needs…

tough situations. There won’t ever be clusters of creative genius in places like Hawaii. That’s because “Paradise makes no demands, and creative genius takes root through meeting demands in new and imaginative ways.” (p.28)

We Need…

to walk more. We can walk outdoors or on a treadmill. Walking can take as little as 5-16 minutes a day. Stanford researchers found that walkers produce twice as many creative responses compared with people who spend their day sitting.compass on old map

Hangzhou, China

During the Song Dynasty (969 to 1275AD), some of the Hangzhou inventions included: the compass, woodblock printing, mechanical clocks, toilet paper, paper money, and nautical technology.

Creative Genius Needs…

the opportunity to diversify. Specialization in a tiny aspect of a discipline results in a narrow perspective. Connections among disparate ideas are a hallmark of the creative genius.

We Need…

to care about the process of creativity as much as the product. We would also do well to accept incremental progress, rather than expecting to make huge leaps forward.the annunciation by da Vinci

Florence, Italy

Florence was the site of the Italian Renaissance (meaning ‘rebirth’). Artists of this time period included: Michelangelo, da Vinci, Brunelleschi, and Ghiberti.

Creative Genius Needs…

mentors who teach them the kind of thinking required to find good problems. Weiner writes, “Problem solvers answer questions. Problem finders discover new questions, and then answer them. It is these new questions, even more than the answers, that distinguish the genius.” (pp.110-111)

We Need…

to make lots of mistakes because the more attempts we make, the greater the likelihood of hitting our target.doctors in surgery

Edinburgh, Scotland

Advances in Edinburgh revolved around agricultural science, medical care (e.g., anaesthesia, hypodermic syringes), and philosophical ideas with practical applications (e.g., empathy, morality, common sense).

Creative Genius Needs…

to live in a small city. A city because of all of the cultural opportunities, small because small places try harder. Weiner explains: “Small places, out of necessity, are more likely to direct their eyes outward and are therefore more likely to accumulate the varied stimuli that, research shows, make us more creative. Small places are more likely to ask questions, and questions are the building blocks of genius.” (p.157)

We Need…

to work with contradictory visual images. In one study, two groups of artists and writers were assembled. One group was shown juxtaposed images like a four-poster bed superimposed over an image of soldiers taking cover behind a tank. The other group was shown the same images, but they were presented individually. The group shown the juxtaposed images made more creative products (metaphors or drawings), leading the researchers to conclude that “creative imagery is excited by sensory input that is random, or at least unusual.”(p.165)tube radio

Calcutta, India

Between 1840 and 1920, Calcutta made advances in the arts, literature, religion, and science (especially radio technology).

Creative Genius Needs…

chaotic, stimulating environments. Such environments are full of surprising, unexpected information which forces geniuses to stretch their creativity to the limits.

We Need…

to constantly exercise our creativity muscles. We can do that with small, simple actions like rearranging living room furniture, or figuring out how best to display a collection of photos.musical score

Vienna, Austria

Vienna had two golden ages. In 1800 there was a musical golden age; think Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, and Mozart. The second golden age, a century later, was in every field imaginable, although psychologist Sigmund Freud is the poster child.

Creative Genius Needs…

ethnic diversity in the city. Different perspectives and life experiences contribute to greater creativity. If the creative genius is from a marginalized group, so much the better. As Weiner puts it, “…the boat is already rocking, so why not make a few more waves?” (p.278)

We Need…

some mess and some noise. According to researcher Kathleen Vohs, people with messy desks come up with more creative ideas than people with clean desks. And researchers at the University of Illinois found that moderate noise levels (70 decibels) are better than no noise or high levels of noise. Apparently moderate noise allows us to be in a state of “distracted focus,” an ideal state for creative motherboard

Silicon Valley, California

Silicon Valley is responsible for the microchip and all of the enormous technological advances that were borne of it. Apple, Google, and Steve Jobs are key players in the Silicon Valley story. But before any of them, Palo Alto in Silicon Valley was already a site of major players in the technology field, starting with Lee de Forest who invited the vacuum-tube amplifier and oscillator, “devices that shaped not only radio technology but also television and all of electronics.” (p.290)

Creative Genius Needs…

to fail successfully. Successful failure means to learn from a failure and make a change in your next attempt. As Silicon Valley venture capitalist Roger McNamee says, “If you fail repeatedly, and in the same manner, you’re an idiot, not a genius. The guiding principle for successful failure is the scientific method….It’s about failing in a thoughtful and efficient manner.” (p.311)

We Need…

other creative people around us, even if we don’t know them and never speak to them. Creativity is contagious. If it’s in the air, we’re more likely to think and behave creatively ourselves.

Creative Genius, Creative You

Eric Weiner opens his book with a quote from Plato–“What is honoured in a country will be cultivated there.” I wonder if the same is true for those of us who will never be creative geniuses, but who want to live creative lives.

Months ago, I wrote my Manifesto for a Creative Life. Looking back at it now, I’m struck by two things: how passionately I  want to live that life, and how difficult it is to honour that passion with my time and effort. That’s something I intend to change, inspired in part by The Geography of Genius.









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  1. This was yet another interesting post, Karen. I have yet another long comment for you – are you ready? I never knew these facts about genius, creative type people. I think I have at least some of the things you list under WE NEED… (as follows)

    to care about the process of creativity as much as the product. We would also do well to accept incremental progress, rather than expecting to make huge leaps forward. – incremental progress, heck, I can do that!

    to make lots of mistakes because the more attempts we make, the greater the likelihood of hitting our target. – LOL, I can do that too, you would be amazed at the number of mistakes I make.

    to constantly exercise our creative muscles. We can do that with small, simple actions like rearranging living room furniture or figuring out how best to display a collection of photos. – Kevin is constantly moving furniture and bringing things in and out of the house, changing up the amount of room we have to display things like not only photos but musical instruments. When he gets into moving furniture I have to help him figure out how things will fit into the rooms he is rearranging. Haha.

    some mess and some noise. According to researcher Kathleen Vohs, people with messy desks come up with more creative ideas than people with clean desks. -I’ve got this one… hands down! My desk is always messy and now I have a good comeback for when someone complains about it, thanks, Karen. 😀 The noise part? Unfortunately, it is too noisy here – routinely OVER the 70 dB suggested. Kevin has electric guitars and amps…fairly big amps at that!

    other creative people around us, even if we don’t know them and never speak to them. Creativity is contagious. If it’s in the air, we’re more likely to think and behave creatively ourselves. – I am married to a creative person so you could say I have him around me, he is a musician that writes his own songs, is known for thinking outside the box and coming up with great solutions to fixing something or fashioning what he needs out of what he has. Hopefully, his creativity rubs off on me in some ways.

    The final thing I wanted to add comes from your list of what

    to live in a small city. A city because of all of the cultural opportunities, small because small places try harder. – I live in a small town, population 3,200 – that is small, right? 😉 We have to try harder because otherwise, well, it is a half hour trip (one way) back to the city where we used to live and who wants to do that with these gas prices? LOL 😉

  2. Hi Susan,
    It sounds like between you and Kevin, you’ve got it all happening for a creative lifestyle except, perhaps, the small city part. Eric Weiner would tell you that a small town is too small because it doesn’t afford the cultural opportunities of a city. No traveling art exhibits, lectures by notable scientists or historians, few cafes where you and the other creatives can be for your morning coffee and to pick up on the creative vibes in the air.
    Of course we both know that small places can inspire creativity in people who love nature and small places. So I think we’re okay there, just maybe not in line to be the creative geniuses Weiner writes about. I’m going to pretend that living in a rural area is the ONLY condition preventing me from being a creative genius. I wish!

    1. Hi Karen,
      I beg to differ with Eric Weiner on the small town thing … we have lots of creative people here from those that do all kinds of crafts and hold classes usually in the basement of the library, We also have a fairly big population of Amish people here who share their talents with everyone at the local farmer’s market. We have people that make handmade soaps, cards, candles, baking and all kinds of crafty stuff. I find people in our small town very approachable – they are all so friendly here and willing to share their skills and ideas with anyone and everyone. Everyone waves to you as you go down the street past their house.

      There are lots of opportunities to mingle with these folks too, from the farmer’s market I was talking about and the local library where they have guest speakers in on all kinds of topics from 3D printing, beekeeping, art classes, a regularly held guitar jam session and so on.

      LOL, okay Karen, if you want to pretend that living in a rural area is the ONLY condition preventing you from being a creative genius, I will go along with you on that one. 😉 I mean, if it works for you I can use the same excuse…right? Right? 😀

      1. Right! I’m happy to give you permission for this little fantasy, if you’ll do the same for me.
        I don’t think Weiner would dismiss the idea of creativity in all sorts of settings. He was really talking about creative GENIUS which is a whole different life form.
        I love the picture you’ve painted of your creative community. It sounds absolutely idyllic!

        1. Haha, of course, I will do the same for you.. we are in this together. 😉 One thing I forgot to tell you about our wonderful library is that there is a table, with a puzzle on it, with a couple of chairs set up. You are free to just sit down and start working the pieces. It is a community thing! I have never seen anything like it until I moved here. The puzzles change, of course, once one is completed it gets puzzle coated and framed to hang on the wall then it is on to the next puzzle. This place really is idyllic – I love it here. 😀

  3. What an intriguing and insightful book, Karen. All of these principles make sense. If you are never challenged, there is no reason to be creative. Personal anecdote: when things broke on our sailboat in the middle of nowhere, without marine stores and replacement parts around (almost always), you have to come up with creative solutions to fix the issues.

    “Different perspectives and life experiences contribute to greater creativity.” I can’t agree more. Different cultural backgrounds and/or education levels can lead to new insights. Personal anecdote: Mark is much smarter than me, on an intellectual level. Yet, he often asks my opinion and advice with issues. I approach problems – physical or conceptual ones – in a practical, more “simple” way. I have solved many problems this way. Just, because he’d never thought of it before.

    I also love the approach of “making mistakes is good”… if it leads to a solution eventually. Then, they are important steps of the process, for sure.

    The parts of the book I do have problems with, are the suggestions that have to do with chaos and noise… I love my desk (and the house) organized and I hate background noise when I work. I can’t concentrate in chaos. That being said, this week my computer is surrounded by tissues, sight see brochures, lists, pens, and other paraphernalia. I guess that means it has been a productive week? 🙂

  4. I’m with you on disliking the chaos and noise comments, Liesbet. About the only time I feel productive in that environment is when I’m cleaning it up!

    I can well imagine that you are a very creative woman, Liesbet, and not just because you’re a writer. Your different life experiences must enrich your life so much in so many ways.

  5. I think I used to be more creative. I don’t know where it all went, but I’d like to get it back, especially now that I’m retired and have the time to explore the possibilities. I’m not ready to move to a small town (which no one could argue that Silicon Valley is), and I’m not too happy working in chaos, but I do think it could help to search out other creative types.

    1. Hi, Janis – Perhaps, as in the example from Greece, your creativity has been hampered by living in Paradise (i.e. retirement and Southern California…what’s not to love?!?). Just a thought! 🙂

      Fascinating post, Karen!

    2. I agree, Janis. That’s what I’m trying to do, starting today with a six week class at the community center – Drawing for Absolute Beginners. The title is appropriate. We shall see.

      1. Have fun in your class. I hope you share some of your masterpieces with us! I guess my blog and my photography are my biggest creative outlets right now. I’m trying to find a photography club so I can interact with others who love to take pictures.

  6. Interesting post Karen, I really had to think about it for a while. Weiner seems to suggest that geography and contact with those who would challenge one, are important in sparking the creative genius. It seems to me that genius cannot exist in a vacuum. In other words, could a totally uneducated man, living on a farm in the Steppes of Russia, who has little contact with the outside world, be creative. If he were indeed a creative genius would he ultimately display the “ability to come up with ideas that are new, surprising and valuable” or would whatever creativity he is capable of wither on the vine. A lot to think about………

    1. Hi Anna,
      Weiner would definitely say that creative genius is a product of the intersection between place and person. The example you give of the uneducated man living in the Steppes of Russia is similar to Weiner’s dispute of a claim by Einstein’s secretary that Einstein would have been a creative genius even if he lived among the polar bears. No, says Weiner, he would not. Einstein would never have had the opportunity to think about the things he thought about. If Einstein had been your uneducated farmer in Russia, he’d have either stayed a farmer or perhaps he’d have invented some great advance in farming, but we would not have the theory of relativity.

  7. Another thought provoking post, Karen. Creativity is one of those constructs that defies definition, I think. We can all recognize it, but even researchers who have spent their careers studying it have trouble describing it, let alone explaining it or recommending how to enhance it.

    That said, I do think certain environments do foster greater creativity. For myself, I have found that I am more motivated to write, and I write more creatively, when I am able to interact with other writers. Same thing with painting, or intellectual ideas. Another factor is time. At the unpredictable moment that I experience a creative spark, I have to drop everything and take the time to nurture the creative idea into being. The final thing is to be brave enough to be different — not conform.

    Creativity can’t be commanded or forced.


    1. All good points, Jude. It will be fascinating to see whether you will be nurturing more creative sparks into being now that you have retired. Have you noticed any differences already, or are you still in the ‘pre-creativity’ stage that often accompanies a big move and life transition?

      1. Well, the process of moving (with a camper trip sandwiched in) basically knocked us flat. We still haven’t opened a lot of the boxes, and we are dealing with all the aspects of adjusting to a new place (figuring out where to shop, changing our car insurance, meeting people, etc.). So my creative endeavours are taking a backseat for now. Although, not entirely; I have been putting a couple of hours a day into one of my writing projects. I sure do hope that retirement provides time for some new creative directions!


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