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7 Surprising Insights About How Genius Happens

Where and how you live affects your smarts and creativity.

José A. Warletta/Freeimages
Source: José A. Warletta/Freeimages

Genius, as much as the word is overused today, can be held to mean the ability to make leaps of innovation.

Rejecting older theories that said genius is a product of genetics alone, author Eric Weiner explains why living in a place and time that encourages the flourishing of genius is necessary too.

Weiner, a former foreign correspondent for NPR, wrote The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World's Most Creative Places, from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley, to satisfy his curiosity as to why certain places and historical eras were more likely to produce large clusters of geniuses. And, of course, to learn what we, today, might do to make our own places more genius-friendly.

For the purposes of this book, Weiner uses the word genius to mean the highest form of creativity. To qualify as a genius, you need to make leaps of innovation, as in designing something entirely new that is also surprising and useful. Weiner quotes the philosopher Schopenhauer: "Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see."

He explores in depth, with self-deprecating humor and in smoothly flowing prose, six historic areas where genius flourished, and one current one. Nearly all are cities: Ancient Athens, Hangzhou, Florence, Edinburgh, Calcutta, Vienna, and Silicon Valley.

This is not an academic text, but rather a reading experience filled with surprising detail, nuanced digressions, and quite a few take-aways for those who would like to enhance their own or their kids' environment. For example:


1. Smart people avoid specialization, as specialization makes for less creativity.

2. Some ambient noise (70 decibels) is better for creativity than absolute silence, studies have found.

3. Geniuses are prolific. They have more good and bad ideas than non-geniuses. The art of discernment is what makes the difference.

4. While walking is when we do our best thinking (see earlier post...)

5. Tension, not necessity, is the mother of all invention. We need something to push against.

6. A disproportionately large number of geniuses were immigrants or refugees.

7. Risk and creative genius are inseparable. Some have risked their lives, others their reputation.

Finally, to increase the chances of a genius cluster forming in your own city or office or home, encourage disorder (to shake up the status quo), diversity (of people and viewpoints), and discernment (which is accomplished by having a lot of ideas and tossing the bad ones).

Copyright (c) 2016 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel

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