What makes a genius, can it be nurtured, and do disproportionate numbers of Jews excel?
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Interview'Lots of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish, but I think it's cultural rather than genetic'

What makes a genius, can it be nurtured, and do disproportionate numbers of Jews excel?

From ancient Athens to modern-day Israel, author Eric Weiner looks to geography to redefine what it means to be brilliant

Eric Weiner, author of 'The Geography of Genius' (Justin Tsucalas)
Eric Weiner, author of 'The Geography of Genius' (Justin Tsucalas)

Contrary to popular believe, genius is not measured by high IQs, Mensa membership or graduating with honors.

Genius is making innovative connections no one else has published before. It may thrive in response to adversity — as in Israel — or may flourish as a part of a system that excels at sorting good ideas from bad and then plugging them into a network of people who know exactly how to bring those concepts to fruition — as in Silicon Valley. At least, that’s what New York Times-bestselling author Eric Weiner argues in his latest work “The Geography of Genius.”

The follow-up to his best-selling “The Geography of Bliss” and “Man Seeks God,” Weiner’s third tome elaborates on how genius grows. With wit and clarity, he combs the hot spots of creative thought and artistic innovation throughout history — from the Athens of Socrates and the Florence of the Medicis to the Vienna of Mozart and Freud.

The search for scientific discovery also leads Weiner to Hangzhou, China, where paper and gunpowder were invented, and, of course, the fertile petri dish of technology, Silicon Valley. His focus is less about defining what is creativity but more on where and how creativity is cultivated.

The former NPR correspondent spoke to The Times of Israel about the ways in which understandings of genius are rife with mythology and how to nurture creativity with a few pointers. Some are as simple as taking a walk or not stressing about the mess. Mozart, for instance, was apparently not only a musical prodigy. He was also a world-class slob.

How do you define genius?

Geniuses are able to make surprising and valuable leaps — you’re creating something with your intelligence and your abilities. The key to achieving “group genius” and avoiding “group think” is to have people of different viewpoints, even if their opinions are ultimately rejected or considered silly or stupid. Simply having different viewpoints is helpful even if they ultimately prove wrong because it expands the conversation.

I started off with an open mind and it seemed obvious that you can’t just say IQ; it’s not just someone that does well on a trivia test or an IQ exam. And so, ultimately, my favorite definition is what I call the Fashionista theory of genius. Genius is a social verdict. We all decide who is declared a genius.

Why is Mozart a genius? Because over the centuries, the verdict has remained consistent. His music is something special, something worthy of the title of genius. I really don’t think there is something as an undiscovered genius. Genius takes two elements: there is the genius, and the audience to recognize or validate it.

What inspired you to write about this subject?

Geography of Genius coverI’m interested in the subject of creative genius the way a hungry man is interested in Philadelphia cheese steaks. Also, I had a nagging feeling that we’ve been approaching the whole subject of genius in the wrong way, and I wanted to investigate that hunch.

One of the biggest is the myth of the born genius. We think people are either born with special abilities or they’re not. That’s not true. Genetics, in fact, account for a very small piece of the genius puzzle. Other factors are much more important.

Then there is the notion that geniuses are “made” through hard work. The so-called 10,000-hour rule is the best example of this — that is, the theory that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice over a decade in order achieve mastery. Yes, hard work and determination are, of course, important pieces of the genius puzzle but, again, they alone are not enough.

Genius needs something else in order to blossom, and that something else is place. Genius, like a flower, needs the right soil if it is to grow.

You discuss certain places, at certain times, that produced bumper crops of brilliant minds and ideas. How did you choose these genius clusters?

Some — like ancient Athens and Renaissance Florence — are familiar to most readers; others, such as Calcutta, India and Hangzhou, China less so. Some genius clusters, such as Vienna of 1900, were huge metropolises, while others, like Edinburgh of 1780, were tiny. Also, I chose places that represent different flavors of creative genius.

When you visited each of these places, which surprised you the most and why?

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, talks with Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, right, during a gathering of CEOs and other executives at Microsoft's main campus in Redmond, Washington, Wednesday, September 23, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / POOL / TED S. WARREN)
Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, talks with Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, right, during a gathering of CEOs and other executives at Microsoft’s main campus in Redmond, Washington, Wednesday, September 23, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / POOL / TED S. WARREN)

I knew that the Chinese invented gunpowder and paper and, for a long while, surpassed the West. But I had no idea by how much. In the 13th century, Hangzhou had a population of more than one million and was so advanced that one famous visitor, Marco Polo, called it “the finest and most splendid city in the world.” In many ways, it still is. The “Steve Jobs of China” — a man named Jack Ma — hails from Hangzhou. He’s one of the fascinating people I met.

How significant are mentors when it comes to innovation?

Very. Leonardo da Vinci is a good example. As a teenager, he apprenticed at a bottega, or workshop, in Florence, working and learning from a master known as Verrocchio. Leonardo ended up staying there for 10 years, much longer than was typical. Why? We don’t know for sure but clearly these were formative years for the genius-in-the-making.

Mentors are still important today, even if we don’t always acknowledge their role. I met a venture capitalist, for instance, who helped mentor Mark Zuckerberg during the early years of Facebook. You might say he was Zuckerberg’s Verrocchio.

You argue Athens produced more brilliant minds – from Socrates to Aristotle – than any other place, before or since. What is the biggest takeaway from your time there?

In a word: theft. Athenians were great seafarers and they stole — or if you’re feeling more generous “borrowed” — from many foreign lands. Pottery from the Corinthians. Statuary from the Egyptians. They then “Athenized” these art forms or, as Plato put it, “What Greeks borrow from foreigners they perfect.” All creative genius is, at its heart, an act of synthesis.

How do you understand the abundance of Jewish genius?

It is true that disproportionate numbers of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish — multitudes more than the percentage of the world’s population. I don’t think it’s at all genetic and I think it’s cultural to the extent that the history of literacy and studying the Talmud for centuries instilled a scholarly ethos for Jewish people, which is important. But more than that, I think it’s the status as an outsider which has actually been helpful.

Sigmund Freud (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Sigmund Freud (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the book, for instance, I talk about Freud, in Vienna in 1900. His family are immigrants from Moravia. They moved there when he was about four years old and he is not fully accepted into Viennese society. Some professions, such as government jobs and being in the military are closed to Jews. Others are somewhat open, such as medicine and the field of psychology.

There was the emancipation of Jews in the 19th century which led to a lot more freedom and for a period, in the early 20th century, I think Jews in a city like Vienna occupied a good position of being insiders/outsiders, enough outside to have a fresh perspective and to not be totally invested in the status quo. They were outsiders, but close enough inside that their ideas were listened to and resonated.

Freud had to fight for his ideas and his tenure at the university and he faced anti-Semitism, but ultimately his ideas were listened to and accepted. So it’s that insider/outsider position that Jews have occupied that explains the creative spirit. And that combined with the scholarship is the perfect combination.

How about in Israel?

‘Israel’s smallness means it has to try harder’

You do see innovation in Israel. And it’s a small country like Estonia, and Estonia invented Skype. And Edinburgh, which I write about, was a tiny city of 45,000 people which was the seat of the Enlightenment for a while. So smallness often has its advantages. And Israel’s smallness means it has to try harder, so small can be beautiful and small can be innovative.

There is something known was the oil curse. If you’re a country like Saudia Arabia or Kuwait and you’re sitting on “petro dollars,” you don’t have to be creative. Creativity is a response to a challenge from the outside, and who’s been challenged more than the Jews over the centuries? And they’ve responded to it, often in creative ways. Not always. Sometimes, we overeat. Sometimes we talk too much. But sometimes, we’re incredibly creative.

You suggest money supported the Renaissance in Florence. Can money buy genius?

Catherine de medici (photo credit: François Clouet, Wikimedia Commons)
Catherine de medici (photo credit: François Clouet, Wikimedia Commons)

No, but money is an important piece of the genius puzzle, if — and this is a big if — it is used wisely. Florence’s patrons, the Medicis, used their wealth very wisely. They were very good at spotting talent and then nurturing it. A good example is Lorenzo Medici, commonly known as Lorenzo the Magnificent. One day, he sees a young stonecutter hard at work. Lorenzo senses something special about the boy and decides to take him into his fold. He provides him with the best teachers and materials for sculpting. It wasn’t a cheap investment but it was a good one. Today, the young boy is best known by his first name: Michelangelo.

Why are only children more likely to exhibit genius?

Psychologists don’t know for certain but suspect it has to do with the fact that parents tend to treat only children as “adults in waiting” rather than helpless youngsters. They expose them to more intellectual stimulation, and at a younger age, and this sort of stimulation is something that all geniuses experience.

How does walking nourish creativity?

‘After only 20 minutes of walking, people produce more ideas than those who sit still’

Walking is one of the simplest and most effective ways to increase creative thinking. Studies have found that even after only 20 minutes of walking, people produce more ideas, and better ideas, than those who sit still.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re walking in the woods or on a treadmill staring at a wall. There’s something about putting one step in front of the other that gets the creative juices flowing. No wonder Dickens, Beethoven and many other geniuses regularly took long walks. Then there’s the curious case of Mark Twain who walked while working but never got far. He paced in his study.

How is the term “genius” overused?

Today, we have political geniuses and marketing geniuses, and even football geniuses. By applying genius to anyone who displays a certain (often narrow) skill set, we cheapen the word. And if everyone is a genius, then nobody is. What distinguishes the genius are not incremental advances but conceptual leaps. As the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.”

How much does the genius of Silicon Valley depend on technology?

Technology is not what makes Silicon Valley so innovative. After all, people have smartphones everywhere but there is only one Silicon Valley. Why? Because the region has established a system that excels at sorting good ideas from the bad ones, then plugging the good ones into a network of people who know exactly how to bring those ideas to fruition. It’s not that the best ideas are born in Silicon Valley but, rather, that they come of age there.

What can we do to cultivate genius clusters?

It boils down to what I call the “Three Ds” — disorder, diversity and discernment. Disorder, as we’ve seen, is necessary to shake up the status quo, to create a break in the air. Diversity, of both people and viewpoints, is needed to produce not only more dots but also different kinds of dots, waiting to be connected. Discernment is perhaps the most important, and overlooked, ingredient.

Linus Pauling, the renowned chemist and two-time Nobel Prize winner, was once asked by a student how to come up with good ideas. It’s easy, replied Pauling. “You have a lot of ideas and throw away the bad ones.” Genius clusters excel at this skill.

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