What made Athens, Florence, Hangzhou, Vienna, Calcutta, and Silicon Valley such creative centers? Author goes to each to find out, and dives into the subject of creativity in general. He's such a great writer, so insightful, and finds so many great points of view from the people he interviews. See his other book here “Geography of Bliss”. Equally brilliant.
Creative genius is someone with the ability to come up with ideas that are new, surprising, and valuable.
Sir Francis Galton's motto was “Count whenever you can!” To him, anything worth doing was worth doing numerically, and he once confessed that he couldn’t fully grasp a problem unless he was first able to “disembarrass it of words.”
There are two types of subjects that a culture studies little: those which it despises and those which it holds dearest.
We may be inspired by nature - a walk in the woods, the sound of a waterfall - but something about an urban setting is especially conducive to creativity. It takes a city to raise a genius.
Paying attention is the first step on the road to genius.
Creativity cannot be separated from its recognition.
A variety pack of microcultures blossomed. During times of fragmentation, humanity made its greatest creative leaps.
Peoples are more likely to reach their full creative potential when they belong to an independent nation.
The ancient Greeks walked everywhere, all the time. They were great walkers and great thinkers and preferred to do their philosophizing while on the go.
Creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for the walkers versus the sitters. They still produced twice as many creative responses compared with the sedentary group. It didn’t take a lot of walking to boost creativity, either - anywhere from five to sixteen minutes.
The ancient Greeks did everything outdoors. A house was less a home than a dormitory. They spent only about thirty waking minutes there every day.
They spent the rest of their day in the agora, the marketplace, working out at the gymnasium or the palaistra, the wrestling grounds, or perhaps strolling along the rolling hills.
The Greeks didn’t differentiate between physical and mental activity. Body and mind were two inseparable parts of a whole. A fit mind not attached to a fit body rendered both somehow incomplete.
Buildings were not merely physical entities; they possessed a spirit, that genius loci, or genius of place. Greeks believed that where you were influenced what you thought.
The Parthenon has not a single straight line. Each column bends slightly this way or that. No one is aware that the sense of happiness he feels is caused by curves and bends that are almost imperceptible yet immensely powerful. The beholder is unaware that he is responding to a combination of regularity and irregularity the architect had hidden in his work.
Chaos is the raw material of creativity.
Competition motivates experienced creators but inhibits inexperienced ones.
Paradise is antithetical to genius. Paradise makes no demands, and creative genius takes root through meeting demands in new and imaginative ways.
The problem with paradise is that it is perfect and therefore requires no response. This is why wealthy people and places often stagnate.
One of the prerequisites for a golden age is peace.
Socrates occupied that precarious position that all geniuses do - perched between insider and outsider. Far enough outside the mainstream to see the world through fresh eyes, yet close enough so that those fresh insights resonated with others. This doesn’t necessarily mean he fit happily with the spirit of his times. What distinguishes geniuses is the capacity to be able to exploit an apparent misfit.
Four stages of the creative process: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification.
Why Athens? Everyone did everything. Amateur hour. They viewed expertise with suspicion, for theirs was the genius of simplicity.
All intellectual breakthroughs made the world a little bit simpler. There is this chaotic mess of seemingly unconnected data out there, and then someone says, ‘Wait, here is how it all fits together.’ And we like that. To see anything in relation to other things is to see it simplified.
Athens was the world’s first global city.
The ancient Greeks didn’t invent much at all. They borrowed the alphabet from the Phoenicians, medicine and sculpture from the Egyptians, mathematics from the Babylonians, literature from the Sumerians. Plato said, “What the Greeks borrow from foreigners they perfect.”
This willingness to borrow, steal, and embellish distinguished Athens from its neighbors. Athenians were more open to foreign ideas and, in the final analysis, more open-minded.
Athens was both Greek and foreign, in much the way that New York is an American city and not.
The Spartans, by comparison, walled themselves off from the outside world, and nothing kills creativity faster than a wall.
Psychologists have identified this “openness to experience” as the single most important trait of exceptionally creative people. The same holds true for societies.
Ideas shine a bright light on that normally invisible sea called culture. People realize the arbitrary nature of their own culture and open their minds to, in effect, the possibility of possibility. Once you realize that there is another way of doing X, or thinking about Y, then all sorts of new channels open up to you. The awareness of cultural variety helps set the mind free.
Athenians tolerated not only strange foreigners but also homegrown eccentrics.
Walking quiets the mind without silencing it completely.
They did not compete for personal glory but, rather, for the glory of Athens. Anyone who lost sight of that imperative risked exile.
Those who had been made to feel rejected scored higher on a creative-thinking exam than those who had not. Rejection confirms what they already feel about themselves, that they’re not like the others. And that confirmation actually drives them to greater creativity.
What is honored in a country will be cultivated there.
The Song Dynasty, which spanned from 969 to 1276 AD, a time of great flourishing. The dynastic capital, Hangzhou, was the richest, most populous city in the world.
The era also produced a bumper crop of great thinkers, unburdened by the sort of brooding that typically accompanies European philosophy. Nothing is more foreign to the Chinese genius than metaphysical anguish and anxiety.
The Song Dynasty was China’s Renaissance, Hangzhou its Florence.
The city’s “pleasure grounds” were places where you could learn to play the Chinese transverse flute, or take an acting class, or simply marvel at the perennial circus unfolding before your eyes: tightrope walkers, jugglers, sword swallowers, comedians, wrestlers, performing ants. Hangzhou was a city of constant pandemonium.
Places of genius require a degree of uncertainty, and perhaps even chaos.
One of the greatest myths of innovation: that you can’t stop progress. In fact, we stop progress all the time. If we didn’t, we would be overwhelmed by a flood of novel technologies - some useful, most not.
Every city has at least one porthole to the past.
The conflicts that plague the political world encourage young developing minds to consider more radical worldviews. This sense of wonder lies at the heart of all scientific inquiry, of life itself.
Music psychologist Gary McPherson conducted a revealing study in which he asked children how long they planned on playing their instruments. The single biggest determinant of their performance was simply their degree of long-term commitment. Those in it for the long haul played better than those who were not, even if the short-termers practiced more than the others. If the long-term committed practiced a lot, they improved 400 percent more than the short-term committed.
It is a fatal fault to reason whilst observing. See what is before you, the thing itself. Analyze later. Every great genius looks at what everyone else is looking at and sees something different.
Only, of course, it is not so simple. We acclimate to our environment so we no longer see it. Creative people are able to avoid this deadening of perception and “make the familiar strange.”
The comedian toys with our rational minds and brings about “a momentary fusion between two habitually incompatible matrices.” The punch line comes as a surprise but makes perfect sense. The sudden click of logic makes a joke funny.
Robert Frost once likened writing free-verse poetry to playing tennis without a net. Without boundaries, we are lost.
We may actually undermine creativity if we make things too easy or too comfortable for individuals of significant creative potential.
Nations rich in natural resources, especially oil, tend to stagnate culturally and intellectually, as even a brief visit to Saudi Arabia or Kuwait reveals. The citizens of these nations have everything so they create nothing.
Jack Ma sees no future for Chinese creative genius without a reawakening of this sort of timeless philosophy and culture.
Patrons, the good kind, do more than write checks. They inspire. They challenge. The Medicis actively encouraged the city’s artists to take risks and placed huge bets that, though they seem wise today, were at the time wildly reckless.
“Give me neither poverty nor riches.” Throughout history, the vast majority of geniuses have come from the middle and upper-middle classes. They had enough money to pursue their passions, but not so much that they lapsed into complacency. We are at our most innovative when we have something to push against. Creativity does not require perfect conditions. In fact, it thrives in imperfect ones.
“We have no money so we will have to think!”
Geniuses of Florence were the natural outcome of an informal, sometimes chaotic system that recognized, cultivated, and, yes, honored talent.
Every golden age has its multipliers. These are people whose influence far exceeds their own artistic output. The Velvet Underground, sold only thirty thousand copies, but “everyone who bought one of those thirty thousand albums started a band.” Reed’s influence on the music scene can’t be measured in album sales alone.
Ask Verrocchio, though, if he was in the business of producing geniuses and he would no doubt laugh. Genius? He was in the business of business. Whatever his customers wanted, Verrocchio and his minions would make it. Which is not to say they welcomed every assignment with equal enthusiasm. They much preferred clients with taste, but business was business. Nothing was taught in Verrocchio’s workshop, but much was learned. It was education through osmosis. Total immersion. The young apprentice often lived in the same building as the master,
Creative thinking. No such thing as genius in the abstract exists, any more than love in the abstract exists. These human inclinations require an object for their attention.
Creativity is not a simple result of special types of thinking. It requires thinking about special content - it requires thinking about important questions.
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. Which is why Picasso once quipped, “Computers are stupid. They only give you answers.”
Sprezzatura means, literally, a “squirt of something extra.”
Archaeologists love mistakes. They reveal process. A perfectly crafted statue tells the archaeologists nothing about how it was made. Mistakes shine a light on the messy world of creative genius and give the lie to the myth of the immaculate artist.
The Renaissance brought us not only the world’s first modern geniuses, but also the first modern consumers. These two facts are connected.
Ours is not a genuine age of materialism because it has no respect for material.
How a nation accumulates wealth matters more than how much it accumulates.
Resource-rich nations aren’t innovative for a simple reason: they don’t have to be.
Florence had no diamonds or oil, or much of anything else, so people had to rely on their wits and gumption. They had no money so they had to think.
Renaissance art - widely hailed as the peak of human accomplishment - began as pure propaganda.
Most people were illiterate, so how could the Church reach them? How could it, for instance, depict the birth of Jesus? Captions won’t work. You have to get your message across solely with visual symbols. That is, with paintings, jam-packed with symbolism.
Psychologists have identified the exact year when a child’s creative-thinking skills plateau: the fourth grade.
Florence’s lack of a university was a blessing. It saved the city from a scholastic straitjacket.
All golden ages, contain an element of free-for-all, a chink in time when the old order has crumbled and a new one is not yet cemented.
The densest happiness he had ever experienced.
Breakthroughs in one field inspire breakthroughs in others, and before you know it, you’re living in a golden age.
The number of geniuses who appear in any given field at any given time is a function not of the pool of talent available but, rather, the attractiveness of the field. For instance, far fewer ambitious young people see classical music as the way to make their mark in the world.
Janusian thinking as actively conceiving two or more opposite or antithetical ideas, images or concepts simultaneously. These impossible contradictions seem to lie at the heart of creativity. Janusian thinking is not about synthesizing two incompatible ideas but living with their incompatibility.
Athens had a population of fewer than one hundred thousand people. Florence was even smaller, and Edinburgh smaller still. Yet these cities spawned so much greatness, outshining much larger rivals. How can this be? A small nation has to grow big balls. Small places, out of necessity, are more likely to direct their eyes outward. Small places are more likely to ask questions.
Einstein said, “If we knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t call it research.”
To create something worthwhile you must possess a grudging faith that your creation will find an appreciative audience. To create is to have faith not only in the moment but in moments yet to come. That’s why you don’t hear about many nihilists producing creative works.
Waiters kept perfect track of orders, but as soon as the plates hit the table, they “deleted” the information.
We recall information associated with incomplete tasks much more readily.
An unsolved problem boosts our memory and sharpens our thinking.
When faced with an unsolved problem, they persist and can’t rest until it is solved. This persistence explains more about creative genius than those apocryphal “aha moments.”
The word articulation is derived from a root meaning “joining” or “joint.” To articulate an idea is to cement it, to cocreate it.
We cherish the hidden more than the exposed.
Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.
Nothing stifles the spirit of discovery more effectively than the assumption that miracles have ceased.
What made, and still makes, Edinburgh so creative is not that it is a nice place but rather that it is difficult.
You’ve got something to push against. Instead of having to live up to something, you have to push against something. It forces you to make that extra effort.
Places of genius are not only densely populated, they are also intimate, and intimacy always includes a degree of trust.
When people from similar backgrounds get together, are isolated from dissenting views, and are trying to please a strong leader, the result is consensus around the preferred position, even if it is clearly wrongheaded.
Groupthink is the flip side of group genius. Groupthink is collective stupidity, and every culture is susceptible to it.
Groups that tolerate dissent generate more good ideas, even if those dissenting views turn out to be completely wrong.
Something about train travel - the rocking motion and the passing scenery, there for you to admire or ignore - lends itself to creative breakthroughs.
Drinking was merely a detour, en route to the true destination. Mutual cerebral stimulation.
One person makes a comment, say a businessman, and then someone from a very different field adds to that, takes it in an entirely different direction.
Every golden age - was interdisciplinary, and all creative breakthroughs the result of mental cross-fertilization between different disciplines.
“We’re not talking about conversation as a form of entertainment. We’re talking about conversation as the piling up of premises leading to a conclusion. We’re talking about conversation that takes an issue forward, conversation as a way of getting somewhere.”
Picasso was asked if he knew what a painting was going to look like when he started it, and he said, ‘No, of course not. If I knew, I wouldn’t bother doing it.’
Creative atmospheres accepte, and even celebrate, ambiguity.
Creative genius involves “superfluidity and backtracking.” Superfluidity is the willingness to pursue hunches that might well turn out to be dead ends. Backtracking is when you return to these supposed dead ends and give them a second look.
Geniuses don’t have a higher batting average than the rest of us, but they are able to recall exactly where they missed and why.
Einstein knew less physics than many of his contemporaries. Einstein wasn’t a know-it-all. He was a see-it-all.
The ability to make unexpected and important connections: breadth, not depth, of knowledge is what matters.
The possibility of coincidence is greater here than it is elsewhere.
Geniuses are good at exploiting chance.
Between roughly 1840 and 1920, Calcutta was one of the world’s great intellectual capitals. The Bengal Renaissance.
Everywhere the English go, it seems, they bring nothing but trouble and genius.
There is nothing less pure than culture.
Calcutta, says the writer Amit Chaudhuri, is “in conflict with itself.”
British colonialists spread literacy in India thinking they would get a city of clerks. Instead, they got a city of poets.
The one-way streets change directions once a day. (That’s a very interesting time of day.)
Nothing sticks to a smooth surface. A certain roughness, and ugliness even, is required in our creative lives.
In India, in public, people brush their teeth, urinate, and do all the things that, elsewhere in the world, take place behind closed doors. Life lived so publicly increases the amount and variety of stimulation we’re exposed to. Think of a packed commuter train versus the backseat of a limousine. If creativity is about connecting the dots, then the more dots at our disposal, the better. Private spaces hoard dots. Public spaces are awash in them, and they’re free for the taking.
Rabindranath Tagore. Poet, essayist, dramatist, activist, Nobel Prize winner, he embodied the full flowering of the Bengal Renaissance. One day, he showed some doodles to his friend Victoria de Campo, who glanced at them and said, “Why don’t you paint?” So he did. At the age of sixty-seven, with no formal training in art, he painted. And painted. Over the next thirteen years, Tagore produced some three thousand paintings.
When confronted with a new odor, the rabbit’s brain entered an “I don’t know state.” This enables the brain to avoid all of its previously learned activities and to produce a new one.
Our brains need chaotic states to process new information. There are limits. Too much random stimulation produces anxiety, not genius.
We thrive in “chaotic,” stimulating environments.
The reason he traveled so much was in order to see properly.
Complex, not complicated. Dictionaries define these two words synonymously. They are, in fact, very different. Complicated things can be explained by examining their individual parts. Complex ones cannot. They are always greater than the sum of their parts.
A jet engine is complicated. Mayonnaise is complex.
People tend to describe themselves as complex and their spouse as complicated.
The best state to be poised in is in between two cultures and their productive discourse.
The genius of the Indo-Western mind lies not in the Indian or the Western lobes but in the spaces between.
Small-c creativity might mean jury-rigging a finicky lawn mower rather than buying a new one,
Small-c creativity is important. Not only does it help us get through the day, it also limber us up for big-C creativity, in much the same way that bodybuilders progress to heavier and heavier weights.
An adda is something like a book club, only instead of talking about a book, participants can talk about anything. An adda, I realize, is a great forum for asking questions. Rarely does it yield definitive answers.
Walk. Get up early, at dawn, and just start walking. Don’t take a lot of money, don’t have a destination in mind. Just walk. Don’t stop walking. You might have an epiphany.
Kolkatans have created a unique human configuration: individualism combined with gregariousness. Each one does what he/she wants while enjoying being in a group.
The essential characteristic of a highly civilized society is not that it is creative but that it is appreciative.
The number of foreigners in the city is so great that one feels simultaneously foreigner and native citizen,
Originality is the art of concealing your sources.
The pupil who does not surpass his master is mediocre.
A city provides distance. A buffer between our old selves and our new.
Creative people, research shows, are physiologically more sensitive to stimuli. This helps explain why creative people periodically retreat from the world.
Dickens, who, when deep into a manuscript, avoided any social events, for the “mere consciousness of an engagement will sometimes worry a whole day.”
Creative types engage in a feast-and-famine dynamic. They deprive themselves of novelty, for a while, so they will crave it, and appreciate it, later. Hunger is the best spice.
Friedrich Schiller, the poet and philosopher, always kept a carton of rotten apples under his desk when he wrote. He said it reminded him of the countryside.
If you don’t have the possibility to sell yourself, to be known, you won’t be a genius.
She says music, not classical music. This is no accident. Put the modifier classical or classic in front of a work - of music, of art, of anything - and you suck the life out of it.
Inspiration is for amateurs. True creativity requires showing up at the desk, or the piano, even when you don’t feel like it.
Vienna: No wonder Mozart and Beethoven and the rest thrived here. They had an entire city cheering for them. More than cheering. They egged on their musicians, prodding them, pushing them to ever greater heights. An audience, a good audience, is a sort of co-genius. They disapprove and the genius improves.
We collect our dots in the company of others. We connect them by ourselves.
The coffeehouse was not a “nice place.” Places of genius never are.
Newcomers to a discipline are less committed to traditional rules and are particularly likely to see the rules no longer define a playable game and to conceive another set that can replace them.
The past matters. We can’t innovate without building on the past, and we can’t build on the past unless we know it.
Outside interests diffuse attention and allow problems to marinate. They exercise different mental muscles.
Whenever he felt he had come to the end of the road or into a difficult situation in his work, he would take refuge in his music. That would usually resolve all his difficulties.
Einstein saw himself as an outcast. “I am truly a ‘lone traveler’ and have never belonged to my country, my home, my friends, or even my immediate family with my whole heart.” Those words could just as easily have been written by Freud or Michelangelo or any number of other geniuses.
Successful people “embrace failure.” Which is true. They do. Except it is also true that failures embrace failure. If anything, they embrace it more tightly.
Successful failures are those people who remember exactly where and how they failed, so when they encounter the same problem again, even if in a different guise, they are able to retrieve these “failure indices” quickly and efficiently.
When confronted with failure, “forget it and move on,” is dead wrong. “Remember it and move on” is the way of the genius.
A schema violation is when our world is turned upside down. Temporal or spatial cues are off. Something is wrong. For instance, they would ask some participants to make breakfast in the “wrong” order. The ones engaged in a schema violation - subsequently demonstrated more “cognitive flexibility.”
For creativity, watching people do weird things is nearly the same as doing those weird things ourselves. This explains why in a creative place such as Vienna breakthroughs in one field led to breakthroughs in entirely different fields.
The very knowledge that there could be a new painting raised the likelihood of a new dance or poetry or politics.
Schema violations explain how Freud was influenced by the cultural scene of Vienna even though he didn’t engage in it directly. Novelty was in the air. Genius begets more genius.
New ideas such as Freud’s had a better shot at recognition in a city such as Vienna because, creativity is more likely in places where new ideas require less effort to be perceived. Places accustomed to new ideas, new ways of thinking, are more attuned to their arrival, and genius and the recognition of genius are inseparable.
Geniuses and their cities; the fit is never perfect; there’s always an element of friction, of discord. Socrates loved Athens like a brother, and the city repaid him with a death sentence.
Freud and Vienna were not always a happy fit, but they were a productive fit. They brought out the best in each other.
As a Jew, he was an outsider from the beginning. So he was not so afraid to be an outsider with his ideas. He had nothing to lose. If you were an insider - say, a member of the ruling Hapsburg family - you’re not about to rock the boat.
The life of a Jew in the Vienna of 1900: You were simultaneously an insider and an outsider, one of us and one of them, accepted and shunned.
Able to see the world around them with fresh eyes; as insiders, they were able to propagate these fresh insights, to make the invisible visible.
You pick up a book from a physicist in the 1890s, and it is written in a way that people can understand. They had to defend their theories to a wide audience. How different from today, I think, when an academic is considered successful when no one can understand a word he says.
Two kinds of geniuses: unifiers and revolutionaries. Unifiers connect the dots. Revolutionaries create new dots.
In the Vienna of 1900, everybody felt a break was in the air. And the break was everywhere. You see a break in music, and a break in physics. So people said, ‘What about my field? Maybe there is a break there, too?’
Whenever new, and often competing, schools of philosophy emerged, other completely unrelated fields also thrived. The break was in the air.
Excessive ornamentation causes objects to go out of style and become obsolete.
If genius always makes the world a little bit simpler, then ornamentation does the opposite.
Tension is a necessary ingredient for a place of genius.
Intelligence and creativity are only tangentially related, as are education and creativity. You can be a really stupid genius.
Egg of Columbus. In the story, Columbus returned from his voyage to America a hero, but some in Spain remained unimpressed with his feat. “Anybody can sail across the ocean, just as you have done,” one critic said over dinner. “It is the simplest thing in the world.” Columbus replied by reaching for an egg and challenging the dinner guests to make it stand on end. When none could do it, Columbus took the egg and broke the shell slightly. It stood easily. “It is the simplest thing in the world,” he said. “Anybody can do it - after he has been shown how.”
You don’t get any more optimistic than Silicon Valley. “Brutally optimistic” is how one local put it. Anywhere else in the country, he explains, your new idea is met with an avalanche of reasons why it won’t work; in Silicon Valley, it’s met with a challenge. Why don’t you do it? What are you waiting for? Brutal.
Paradoxes are a welcome antidote to theories which explain everything all too neatly.
The Strength of Weak Ties: What we think of as weak ties - acquaintances, coworkers, etc. - are actually incredibly powerful. Likewise, what we think of as strong ties - close friends, family - are actually weak.
You are more likely to learn something new from a weak tie. Strong ties make us feel good, make us feel that we belong, but they also constrict our worldview. A group with strong ties is more likely to lapse into groupthink than one with weak ties.
Isn’t it interesting, though, that these prophets of a placeless future (internet) all live in one place? (SF, California)
The proliferation of digital technology has made place more, not less, relevant.
How to come up with good ideas. It’s easy: You have a lot of ideas and throw away the bad ones.
A little bit of money promotes creativity but too much squelches it.