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Financial Times: How to create a golden age

What makes a genius? Since at least the 19th century, some have said it is down to genetics, while others have argued that upbringing is decisive. More recently, the idea that genius rests on sheer hard work — the “10,000 hours” thesis popularised by the writer Malcolm Gladwell — has gained currency. The latest contribution to the debate comes from the journalist and travel writer Eric Weiner. In The Geography of Genius, he sets out on an epic journey to establish the primacy of place.

“We hold dear the notion of the solitary creator, courageously overcoming the odds, vanquishing the confederacy of dunces allied against her,” Weiner writes. But a more accurate description, he says, would be that “certain places, at certain times, produced a bumper crop of brilliant minds and good ideas”.

In his previous book, The Geography of Bliss (2008), Weiner sought to find the world’s happiest country. Now, he focuses on seven cities to uncover the circumstances that turned them into hubs of cultural, political and technological progress. His quest includes some obvious candidates — the ancient Athens of Socrates and Plato, Leonardo da Vinci’s Florence and today’s Silicon Valley. Added to these are Enlightenment Edinburgh and the Vienna of 1900.

Weiner looks beyond the west too. He travels to Hangzhou in China and explores its cultural flourishing during the Song Dynasty. Another chapter takes him to Kolkata, where he focuses on Rabindranath Tagore and the Bengal Renaissance, which lasted from 1840 to 1920. In each city, Weiner speaks with local experts — academics, tour guides, artists — and asks them to précis the elements of their city’s success story.

Places of public debate are one common feature that Weiner identifies. The Greeks had their symposia and the Calcuttans organised addas, gatherings where conversation unfolded in a non-linear fashion. The prime example is the Viennese coffeehouse, described by Stefan Zweig as “a sort of democratic club [that] anyone could join . . . for the price of a cheap cup of coffee.” One of the less convincing arguments Weiner makes is that the food of ancient Greece was so bland that it drove Athenians to channel their creative energy into philosophy at dinner.

Yet Weiner finds differences too, especially between eastern and western conceptions of creativity in relation to history. Chinese and Hindu thinkers, he argues, valued old truths and their rediscovery over innovations. This contrasts with the deeply ingrained western emphasis on novelty.

Applying DH Lawrence’s insight that all culture is built on a “deep dung of cash”, Weiner discusses the role of money. Most geniuses throughout history have come from the middle and upper-middle classes — those who “had enough money to pursue their passions, but not so much they lapsed into complacency”. Florentine artists thrived thanks to patrons such as the Medicis. Today’s “Medicis of Silicon Valley” are venture capitalists and angel investors. Genius cannot exist in the abstract, argues Weiner — it needs societal recognition and support.

Systems of mentorship are important. In Florence, Weiner explores the workshop of the artist Verrocchio, where Leonardo da Vinci was an apprentice and contributed small figures to his master’s paintings. In Silicon Valley, we learn how Mark Zuckerberg asked the advice of veteran investor Roger McNamee when he ran into trouble in the early days of Facebook.

Weiner is skilled at weaving together reportage and academic research. If some of his discoveries seem obvious, he also delivers the occasional counterintuitive insight and is a likeable companion. “It’s an unusual sensation, one that, like most unusual sensations, I first mistake for indigestion,” he observes at one point. Not all the thoughts in this romp through history convince, but the journey is always stimulating.

This article was originally published in The Financial Times on 2 January 2016:

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