What was it about Athens in 450 BC, Florence in 1500 or Vienna in the 1800s that made them such breeding grounds for geniuses? Was it a historic coincidence, or something about these places that made them special?
Author Eric Weiner, in his new book, “The Geography of Genius,” argues that places matter more than we may think.
These locations had turmoil and intrigue, but not war. The pot was being stirred, but not boiling over. Trade was essential. New ideas were welcomed. These areas absorbed and synthesized the foreign to create something new. This still holds true today, Weiner said.
“There’s a reason North Korea’s not a genius cluster right now. It’s not because people there are dumb or less intelligent than anywhere else,” he told The Washington Post in an interview last week. “It’s that it’s closed off to these outside influences.”
Athens in 450 BC — home to Socrates and Plato — happened to be a city of prolific trade. With new ideas and experiences available, residents were like chefs blessed with bursting pantries. The broader range of experiences is like having more spices to dream up recipes that more closed-off places wouldn’t have a chance to make.
Florence had a restless culture and tremendous wealth to invest in great artists.
And Weiner considered Vienna in the 1800s a place of genius, because it was the heart of an empire that had a range of outside influences and immigrants. Its welcoming of new ideas from outside influences attracted Mozart, Beethoven and Joseph Haydn, who all moved to the city in the 19th century. Sigmund Freud did so as well.
This is why Weiner thinks there’s a selfish reason for countries to let in immigrants and refugees.
“Some of them, not all, but some are going to end up being the next Einstein or Freud or whoever. Just the odds are greater,” he said. “You look at like Silicon Valley, something like half of all start-ups have one founding partner who is born outside the U.S. That’s phenomenal.”
Take for example PayPal, the online payment start-up founded in 1998. Four of its six founders were born outside the United States. Former employees are sometimes called the “PayPal Mafia,” having gone on to remarkable successes in founding companies, such as Tesla Motors, LinkedIn, YouTube, Yelp and SpaceX.
Silicon Valley was also the birthplace of Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, among the wealthiest tech companies in the world.
So what location is the next one where genius will spring up? Weiner said it’s too hard to know, like trying to predict the weather. He warns that top-down attempts to recreate Silicon Valleys won’t do it. The next place should be a city that’s open to new experiences and outsiders. But good luck guessing more than that.