What Do Geniuses Have in Common? An Author Searches Out the Answer

Geography of Genius

If there were a formula for genius, someone brilliant might have worked it out already. Unfortunately, we don’t know how to create genius, but we do know a bit about the circumstances that encourage it.

Eric Weiner explores those factors in The Geography of Genius, a book that’s part travelogue, part world history. A longtime foreign correspondent for National Public Radio who writes a column for BBC Travel, Weiner spoke from his home in Washington, D.C., about why geniuses tend to be only children, why North Korea isn’t likely to raise any Nobel winners, and what geniuses need to flourish.

Genius Has Types
Works of genius are new, surprising, and useful—useful in the sense that they’re appreciated. There’s a difference between Michelangelo and Einstein, but what they have in common is that we consider their work transcendent. There are differences between types of geniuses and when they peak; each field has its different peccadilloes.

Genius Is Different from Skill
People have asked about culinary genius, political genius, military genius. Jefferson? Genius. But just a good smart politician? You’re missing the surprising element of genius, and the element of newness, new knowledge, as well. I will revert to Schopenhauer as I do during these times: Talent hits what no one else can hit, genius hits what no one else can see.

Geniuses Walk. A Lot.
Walking works to nurture genius, but it’s also what walking represents that makes genius: Defocused attention. You don’t do your most creative thinking when you’re at your desk with furrowed brow. You also have to get your butt off your chair and going for a walk is the best thing you can do. Socrates, Dickens, Beethoven, Twain was pacer.

Eric Weiner Cover
Eric Weiner at Zed's Cafe in Silver Spring, Md., where he does most of his writing
Justin Tsucalas

Geniuses Often Have Lost Parents
Disproportionately it is the death of one parent that creates genius; a large percentage of geniuses lost their parents when they were less than 10 years old. To be honest, it’s pure speculation—they don’t know what creates a genius versus a delinquent.

Why the Next Genius Likely Won't Hail from Pyongyang
It’s safe to say North Korea is not going to be a place of genius. They don’t have an open system. There are ingredients, but there’s no formula. A place has to be open to diversity and open to the outside world. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a city to raise a genius.

Genius Can Be Cultivated
It’s always in relationship to something else. One of the main points I’m trying to hit home is you can’t separate the creative act from the recognition of that act. We are the co-geniuses. [To this epigraph from Plato] I have nothing to add: “What is honored in a country is cultivated there.” We forget that, and we treat geniuses like these shooting stars in the night sky. It’s much more like gardening. You plant your seed, you need to water it, but you need the right soil, too. Relationship of genius with place, to place, is not always happy and comfortable! Think of Socrates and Athens; Freud and Vienna (Mozart too, to some extent).

Not Know-It-Alls but See-It-Alls
Geniuses need new info and and they need to recognize its value—I think we already are seeing less genius, at least in the scientific world, fewer real breakthroughs in science than there were in centuries past. Is that fewer discoveries to be made? Not necessarily, I think it’s because of specialization. Geniuses are not know-it-alls but see-it-alls.


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