Geniuses do not pop up randomly but, rather, in groupings. Genius clusters. Athens in 450 BC. Florence in AD 1500. Certain places, at certain times, produced a bumper crop of brilliant minds and good ideas.
These places excelled not only at producing creative geniuses but also at recognizing them. Radically new ideas such as Freud’s theory of the unconscious, couldn’t have emerged anywhere or anytime. Vienna of 1900 was already accustomed to new ideas, new ways of thinking, by the time Freud came along. Innovation that doesn’t resonate is no innovation at all.
Creative genius (as opposed to raw IQ) is a social verdict, a natural outcome of where we direct our energies and our attention. We get the geniuses who we want and who we deserve. Or, as Plato said, “What is honored in a country is cultivated there.” What was honored in 18th-century Vienna? Music. So we got Mozart, Beethoven and other great composers. What do we honor today? Digital technology, and the connectivity and convenience it represents. Naturally, our geniuses are Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and the like.
Yet we continue to treat geniuses like shooting stars: beautiful to behold but beyond our ken, and wholly unpredictable. A better way to think of genius is as flowers in a garden. Yes, you need good seeds, and plenty of water—but also need the right soil. Without that, nothing will grow.