walk cafe Genius Geography Athens Silicon Valley

Location matters. 80% of the job is being there according to Woody Allen. Go to classes and seminars. Sit in the right coffee house. Sleep in People’s Park Berkeley. If you don’t show up for work you will get fired, retired, suicided, sick or banished to Gulag Archipelago.

Exercise! Like Einstein said when he got stuck on a hard problem: Take a little walk (not drive). Sell fossil fuel vehicles and bury your money in the desert.


The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley.

Magnetic Theory of Genius. Places such as ancient Athens, or Silicon Valley today, are creative because they attract smart, ambitious people. They are talent magnets.

Aristotle tells me the Athenians had a word for those who refused to participate in public affairs: idiotes. It is where we get our word idiot. “The man who took no interest in the affairs of state was not a man who minded his own business, but a man who had no business being in Athens at all,”

Darwin’s theory of evolution gelled while he was riding in a carriage.

Freud did his best thinking at this favorite coffee house. Sigmund Freud nibbling on his favorite sponge cake at Vienna’s Café Landtmann. For me, cafés are a kind of second home, a prime example of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls a “great good place.” What matters is the atmosphere—not the tablecloths or the furniture but a more intangible ambience, one that encourages guilt-free lingering and strikes just the right balance of background din and contemplative silence.

Einstein staring out the window of the Swiss patent office in Berne.

Leonardo da Vinci wiping the sweat from his forehead at a hot and dusty Florentine workshop.

Beethoven, like many geniuses, preferred long walks in the woods.

Brahms liked walking out in the nature, and often walked in the woods around Vienna. He’d always walk in a pose with his hands behind his back. Brahms was able to gather some wealth from his compositions, but he continued to live very simply. He didn’t move into fancier and bigger houses, but lived in an small apartment

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. Socrates is remembered as a great philosopher, but he was first and foremost a conversationalist.

Athens. The city produced more brilliant minds—from Socrates to Aristotle—than any other place the world has seen before or since. (Only Renaissance Florence came close.)

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. The Greeks, as usual, knew what they were doing. Many a genius has done his or her best thinking while walking.

While working on A Christmas Carol, Dickens would walk fifteen or twenty miles through the back streets of London, turning over the plot in his mind, as the city slept.

Mark Twain walked a lot, too, though he never got anywhere. He paced while he worked, as his daughter recalled: “Some of the time when dictating, Father walked the floor . . . then it always seemed as if a new spirit had flown into the room.”

Recently, researchers have begun to investigate scientifically the link between walking and creativity. In a recent study, Stanford University psychologists Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz divided participants into two groups: walkers and sitters. They then administered something called Guilford’s Alternative Uses test, in which participants come up with alternative uses for everyday objects. It’s designed to measure “divergent thinking,” an important component of creativity. Divergent thinking is when we come up with multiple, unexpected solutions to problems. Divergent thinking is spontaneous and free-flowing. Convergent thinking, by contrast, is more linear and entails a narrowing, rather than an expanding, of your options. Convergent thinkers are trying to find the one correct answer to a question. Divergent thinkers reframe the question.

The results, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, confirm that the ancient Greeks were onto something. Creativity levels were “consistently and significantly” higher for the walkers versus the sitters. Curiously, it didn’t matter whether participants walked outdoors in the fresh air or indoors on a treadmill staring at a blank wall. 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, living long ago, in an age before the treadmill, did their walking outdoors. They did everything outdoors. A house was less a home than a dormitory. They spent only about thirty waking minutes there every day. “Just long enough to do the necessary with their wives,” said Aristotle, as we neared the gates of the Acropolis. 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 that surround the city. None of these outings were deemed extracurricular because, unlike us, the

Greeks didn’t differentiate between physical and mental activity.

Plato’s famous Academy, progenitor of the modern university, was as much an athletic facility as an intellectual one. The

Greeks viewed body and mind as two inseparable parts of a whole. A fit mind not attached to a fit body rendered both somehow incomplete. Picture Rodin’s Thinker and you have the Greek ideal: a buff man lost in thought.

The Acropolis, at last. Literally “high city,” it is not a building but a place, and its location—atop a steep plateau, with natural springs nearby—is no accident. The Greeks had a highly refined sense of place. Socrates, for instance, extolled the benefits of southern exposure two millennia before New York real-estate agents. 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

We hike a bit more before reaching the peak, where the Parthenon. The Parthenon represents an unprecedented engineering feat. For starters, workers had to transport thousands of blocks of marble from the surrounding countryside. The project employed carpenters, molders, bronzesmiths, stonecutters, dyers, painters, embroiderers, embossers, rope makers, weavers, cobblers, road builders, and miners. Amazingly, the Parthenon was completed on time and under budget.

For the Greeks, Brady explains, virtue and genius were inseparable. You could be the greatest poet or architect in the world, but no one would consider you so if you were an arrogant jerk.

creative hotbeds where geniuses from Socrates to Steve Jobs thrived, and asks why. Moreover, why do these hotbeds eventually fizzle? —centers around this

quote by Plato: “What is honored in a country will be cultivated there,” be it intellectual discourse, art, music, literature, or life-altering gadgets like the iPhone.

Paradise is antithetical to genius. Paradise makes no demands, and creative genius takes root through meeting demands in new and imaginative ways. “The Athenians matured because they were challenged on all fronts,” said Nietzsche, in a variation of his famous “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger” line. Creativity is a response to our environment.

you had to stand up at the speaker’s platform and address some seven thousand men, forty times a year. No topic was off-limits. If you had any ambitions to become a statesman, you needed the skills of public speaking, and you also had to be educated. Plus, you needed stamina. They would stay there from sunrise to sunset and start with mundane issues, like water or grain supply, then move on to weightier issues. This messy, chaotic place was replete with the sound of shopkeepers hawking their wares, sophists their oratorical services. It also had an undercurrent of menace. Often, arguments broke out, and sometimes scuffles. Athenians loved their agora, but others didn’t see the appeal. Athenian agora “figs, witnesses to summonses, bunches of grapes, turnips, pears, apples, givers of evidence, roses, porridge, honeycombs, chickpeas, lawsuits, beestings-puddings, myrtle, allotment machines [for random jury selection], irises, lambs, water clocks, laws, indictments.” Everything had its place. Separate sections existed for fresh fruit and dried fruit, smoked fish and nonsmoked, spices and perfumes, footwear, and horses.

“Why Athens? How did a small, dirty, crowded city, surrounded by enemies and swathed in olive oil, manage to change the world?”

In the process of determining the conditions by which golden ages of genius happened when and where they did, Weiner also uncovers intriguing anecdotes that serve to illuminate and humanize god-like “characters” like Michelangelo, Beethoven, and Freud. He likewise stumbles upon answers to compelling questions like, why does genius seem like such a boy’s club?

All intellectual breakthroughs from Darwin’s theory of evolution to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, 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.” Mathematicians, for instance, speak reverentially of an “elegant proof.” An elegant proof is not merely correct but highly streamlined. Nothing extraneous, and nothing missing. An elegant proof is pleasing to the mind the way an elegant design is pleasing to the eye. The Greeks always sought the most elegant solution to any problem. “to see anything in relation to other things is to see it simplified.”


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