In many ways, Silicon Valley is the first region of its kind, a place where potentially life-changing ideas are vetted and acted upon with speed, precision, and plenty of investor loot.
But in other ways, Silicon Valley is just one creative region in a long line of creative regions. In his forthcoming book, The Geography of Genius, author Eric Weiner devotes the final chapter to Silicon Valley--and the previous chapters to cities which, in several respects, are its brilliant predecessors: Athens, Hangzhou, Florence, Edinburgh, Calcutta, and Vienna.
Weiner traveled to all of these cities and mixed his firsthand impressions with old-school book research. The result, when you finish the book, is something like a feeling: Despite the sometimes radical differences among the seven regions--to say nothing of the different eras in which each city was a wellspring of genius activity--there are, indeed, key traits that the places share. Here's a list of those traits, along with comments from Weiner about how you might apply those traits to build a more creative culture in your office.
1. Teaching people to think creatively will not be effective unless they're in an environment supporting it.
"It's not a free-floating exercise divorced from the environment where it takes place," says Weiner. "So if you're a boss encouraging people to think creatively but you're not really receptive to it, you're wasting time."
2. Supporting creativity in any environment requires stretch goals.
You should give your employees tasks they've never attempted before, in subjects they're unaccustomed to exploring. Even if it seems like a bad fit. Weiner points out that the Sistine Chapel was, at the time, a stretch task for Michelangelo. He was best known as a sculptor, not a painter, and what painting he did was mostly small pieces. But Pope Julius II chose him for the task anyway. That was just the way things went, in 16th-century Florence. "The pope was adhering to the Medici philosophy of patronage: choose someone who is clearly talented, then assign him an impossible task... even if he seems like a bad fit, especially if he seems like bad fit," writes Weiner.
Now think of your own company: When was the last time you intentionally asked a gifted employee to leave her comfort zone, for the sake of a surprising, creative outcome?
3. Recognizing that creativity is not necessarily about originality or ideas--it's what you do with the ideas.
Most entrepreneurs will recognize the above statement as a truth about business in general--having an idea for a business is a far cry from actually starting a business.
Well, the same is true for creativity. And no region epitomizes this better than Silicon Valley. The culture is not about brainstorming. It's about rapidly testing what you brainstorm to see if you should toss the idea or go further with it. After only a few days in Silicon Valley, Weiner found terms like "beta version" and "hackathon" rolling off his tongue and entering his thought processes. "Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's mantra, 'Move fast and break things,' has become part of the local mythology," he writes.
Likewise, many great ideas that ancient Athens became known for didn't originate there. But they were experimented with and perfected there. "They borrowed the alphabet from the Phoenicians, medicine and sculpture from the Egyptians, mathematics from the Babylonians, literature from the Sumerians. They felt no shame in their intellectual pilfering," Weiner writes. The last thing they had was a "not invented here" complex. They took pride in tweaking what was invented elsewhere. For instance, they took Corinthian concept of friezes--which, in Corinthian hands usually depicted an animal--and created friezes that told short stories involving couples, or children's games, or poetry readings. Now the frieze wasn't just the picture of an animal. It was a full-fledged narrative, twining the concepts of storytelling and the visual arts.
4. Fostering openness to new experiences is essential.
In creative cities, you most often see this openness in their embrace of immigrant populations. Indeed, most of the cities or regions Weiner writes about have or had cultures that welcomed visitors and immigrants.
And many statistics indicate that immigrants do a lion's share of highly innovative work. For instance, one half of all Silicon Valley startups have at least one founder who was born outside the U.S., Weiner notes. Likewise, immigrants account for nearly one-third of U.S. patents granted--and they are 25 percent of U.S. Nobel laureates. In early 20th-century Vienna, an immigrant named Sigmund Freud found a home for his radical ideas. In ancient Athens, Pericles famously welcomed immigrants, even though he admitted it could be risky. "The eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit from our liberality," he said.
It doesn't mean you have to be an immigrant or outsider to think creatively. You just have to be able to see things as an outsider. When he visited Hangzhou, Weiner sat down with Alibaba founder Jack Ma, to learn his insights about Chinese creativity, past and present. As it happens, Ma came of age just as China was opening its doors to outsiders. As a boy he hung out in front of the Shangri La Hotel, simply observing the foreigners, and how they were different. Eventually he started introducing himself as a tour guide, offering free tours in exchange for informal lessons in the English language. "So, alien notions--strange ideas about freedom and opportunity and risk taking--wormed their way into young Jack's brain," writes Weiner. "Until, one day, he realized he was thinking differently."