Kind of Genius

sm14.07.jpgTucked near the back of the July issue of Wired, there is an article about two types, or classifications, of creative genius: conceptual and experimental. The article focuses on the research findings of David Galenson, who in 1997 "almost by accident" happened upon an observation which turned to curiosity turned to hypothesis and ultimately into theory. The creative class of conceptualists figure out what they want to create before they set out to create it. "The hallmark of conceptualists is certainty. They know what they want. And they know when they've created it." The vast majority of conceptualist geniuses, according to Galenson's research, peak at a relatively early age or stage in their careers, most often twenty- or thirty-somethings. Experimentalists are tinkerers, forever approaching a realization of an idea, never quite knowing when their work is finished. Coming to knowing rather than knowing. They are typically late-bloomers, producing their best work after years of playing with ideas, tinkering, toying, tweaking. Galeson found most of the experimentalists to peak in their fifties, sixties and seventies.

The article grounds Galeson's assertions with a variety of examples from each camp: Picasso, Mozart, Orson Welles, F. Scott Fitzgerald among the conceptualist; Twain, Hitchcock, Beethoven, Frank Lloyd Wright among the experimentalist. And, of course, the imperfection and limits of this 'dogmatic duality' are brought up and acknowledged. They are tendencies, not laws.

The distinction between these kinds of genius that is most emphasized is the age-at-the-time-of-creative-peak factor; the notion that conceptualists do their best work in their relative youth, the experimentalist as they age and mature. I am led to wonder if there is not such a bifurcation in communities, organizations and civilizations.

Without doing any deep analysis, what comes to mind when I think of "conceptual communities" (in the US), Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, Sea Ranch in Northern California, and Disney's Celebration in Central Florida come to mind. I am sure there are others both in the US as well as around the world. I lived in one of these communities for several years and have spent time in or near the others. From my undocumented experience, each seemed to begin from a vision of certainty, knowing what they wanted to be from the get go and, to their credit, realizing this vision relatively early in their lifecycle. However, I think conceptual communities - especially successful ones - typically recede from an early peak in livability, coalescence and vitality. I am reminded of the axiom, "nothing fails like success."

With "experimental communities," the projects of and inspired by Christopher Alexander come immediately to mind, as does Gaviotas.

Though certain names do come to mind for both types, I think blanket distinctions of these types are trickier and less meaningful when applied to organizations and corporations.

But it may be worth looking through conceptualist and experimental lenses in terms of viewing organizational cultures - and assessing your own tendencies to then find an organization that compliments your style.

I tend to think of myself as an experimentalist, still climbing my own peak of creative expression. I am attracted to experimental cultures within organizations and communities, where the vision is "an asymptote toward which (they are) forever approaching without ever quite reaching," to use a phrase describing Cezanne in the aforementioned Wired article. These cultures constantly churn through Design-Build-Use cycles, employing principles and patterns while eschewing templates and formulas. The aspiration is always that the best be the next.

And what about the whole of civilizations? Myself, I can't pretend to know enough or hold a broad enough perspective to offer archetypical examples of either classification. I do wonder about the American experience. I wonder, for all the talk and words written of "the American Experiment," if in the end, we'll be held more as a conceptualist, reaching our collective creative peak in our first couple centuries, and then riding on that success, for better or worse, for the rest of our days.