In his 2008 book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (2008), Seth Godin defines a tribe as “a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.” Tribes and movements go together, he suggests, grounded in our desires for connection, growth, and positive change.
Tribes give us a chance to be a part of something larger and more significant than our individual lives. This appeals to our desire for meaningful connection, to be able to work with others toward making a difference or having a stronger impact in a sphere of interest.
Four books that I pulled from my library help to illustrate of how groups of smart, bold visionaries connected with each other and formed tribes in the days before digital technology made long-distance communication easy. Physical proximation had a lot to do with their success, sometimes as close as sharing meals, meetings, and informal get-togethers in the same location:
- Christina Robb’s This Changes Everything: The Relational Revolution in Psychology (2006) tells the story of the pioneers of relational psychology, clustered in the Greater Boston area, including Carol Gilligan (gender and moral voices), Jean Baker Miller (psychology, women, and relational-cultural theory) , and Judith Lewis Herman (trauma theory and practice).
- James Buchan’s Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind (2003) recounts an extraordinary coalescence of leading intellectuals such as Adam Smith (economics and markets), James Boswell (biography), David Hume (philosophy), and Robert Burns (poetry) in 18th century Edinburgh.
- Laura J. Snyder’s The Philosophical Breakfast Club (2011) shares how four men who first crossed paths at Cambridge University — Charles Babbage (mathematics and computing), John Herschel (astronomy and photography), William Whewell (multiple fields of science), and Richard Jones (economic science) — began meeting over Sunday morning breakfast to exchange ideas and plant the seeds of the modernization of science.
- Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (2001) focuses on the lives and ideas of four remarkable members of a conversational club that met throughout 1872: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (law), Charles Sanders Pierce (philosophy), William James (philosophy and psychology), and John Dewey (education and philosophy).
Studying “genius clusters”
With a somewhat lighter touch than these weighty tomes, Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places, from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley (2016) engages in an entertaining historical travelogue of places where creative genius has flourished.
Notwithstanding his conversational prose, Weiner, too, begins on a more academic note, taking issue with claims that genius is purely hereditary and offering evidence to the contrary. He then cites as a frame for his journeys psychologist Dean Simonton’s (UC-Davis) work on genius clusters, i.e., those geographic areas that, during concentrated periods of time, fostered creative, scientific, and intellectual breakthroughs by multiple individuals.
The search for genius clusters sends Weiner to seven locations where such genius has flourished: Athens (philosophy), Hangzhou (science, technology), Florence (art), Edinburgh (economics, philosophy, and science, among others) , Calcutta (arts, literature, religion, and more), Vienna (music, psychiatry), and Silicon Valley (digital technology). It’s a fun and thought-provoking sojourn. (You can read a National Geographic interview with Weiner by clicking here.)
Can geographically dispersed tribes foster genius?
Today, tribes may form and interact with members spread across the land. Physical proximity helps a lot, of course, especially in the form of periodic conferences and meetings. But the online world can be a way of sustaining and building those bonds too, especially when face-to-face interactions are less feasible. Godin plays up this angle in Tribes.
The next consideration is whether this blend of online connectivity and periodic face-to-face interaction can foster creativity, innovation, and collaborative magic in ways similar to geographically defined genius clusters. I raise this as an open question, not as a veiled doubt. I have been part of many online exchanges that have fueled insights and new ideas. I can’t speculate either way on whether the results would’ve been better developed had the respective conversations been face-to-face.
Although my preference is for small group face-to-face meetings, the bridging power of communications technologies helps to bring thinkers and doers together from many locations. I’ve seen this dynamic occur via numerous digital platforms. In fact, this blend of face-to-face and online communications is a key to the success of three sometimes overlapping tribes of which I’m a part, the workplace anti-bullying movement, the therapeutic jurisprudence network, and the global human dignity community. For members of these groups, digital options (c. 2019) such as email, Facebook, Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom join with old-fashioned phone calls and letters to offer an abundance of choices and modalities for communicating between distant locations.
With these technologies, I would like to think that tribes of smart, devoted, hardworking, and well-meaning people can overcome physical distance to make a positive difference together. We don’t necessarily have to qualify as “geniuses” on some measured scale or hang out with each other every day at a favorite coffeehouse. Rather, the sustained, interactive communication is the key.
So, if you will indulge my closing with an educator’s homework questions:
- What are your natural tribes? How can you contribute to the work of your favorite tribes? How can you form and lead a tribe to make a positive impact in a dimension that benefits from your presence?
- How can we use communications technologies to foster the care and feeding of difference-making insights, understandings, ideas, and initiatives? How can we make the most of treasured opportunities for face-to-face gatherings?
- What the heck is “genius” anyway? Is it mere analytical brainpower or something much more?
This post was revised in July 2019.