What Is The “Scenius”?

Because genius alone isn’t enough!

There’s a common myth that genius is only produced and achieved in isolation. This is commonly referred to as the “Great Man Theory”, that innovation in art and culture only comes from great men working in solitude.

Brian Eno, musician, producer, and inventor of the term “scenius”, describes scenius as similar to genius except embedded in a scene rather than in genes.

The geography of scenius has several important factors:

  • Firstly, there is mutual appreciation, which is like motivational peer pressure.
  • Secondly, there is a rapid exchange of tools and techniques, in which as soon as something is invented, it’s widely shared among everyone within the scenius as everyone within the scenius is united by a common language.
  • Thirdly, there are the network effects of success, which means whenever there is a success, it’s celebrated by everyone within the scenius.
  • Fourthly, within the scenius there is a local tolerance for the novelties, which means that renegade, maverick, unusual, and revolutionary ideas are protected from tampering by a buffer zone. Scenius, in other words, is a flourishing space for nonconformity.

According to an article in The Technium, the history of art and science is full of different sceniuses. Some notable examples include the Algonquin Round Table, the Bloomsbury Group, and the Inklings in Oxford in the literary scene, 1920s Paris, the lofts of Soho, NYC, and Burning Man in the artistic scene, and the Lunar Society in England, Building 20 at MIT, and Silicon Valley in the scientific and technological scene. Scenius, according to The Technium, can appear anywhere in any scale and form.

The Technium article on scenius also is keen to describe scenius as serendipitous. Since serendipity is the nature of scenius, all of the members of the scenius are flexible and have the total freedom to create what they wish. The scenius also has barriers to entry which separate the wannabes from those serious about participating in the scenius and barriers to exit which engender a sense of community among the members of the scenius. Since sceniuses are typically nondescript, you wouldn’t really notice them if you were an outsider to the scenius but to the scenius members they are very real. There is also always a sense of excitement among members of the scenius which makes the scenius members very playful.

Scenius is always developed among people with a shared resonance.

Eno describes his creation of the term scenius as this:

“I was an art student and, like all art students, I was encouraged to believe that there were a few great figures like Picasso and Kandinsky, Rembrandt and Giotto and so on who sort-of appeared out of nowhere and produced artistic revolution.

As I looked at art more and more, I discovered that that wasn’t really a true picture.

What really happened was that there was sometimes very fertile scenes involving lots and lots of people — some of them artists, some of them collectors, some of them curators, thinkers, theorists, people who were fashionable and knew what the hip things were — all sorts of people who created a kind of ecology of talent. And out of that ecology arose some wonderful work.

he period that I was particularly interested in, ’round about the Russian revolution, shows this extremely well. So I thought that originally those few individuals who’d survived in history — in the sort-of “Great Man” theory of history — they were called “geniuses”. But what I thought was interesting was the fact that they all came out of a scene that was very fertile and very intelligent.

So I came up with this word “scenius” — and scenius is the intelligence of a whole… operation or group of people. And I think that’s a more useful way to think about culture, actually. I think that — let’s forget the idea of “genius” for a little while, let’s think about the whole ecology of ideas that give rise to good new thoughts and good new work.”

Austin Kleon’s Scenius Diagram

There’s a concept called the ecology of talent, which related very much to scenius, in which people share their talents and contribute to each other’s success. The scenius doesn’t appear by itself, but it’s an organic process in which highly skilled people breed ideas with other highly skilled people. The scenius has to be found in order to be made.

The scenius has been augmented in the digital age with the help of the Internet, social media and digital media bringing people from far-flung regions around the world together. The rise of email, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, online forums, online chat, etc. has created movements unlike any which we have previously seen and made it much easier to assemble the power of the collective genius. I know that I intend to join the scenius movement and make my own mark in my own way within it.

In Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work, the first chapter ‘You Don’t Have To Be A Genius” includes a detailed description of what the scenius is and he acknowledges the significant role it has played over the course of his life and career development. He states his experience with the scenius like this:

“There’s a healthier way of thinking about creativity that the musician Brian Eno refers to as “scenius.” Under this model, great ideas are often birthed by a group of creative individuals — artists, curators, thinkers, theorists, and other tastemakers — who make up an “ecology of talent.” If you look back closely at history, many of the people who we think of as lone geniuses were actually part of “a whole scene of people who were supporting each other, looking at each other’s work, copying from each other, stealing ideas, and contributing ideas.” Scenius doesn’t take away from the achievements of those great individuals: it just acknowledges that good work isn’t created in a vacuum, and that creativity is always, in some sense, a collaboration, the result of a mind connected to other minds.

What I love about the idea of scenius is that it makes room in the story of creativity for the rest of us: the people who don’t consider ourselves geniuses. Being a valuable part of a scenius is not necessarily about how smart or talented you are, but about what you have to contribute — the ideas you share, the quality of the connections you make, and the conversations you start. If we forget about genius and think more about how we can nurture and contribute to a scenius, we can adjust our own expectations and the expectations of the worlds we want to accept us. We can stop asking what others can do for us, and start asking what we can do for others.”

I want to conclude by saying that genius is never achieved alone, but only with the fellowship of like-minded camaraderie. The scenius isn’t just about skill or talent but about contribution, connection, and conversation. High achievement transforms into higher achievement in stronger numbers.

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