“Scenius” is a term coined by musician and producer Brian Eno to counter “The Lone Genius Myth,” or the idea that innovation in art and culture comes from a few Great Chosen Ones. When Eno draws what the traditional model of genius looks like, he uses the example of the symphony orchestra, with God or the Muse at the very top of the triangle, and on descending levels, the composer, the conductor, the musicians, and, finally, the audience listening:
He then draws other organizations in our society that traditionally have hierarchical models:
When he gets to “scenius,” or what he calls the communal form of genius, he draws this:
Here’s what I wrote about it in my book, Show Your Work!:
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.
To put it even more simply: Genius is an egosystem, scenius is an ecosystem.
Our world is an ecosystem in which our only real chance at survival as a species is cooperation, community, and care, but it’s being lead by people who believe in an egosystem, run on competition, power, and self-interest.
This was the message of the great feminist and pacifist Ursula Franklin, who said:
The dream of a peaceful society to me is still the dream of a potluck supper. The society in which all can contribute, and all can find friendship. Those who bring things, bring things that they do well. [We must] create conditions under which a potluck is possible.
When you think about your family, your friends, your neighborhood, your office, your city, your country, your world… are you operating as an ecosystem or an egosystem?
Which model we choose to operate under will determine the quality of our lives, and, arguably, our survival.