The Body, Mind, and Spirit of Bay Area Creativity

Posted on in On Our Radar by Austin Hill Shaw


The Bay Area is the most creative and innovative region in the United States, if not the world. Home to such major players as Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Oracle, and numerous others, the Bay Area receives a whopping 32% of all the venture capital invested in the United States, according to a recent report by the Bay Area Regional Center. It also has the highest concentration of Fortune 500 companies after New York.

All the money and innovation aside, the Bay Area has either begun or fostered the growth of many influential cultural movements—the counterculture movement, free speech, gay rights, California cuisine and the local foods movement, the Internet, municipal recycling programs, beat poetry and literature, psychedelic experimentation, and the otherworldliness of Burning Man.

The question is why? What are some of the factors inherent in the Bay Area that foster such an outpouring of creativity and innovation? If we look at the Bay Area not so much as a place, but as a living being, three governing factors come to mind.

Body: The Grinding Geology

In the grand scheme of things, human beings came on the scene only a short time ago. Yet, there’s been an incredible outpouring of nonhuman-driven creativity that’s transformed our universe from the singularity of the Big Bang to the luminous display of such things as redwood trees, the Golden Gate, and the California poppy.

I call this force the Ground of Creativity, which, as best I can describe it, is driven by three components: dynamism, interdependence, and mystery. In a region prone to earthquakes, which are the result of forces playing themselves out on a global scale, there is a felt sense of the Ground of Creativity at work.

Geologically, the Bay Area lies inside the frayed boundary separating two tectonic behemoths—to the west, the Pacific Plate and to the east, the North American Plate. Between the prongs of the San Andreas Fault to the west and the Hayward and Calaveras Faults to the east, the music of the earth rings out as barely audible whispers, animated melodies, and the occasional cataclysmic cacophony.

Since creativity and destruction are two sides of the same coin (in order to create anything, something must be destroyed or transformed), those who get to feel the occasional shrugs of the earth also gain valued, experiential insight into the dynamic, interdependent, creative universe we inhabit.

Mind: The Great Cultural Mashup

Consider a coral reef sitting along the shoreline. In such places, the land and the sea are in an endless conversation on the subjects of movement and stability, moist and dry, light and dark, animate and inanimate—a conversation that produces a rich and teeming diversity of life. It’s no different with human creativity in places of cultural diversity. When different cultural mindsets rub shoulders with one another, new creative ideas naturally come to the surface.

Although the San Francisco Bay Area is technically part of the Western world, it is really something different altogether—a cultural coral reef of sorts where the importance of the individual (Western thought) meets the importance of the group (Eastern thought), which fosters the Bay Area’s particular style and grand outpouring of creativity and innovation. In essence, the collision of two very different worldviews, and many others, fosters Bay Area creativity and innovation through cross-pollination.

Spirit: The Feng Shui Factor

Here’s my favorite way of understanding the Bay Area’s vast creative outpouring, as told to me by one of the Bay Area’s most luminous and beloved feng shui teachers, Ming Liu.

In the same way that we can’t see the wind but can see its effects as it blows over a body of water, feng shui describes the play of energies, sometimes visible, sometimes not, on our experience of the world. Like the moon reflecting the sun’s brilliance in the dead of night, when it comes to feng shui, we often can’t see the source of energy directly, but we can see its effects on other objects.

According to Ming Liu, while no feng shui is inherently good or bad, the Bay Area has particularly unusual feng shui. The cold, low, shape-shifting Pacific Ocean is polarized against the hot, dry, highly cultivated land of the Central Valley. Between these air masses, a dynamic tension is set up, mitigated and sculpted by both the coastal ranges and East Bay Hills but also allowed to mix and swirl just east of the hallowed opening of the Golden Gate.

In other words, the yin of the ocean (feminine energy) is allowed to dance and play with the yang of the hot, dry land (masculine energy), producing the energy that fuels creativity and innovation in the region.

Walking about the Bay Area, especially around San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, and parts of Marin, one notices that the air itself has a different quality. It is marine air—inundating the land, producing warmer temperatures in the winter, colder temperatures and signature fog in the summer, and at night, what a friend of mine used to call “the infinity haze,” a shimmering aura visible around streetlights.

What results is a felt sense of being smack in the middle of an unending courtship between a beautiful, emotive, life-giving woman and a powerful, steadfast, purposeful man. And when it comes to creativity and innovation, that’s a wild, wonderful, and extremely fortuitous place to be!

Austin Hill Shaw is the founder of Creativity Matters and author of The Shoreline of Wonder: On Being Creative. He works with individuals who want to unlock their full creative potential and organizations that want to build cultures of innovation.

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