The Medici Effect

I sell used books.  One of them attracted my attention because of an unusually realistic-looking bug on the cover.  I thought I’d use it as a prop for one of the kids I work with who has autism.  I would pretend that the bug was biting me and then pretend to step on it.  Joking with kids with autism, especially that slapstick kind of humor, has many benefits including enabling them to learn through imaginative play as well as to think abstractly instead of literally.  Plus it’s fun.

Anyway, I decided to read the book. Turns out Franz Johansson was preaching to the choir.  I wrote some related ideas in September (2009/08/22/the-age-of-specialization/).  My thoughts then were that the world had become too specialized – that people stay in their comfort zones and don’t venture out, but that there are a lot of gains to be made from branching out.  Though most people specialize in a narrow topic, the world is also interconnected more than ever.

The Medici Effect got its name from the Medici banking family in 15th century Florence, Italy.  The Medicis funded creativity from a wide variety of occupations.  There was an unusual amount of creativity – sculptors, scientists, poets, philosophers, financiers, painters, and architects.  They broke down barriers between disciplines and cultures and learned from each other.  This became known as the Renaissance.  The idea is that intersections of different disciplines or ideas come together to create new methods of doing things.

Brainstorming can yield great results if an atmosphere of openness is encouraged.  I’d rather have one great idea and five bad ones than no ideas at all.  Too often, people say, “No, we can’t do that,” without even thinking about it, not realizing that one idea might lead to another, or that having ideas that don’t work are necessary in order to have ideas that work.  People pass judgment on ideas too quickly.  I’ve even attended meetings in which the leader is more concerned with keeping power than fostering innovative ideas.

It’s important to have a culture in which creative ideas are accepted.  If you are afraid to bring them up, you will continue to get the same results you’ve always gotten.  People are often afraid of change to the point where they would rather continue what they are doing though it might be largely ineffective, than to try something new and risk a loss but gain the potential for something great.

When jobs become too specialized, people are afraid of trying something new because consistency and conformity are rewarded, but they also lead to complacency.  Instead, shaking your mind free from pre-conceived notions leads to great gains.  Unique insights can be gained when people perform different occupations and exchange ideas.

I’ve always bristled at the notion that a person is what they do.  Ten years ago I wore a tie to work every day.  Now I not only always wear sweatpants and sweatshirts, but I usually wear the same ones every day.  People look at my resume and say, “Oh, you’re an IT (Information Technology) person.”  I was anything but that.  You could have taken a dart and thrown it at any one of 20 topics, and I could have written about any of them, most of them probably better than I did about IT, though I was still the best at what I did, and could walk into any institute at NIH tomorrow, blindfolded, having had a few beers, and with no training on the topic write better than anyone else there.  If I had written about animals, I guess they would have said, “You’re an animal person.”  The ability to change careers is a good thing, not a bad thing.  I guess some people have such tunnel vision that they see themselves doing only one thing so that’s the way they perceive others as well.

Ironically, a network of like-minded people can create obstacles because they all think the same.  Creativity lies in taking risks.  Comfort and security are tempting but become boring.  Challenge yourself and don’t take the easy way out.  Be open to new ideas, even if they seem to be unconventional at first.

I like the brainstorming philosophy but I’ve been burned by trying it in an overly conservative atmosphere.  Once I was working at a school for disabled children.  I thought I could use my 10 years of experience by having a little bit of freedom to try new ideas – by adding some spontaneity to the structure.  The principal wanted a “drill sergeant,” though, which I believe doesn’t always work for children with autism.  Anyway, I had a solution that would have resulted in the kids learning more than they otherwise would have, the principal would’ve been happy, and the parent of a child trying to get into the school would’ve been happy because her child would have gotten a much better education than he otherwise would have by having a certain one on one instructor.  The idea was too out of the box, though, so everybody gets what they had before instead of the potential for spectacular results.

Do not be afraid of change.  Embrace unpredictability.

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