Intersections and Doing Nothing

I’m at a innovation cross roads. Sort of.


Image from Swanksalot

There’s a theory of innovation that gets discussed a lot — it’s the theory of intersections. In short, bring people from a variety of backgrounds together and new (read: “great”) things will happen.

It’s Bletchley Park, it’s left bank Paris, it’s the melting pot of the modern creative cafe, and it’s one of the subjects of the book I’m reading: The Medici Effect. (The Medici family are famous for having kick-started the Renaissance, in part due to their tendency to gather many different disciplines in one place.) (Their personal tastes and extraordinary wealth probably had an impact too.)

But I’m also reading The Way of Chuang Tzu, who was a Taoist from the 5th century BCE. Chuang Tzu’s philosophy is derived from Confuscianism but operates at a higher level.

Confucius focused on four pillars of a person’s life: compassion; justice; ritual; and wisdom. Chuang Tzu felt that this approach produces obedient and well-behaved officials, but traps them in prisons of order and external truths. He felt that individuals could become self-aggrandizing at best, and dissatisfied with not having acheived the compassion/justice/ritual/wisdom for which they sought external acceptance.

Chuang Tzu promoted an un-self-conscious, anti-analytical view of the human condition. One that strives for self-acceptance, and seeks to avoid comparisons with external criteria.

To give you my favourite example, a Lao Tzu story: 2500 years ago, if you wanted to cross a river your bridge was basically a rope slung between the banks. You hauled yourself over, using the rope to counter the drift of the current. Imagine that upstream a man was in a boat and he lost his oar. He is out of control as the current bears him towards you. When he hits you, or comes close, you shake your fist at him. But what if the boat was empty? To be hit by en empty boat is an act of fate, an accident. It’s a story to tell. To act in the way of Tao, essentially, is to act as an empty boat.

So here’s the nub of this blog post. How can it be that I’m so drawn to the vast swathes of activity that typify the Medici’s multi-directional approach and the inherent multiple failures that Gladwell’s 10,000 hours will require… and be simultaneously compelled towards wu wei (“the action of inaction”)?

It’s not like I want to put my feet up and eat chocolates in front of daytime TV; I do genuinely believe that removing self-consciousness and busy-ness from the equation makes for better quality of pretty much everything.

And it’s not that doing lots of things is little more than throwing mud at a barn door; my life and everything I’ve experienced tells me that good music can only be made with many strings to the bow.

So I’ve been reading Chuang Tzu and the Medicis in alternating chapters and verses. A bit of one, then a bit of the other. Creating an intersection, if you will. And it feels that the Medici effect (the effect of applying multiple disciplines to networks) is the what but not the how.

I’m reminded of the grandest ironic quote. Ronald Reagan is often credited this quote but it originated 100 years earlier with the scholar Benjamin Jowett. “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.” A beautiful irony that Reagan lifted it and often gets the credit. (And if you want another wry grin, it was also claimed by Harry Truman in the 1950s and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 1870s.)

Even better than Banksy’s ‘steal’. Maybe.

But it feels that the truth of cross-disciplinary innovation is that one needs to be at the centre of the intersection, but to be invisible, an observer with as little ego as one can muster. I’ve a sense that this is where Greatness lives, and the fact that they (Einstein, Beethoven, Darwin) created dross right alongside the miracles shows that hitting this ‘flow’ isn’t inevitable. But it sure does feel nice when you’re there.


About Morgan Holt

Morgan Holt is senior strategist at Wolff Olins, the global game-changing brand consultancy. He is also chairman of the Branded Content Marketing Association, and a non-executive director of CN Media Group.

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