Last week I attended the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. It's like the CES of food, with over 1,300 exhibitors from 35 countries showing 80,000 products to over 17,000 attendees. If that sounds like a recipe for something big and overwhelming, well, you'd be right -- after seven hours walking the floor (even with two espressos and a bunch of bacon chocolate in me), I was ready to cry uncle. But don't get me wrong -- it was really a cool experience!
Thing is, I am not a fancy food aficionado, nor am I an expert on anything concerning the food industry. To be sure, my employer IDEO does significant work across the domains of food, nutrition, beverages, water, and wellness, but I'm not directly involved with much of that work. So why did I take a valuable weekend day to attend this show? Well, the answer is twofold. First, I wanted to gain more empathy for my colleagues who care very deeply about this stuff; I want to really understand their passion for food.
Second, immersing yourself in new places, situations and experiences is how you become and stay an innovative soul. I'm a strong believer in taking a stroll through pastures far flung from those one naturally gravitates to. It's not hard to convince me to attend gatherings focused on networks of things, robotics, software, or Porsches. But, if I only ever pay attention to those types of events, my ability to see patterns or make breakthrough associations across unconnected worlds will diminish over time. If creativity is about making connections between seemingly unrelated things, then living in a bubble (or even a handful of bubbles) becomes a limiting factor on the heights your imagination can reach. If you're engaged in the art and science of bringing cool stuff to life, you owe it to yourself to expose your brain to an ever more diverse set of inputs and experiences.
How? I always think of a point made by -- I think by Buckminster Fuller, I'm not really sure? -- which in essence said that, to enlarge one's scope of awareness, one should always buy the magazine located in the upper right corner of a newstand. Doing so ensures that you are always exploring an area you don't know anything about. In 2013 terms, I think this means following random (but interesting) folks on Twitter, letting your eyes run wild on Instagram, and going to things like the Fancy Food Show. If you only follow people you know and like on Twitter, how will you ever hear about anything that doesn't make sense to your current worldview?
What did I learn at the Fancy Food Show? I'm not sure yet, to be honest. I did experience some, ahem, interesting branding choices, such as a breakfast cereal called Holy Crap. Aside from those unexpected jolts to my sense of right and wrong and good taste in the universe ("...I wonder how they came up with that?" was a common refrain in my brain), I didn't have an earth-shattering moment. Yet. And that's the point. It may be a year, five years down the road where some synapses fire and what I saw last week makes a difference. That's what living at the intersection is all about.
So, what next for this year? I'm planning to have several wilder kinesthetic experiences this year, such as a rally driving school, because I think they're even stickier than a purely intellectual experience, and so have a greater chance of really knocking your hat in the creek, innovation-wise. In that same vein, I'd really like to run a Zero One Odysseys adventure sometime soon. And I'll also be trying to attend some technology conferences I've never been to, and I'm going to visit a couple of places I've never been before. Who knows what I'll learn!
How will you try living at the intersection this year?
At one point in David Kelley's interview with Charlie Rose, Rose states that the process of going through life has a way of squeezing the creativity out of people. A depressing thought. But if we take it as true, how then do we make sure that the opposite happens? How might we ensure that everyone -- especially kids and teens -- has creativity infused into their existence? I've been pondering that question the past few days since that interview aired.
On a whim this morning I searched YouTube for the following video, which dates back to 1987:
As a saxophone-obsessed teenager, I must have watched my VHS tape of this Michael Brecker performance over 1,000 times. In 1987 I had the good fortune to be part of the 8 O'Clock Jazz Band at Farview High School in Boulder, led by Steve Christopher, or "Mr. C" as we all called him. We met at 8am each and every morning, which was just awesome -- what I would give now to be able to start each day with a creative hour of music making with group of folks who could swing some Basie or rock out on a Maynard Ferguson tune, too! Between jazz band practice and time at home, I was probably playing 2-3 hours a day. Much of my time at home was spent playing with and learning from Michael Brecker's solo album, which was a wicked mix of digital and analog technology, all brought together with his special blend of superior jazz chops and funky see, funky do. The tune Original Rays was my favorite, and my bandmate Rudresh Mahanthappa and I gave Mr. C more than a few grey hairs as we endeavored to emulate the feel, the emotion, and the total commitment to craft captured by the performance above.
If you've not been able to watch the entire video, please at least forward to the 5:45 mark and listen to Mike Stern's brilliant guitar solo. ROCK & ROLL. He totally wigs out, man! Incredible.
Infusing creativity: I learned so much from being in 8 O'Clock with Mr. C. Practical things, like how to work with a creative team of people toward a shared goal and how to stand up in front of hundreds of people and do your unique, personal thing. It also gave me the creative confidence to formulate a strong personal point of view and to create on top of that; I can think of of few better ways to prepare for life as a designer than to learn how to do jazz improvisation under pressure in front of a live audience. On a more intangible level, my hours blowing a horn gave me a deep appreciation for the more ethereal aspects of a life well-lied, such as beauty, elegance, and joy.
Most important of all, I was able to six years of daily reaching a state of flow. When everything is going right in the creative act, you feel a sense of transcendent joy and power and mastery. It's simply so awesome to experience as an individual, and in my opinion, it's even better when done as a team. Just look at the body language of Brecker and Stern in that video above -- there's extremely deep communication going on between then without a spoken word shared, and they take deep delight in helping each other get up to the top of that peak, and beyond.
From the standpoint of pure talent, I was never going to be a Michael Brecker-caliber saxophone player, no more than I will ever be as good a driver as Juan Manuel Fangio. But the beautify of pursuing flow is that it gives you a chance to experience exactly what the greats like Brecker and Fangio experienced, even if the outside world doesn't quite rate your output at the same level.
No matter: to be a person confident in one's creativity, what matters is what's going on between your ears. Do you know how great it feels to be in flow, and do you want to keep getting back there? Because that's all there is. If we want to help kids and teenagers feel like all that creative juice in them is brimming with excitement, energy, and a passion to create, we need to help them find ways to wallow around in the marvellous experience of reaching flow via creative expression. And let them go as deep as they want for as long as they want, whatever it may be. If they can remember how that feels, wherever they go in life, they'll be able to live a creative one.