2:30 in the morning. I am sitting at the desk, the light burning, the sounds of snores coming from the bedroom, the sour taste of coffee burrowing into my throat, my eyes bulging with caffeine, and my drive never further from the end. 70 unique essay topics based on 16 different team subjects, composed of students from forty different majors and disciplines: my goal is to give each student a unique topic, which combines not only with their team subject, but also offers a special personal challenge only he or she could complete. The task sounds insane, but the summer before I read through The Medici Effect, a book by Frans Johannson, which ensured me that with a combination of disparate and different elements creativity can flourish. My intention was to see whether even in a stolidly uncreative environment such as a Chinese university creativity could still take root and possibly fly into the sky once given the… proper incentive.
The plan then, based on the book, was to place students of differing majors and years in school together in research teams. Once in a team, I was going to give each team the choice of a different and unique subject, and from that subject I would design a topic based on that particular student’s major, year in school, writing preferences, and writing level. The first essay would be a test to see the methodology the student performed, and the second essay would be a sharpening of the wits, taking the subject heading and defining it even further until specificity was no longer a mystery but a requirement. However, to spin the matter even further, I was going to teach narrative research, a form of research commonly used in popular nature magazines but hopefully transformed into a pure academic subject.
Creative methodology is a particular interest of mine, and Johansson’s The Medici Effect has had a huge impact on my own ability to manage creative enterprise by capturing the moment of creation in an image known as the Intersection. The figure below is my interpretation of how Johansson proceeds to the Intersection and beyond, and I will use the space in this paper to describe the process of not only how to move from zone to zone, but how the Intersection ties in with the creative energy in my own life, work, and education, as the Medici Effect has had a profound effect on my ability to function as a husband, teacher, and student.
Figure 1: The Medici Effect (Johansson, 2006), adapted by Benjamin Seeberger
According to Johansson, people exist within field value networks, or areas of experts such as organizations, companies, informal gatherings… in other words, the contexts of a given field (146). Field value networks exist in what I call Zone 1, or the Comfort Zone. Most people live here, working in their chosen professions, following in the paradigms of those who came before. However, in order to begin the journey to the Intersection, a person must first approach the chain of dependence, the support system designed for the maintenance of value networks (154). The only way a person can approach the Intersection, Johansson believes, is to totally abandon his or her field value network, and enter what I call the “leap instance” (189), a battlefield where a person must break free from the preconceptions of his or her field and embrace the discomfort of fear (157).
Zone 2, or the Risk Zone, is where the magic of intersections occur. Once freely disentangled from the field value network, the process of Intersectional innovation can begin (18). Johansson divides deeply two types of ideas: direction innovation and Intersectional innovation. Whereas directional innovation occurs through evolution and addition, Intersectional innovation occurs with disparate, clashing ideas “hitting head-on” where past experience and knowledge cannot be directly applied (163). Part of the reason for the strange environment of the Risk Zone is the constant barrage from what Johansson terms “associative barriers” (38), assumptions and beliefs about the way things are based on associations developed through professional, academic, and subconscious learning. In the Risk Zone, associative barriers can only be overcome through the application of various methods to rid the self of preconditional thinking regarding established ideas. The four methods Johansson mentions in the text are highlighted in Figure 1 and are integral to breaking down associations so that new pathways are open which can offer different solutions using unique combinations of concepts from varying but different fields (46-58). In order to discover the Intersection, however, concept trials must be constantly taking place, which are growth-over-time seeds placed in various aspects of the Intersectional grid (113), one eventually flowering and allowing for the progression into Zone 3.
The Possibility Zone is where the Intersection explodes and expands. Ideas like the internet, the automobile, and electricity all came out of the Possibility Zone, as once an idea is discovered, a hundred more ideas follow suit and build on the initial concept. Johansson describes the Intersection as “a place for wildly different ideas to bump into and build upon each other” (16) but more importantly as a place that can be found, built upon, and then acted upon rather than just a magical moment in history which luck might grant to a few (84). The Intersection is not just a random evolutionary quirk, but rather a solid action and search an individual takes. Once the Intersection has been found, Johansson states that the exponentials of that action taken explode in a flurry of activity (101), sometimes staggeringly too high to even count. Through this method, a person can not only navigate his or her way towards the Intersection, but he or she can actually create the Medici Effect (186). As compared with Johansson’s initial image of the Medici Effect as being a place in time, such as Renaissance Italy or Peter’s Cafe (2), having the power and ability to actually create the Medici Effect is an amazing and tantalizing goal.
Trying to plan for change however, can backfire. Johansson says that “the problem with all of this is that if we are willing to take risks and pursue intersections only when we are doing poorly, we’ll hurt our overall chances of success” (175). Just as trying to find creative enterprise as a last resort and trying to force action rarely has a chance to work, so sometimes even the very act of trying to create intersections in places where there are none provides little success. Creativity is built upon energy, and the Intersection thrives on this energy. Planting a forest in a desert without water, or pushing change on an obstinate old man will do nothing but cause resentment and possibly catastrophic brokenness. Innovation is a delusion when existing only as a dream without incentive or cause. Leonardo Da Vinci designed a flying machine in the 15th century, but airplanes did not take flight until needed in a multinational war which threatened not only one country but an entire continent, therefore needing intelligence and reconnaissance on a level that had never before existed. Without incentive, drive, and push, change is only a dream in the mind’s eye.
Some of my student papers have succeeded, others have not. Learning, as I have learned myself, is an intensely personal activity and cannot be engineered. Once I believed that with the right system anyone can learn, but I have learned over the last few years that even with the best of designs if the drive and desire is not there, learning does not. On the other hand, when it is there, it is beautiful.
Johansson, F. (2006). The Medici effect: What elephants and epidemics can teach us about innovation. HBS Press: Boston, MA.