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I would like to share three simple stories about culture and power that have inspired me since I first started in this field some 30 years ago. I hope they will inspire you as well. Some I’ve written about before, but I’ve added some new details about and snippets from my personal life experience.
My first story is about a famous Yiddish writer, wild energy and the power of viral networks. In the early 20th century in Russia, there was a Jewish author and playwright named Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, better known as Sholem Aleichem, a Hebrew pseudonym meaning “peace be with you.” His most famous works were about the life of Tevye the Dairyman and his daughters—a series he wrote over the course of 20 years—that was eventually made into the successful Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Aleichem chose to write in Yiddish instead of Hebrew (the pine language of God) or Russian (the language of great writers like Dostoevsky, Pushkin and Checkov)—a choice he regarded as crazy, but also freeing, describing it as a form of wild energy in a fertile field. Because his stories were written in everyday language and were based on in everyday life, they spread like wildfire through Jewish communities around the globe. You could say that the wild energy that swiftly carried Aleichem’s stories around the world was an early viral network.
In the era of Instagram and YouTube, there are other forms of wild energy. The most effective and proliﬁc innovators of new forms of culture are digital crowds, a social media phenomenon that former professor at the Harvard Business School, Douglas Holt, dubbed “crowd-culture.” Crowd-culture comes in two flavors, turbocharged art worlds and amplified subcultures, and alongside are the emerging fields of augmented and virtual reality, AI, natural language processing, machine learning, ambient sensors, big data, legible cities, intelligent buildings and advanced 3D printing. Another form of wild energy includes the culture of generation Z—the true digital natives who expect everything to be interactive and available, 24/7.
As the boundaries between digital and physical blur, new sources of wild energy are emerging at a dizzying pace, yet detecting and harnessing it is a challenge. They are ambient, fluid, and interconnected in nature so finding them can be counter intuitive. But once you can distinguish a wild energy and connect to it, it’s like riding a self-sustaining, high-speed carrier wave that multiplies an idea’s effect at lightning speed. Distinguishing a wild energy requires a special kind of listening which brings us to our next story.
The Power of Serendipity
This is a story about Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd, the forgotten father of the atomic bomb and the power of serendipity. On a rainy London street corner on the morning of September 12, 1933, Szilárd was deep in thought about an article that he had just read in The London Times describing a lecture given by Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics. Rutherford was quoted as saying, “anyone who believed that nuclear reactions would be a potent source of useful energy was talking moonshine.”
Szilárd wondered how anyone could be so positive about the future of energy, yet so wrong. He stepped off the curb, and in a flash, realized how to create a nuclear chain reaction that would release the enormous amount of energy needed for an atomic bomb; the red light had caused him to pause, giving him just enough time for his fertile imagination to engage.
It was an irritating moment at a traffic light on a rainy London street that started the chain of events that lead to the atomic bomb. This is the power of serendipity.
Serendipity is looking for one thing and stumbling across something else of equal or greater value, it is an engine for innovation. Rubber, dynamite, the atom bomb, Kandinsky’s discovery of abstract art, X-rays, and even Post-it Notes were all discovered by accident. Serendipity is a misadventure. It’s the inadvertent observation. It’s a happenstance that occurs that when a smart mind is opened to the unforeseen and finds the true power of innovation, but, you have to listen actively for it.
The Power of Active Listening
This brings me to the power of active listening, which is also the story of assumption busting. After graduating from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art as a photography and sculpture major, my first job at the South Street Seaport Museum was as a store manager, exhibition designer and curator. I was green and they were cheap, so I wore many hats. One of the things I did was appraisals of historical model ships for Sothebys.
I befriended an older man, Hugh Hildesley, Sotheby’s Executive Vice President and world-leading expert in European Master paintings. After leaving South Street Seaport, I phoned his office—we had not spoken for many years. The receptionist I spoke to at Sotheby’s told me that “Mr. Hildesley was no longer with us. He has moved on to the Church of Heavenly Rest.” Shocked, I said, “My God, what did he die of?” To which she replied, “Well, nothing. He’s not dead, he’s a rector at the church.”
Assumptions can produce weird results and unintended consequences. Listening isn’t just hearing words or music, but to listening to what people are saying—and not saying. Listening for their reactions, to their underlying narratives and to their silences. In business, it’s listening to industry trends, the ambience of an environment, or what your colleagues, customers and managers are really trying to tell you (though it might not be something that you want to hear). In the creative arts, it is listening to your authentic self, the beliefs, culture and events that make you who you are. Listening to your roots is also listening to the wellspring of your creativity. In my own life, I can trace the environment that spot-welded my interest in art, science and media.
For my siblings and I, it was our family’s business—a lighting showroom—that fascinated us: It was 600-square-feet piled floor-to-ceiling with chandeliers, floor lamps, pendants and table lamps, all lit up and glowing like a Christmas display on speed. On one wall, was a series of 12-foot-long shelves on which were displayed complete sets of Lionel O-scale trains.
It instilled in me a sense of wonder, an ability to gauge scale and an appreciation for the power of surprise. These are the same qualities we use in developing in our projects at our firm, Unified Field, and the same qualities I call upon when creating artwork. The power of connecting to your roots grounds you in authenticity. The keys to connecting to your roots is actively listening and a willingness to challenge your assumptions.
To challenge our base assumptions at Unified Field, in our ideation sessions with our clients, we do an exercise in thinking in opposites that we call “The Absolutely Worst Idea Possible,” which generates surprising results. The way the exercise works is that inpiduals in a team determine an outcome that they are trying to achieve and then each one writes down their 20 worst ideas on how to get there. We’re going for bad, ineffective, stupid, illegal, gross ideas here. Then, everyone shares their ideas with the group and we then challenge each other to come up with even worse ideas than originally created. From this list, the group selects the ones they like best and then flips them around to formulate positive ideas.
We completed this exercise with a client from a leading technology company. The team used their exhibit booth for the workshop scenario. The worst ideas for the booth ranged from refusal to talk with anyone, punching people in the face, exhibiting naked from the waist down, and my personal favorite—slaughtering livestock in the booth. You can imagine how funny this was; halfway through the exercise everyone was in tears from laughing. In the second round, slaughtering livestock transitioned from bad to worse as it evolved into human sacrifice. Now, on the face this sounds a bit insane, but if you look it metaphorically, what’s behind this idea is ritual. For the exhibit booth what emerged was a yearly ritual of hosting a cool, “must-go-to” party for select clients that increased their exposure and business goals substantially.
Busting assumptions is one way to come up with something original, but it cannot be accomplished without active listening. It is only through active listening that we can accurately receive and interpret messages in communications and environments. For any project, be it virtual or augmented reality, interactive, themed, or linear, what makes it happen is being present to who you are presenting to and how it will resonate in the world. It means listening to audience and stakeholder needs and values while promoting the benefits that your creations will bring them. This is the world in which amazing projects are realized.
From a Yiddish writer, to a Swedish comedian and a Hungarian physicist, there is a common thread that runs throughout. That is, by being present, open to fresh ideas, flipping assumption and actively listening, you will have the means to bring your best ideas to fruition in 2019.
Creative Destruction Series: Introduction
Creative Destruction Series Part 01: Palpitations on the Slopes of Technology
Creative Destruction Series Part 02: Designing for Plurals, the Evolving Audience
Creative Destruction Series Part 03: Relocating Humanity
Creative Destruction Series Part 04: A Curious Stepchild of Inbound Marketing
Creative Destruction Series Part 05: Automated Design
Creative Destruction Series Part 06: Embracing Serendipity in the Digital Age
Creative Destruction Series Part 07: Three Versions of "US"
Creative Destruction Series Part 08: 12 Strategic Predictions for 2017
Creative Destruction Series Part 09: The Mythology of Online Searches
Creative Destruction Series Part 10: The Need for Data Literacy
Creative Destruction Series Part 11: SXSW At First Glance
Creative Destruction Series Part 12: Contemporary or Conservative? The 2017 Frieze New York Art Fair
Creative Destruction Series Part 13: Autonomous Cars in a Future of "Wayknowing"