Wendy Kalman
There are many ways to see and understand

How we achieve genius

Where do you draw inspiration from? Photo by takeasnap, courtesy of morguefile.com

This past week, my husband and I watched a few episodes of the Netflix series Abstract: The Art of Design, in which each focuses on a particular designer (watch it!). I was particularly impressed with Olafur Eliasson and Neri Oxman, both of whom I had been unfamiliar with. Danish-Icelandic Eliasson is an artist who has worked with mirrors, water, fog, large installations, building design and the environment. His website’s biography describes his art as “driven by his interests in perception, movement, embodied experience, and feelings of self” and I thought of what he does as incredibly thought-driven. Intellectual curiosity about art and the world around us and about how we as people interact with, perceive and change both play a large part in his evolution. And it was exciting to watch.

But even more so, his seamless transition from art to engineering to architecture spoke to me.

We then watched the episode about Oxman and I was blown away. She studied both medicine and architecture and now heads the Mediated Matter Lab at MIT, which she had founded. And while during the episode she talks about curiosity and childhood wonder, Haifa-born Oxman’s art reflects design that is also nature and biology and growth and technology. Like Eliasson, Oxman brings together many disciplines in her pursuit of conceiving things we have not yet done.

Both take us on their journeys, where they think about one area of life inside of another. How does the mist of waterfalls help us see rainbows and can we build that into art installations where we can feel the scale of things? Or if silkworms can grow silk until they have no more room, how can we help them grow so that they build structures?

The interdisciplinary aspect of their thinking stems from curiosity and wonder, yes, but also from being exposed to experiences and knowledge outside of their areas of specialization. Had Eliasson not spent time in Iceland’s waterfalls when he was younger, would bringing fog into his artwork have occurred to him? Had Oxman not studied biology, would she be using nature in 3D printing?

I’ve long been a firm believer in the danger of staying in one’s silo and have written about that both in this blog and on LinkedIn. In two LinkedIn articles, How to prepare to do almost anything and Thinking big – ראש גדול, I make the case that without other perspectives, you are missing out on information that can be helpful and that it is presumptuous to think that all you know is all there is to know.

But this is something greater. Both Eliasson and Oxman are also smart enough to know that they cannot do everything alone, and that their teams are not mere executors of their vision, but a part of a collaborative way to figure things out. And why? Because each member has something to contribute, brings a perspective arrived at after having lived different life experiences and learned different things.

There are two arguments to be made here – it is important to value other people’s contributions, as everyone knows something you don’t and everyone sees life from a unique perspective. Physicist Larry Smarr of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology knows this too. He too fosters collaboration (as this fabulous story in strategy+business from two years ago relates). Ancillary to that is to value data, because each of us has only so much anecdotal personal experiences to go around, and really, these stories should never be the end-all. Harvard economist Raj Chetty is genius at looking at data, mining it to better understand where opportunity lies for people, as this wonderful read from The Atlantic points out. He likens his approach to how a biologist uses a microscope to uncover truths.

The other argument – and the one the designers featured in Abstract: The Art of Design bring to life – is that each person should also avail him- or her-self of every opportunity to be exposed and to learn from different disciplines. Physics and piano. Automotive engines and botany. Biology and plumbing. Sewing and engineering. Marketing and hairdressing. Torah and computer programming. Engineering and cooking. How can seeing spiders build their webs lead to the creation of liquid wire? How can a beetle inspire you to design a bottle that makes water out of air? How coaching your child’s baseball team can make you a better leader? Just because you are trained and work in one field doesn’t mean your curiosity about others should be any less. Go to museums and art galleries. Read biographies. And fiction. Watch shows about nature and history.

To head up a lab and have a budget that affords you the ability to pursue what ifs is not something we all share, but in this day and age of crowdsourcing solutions, who says you need to be a hired genius to find solutions to problems or to think about “what happens next”? Watching these episodes made me want to find ways to bring together people from different backgrounds to talk and see where it takes us.

How do we achieve genius? We allow cross-fertilization of ideas to happen.

Who is interested in participating in periodic group calls? Let’s pick a problem and discuss. Could be a world problem, could be a work problem, could be a personal problem. And then let’s all try to help by sharing how we interpret the issue and what can be done about it. Each one of us has the potential to help the person see the issues and the solutions in different ways. Comment on the blog if you are interested and I’ll organize.

Let’s learn how others think and see…and then take it one step further. Please do feel free to share.

About the Author
Born in Brooklyn and raised on Lawn Guyland, Wendy lived in Jerusalem for over a decade submerged in Israeli culture; she has been soaked in Southern life in metro Atlanta since returning to the U.S. in 2003. Recently remarried, this Ashkenazi mom of three Mizrahi sons, 27, 24 and 19, splits her time between managing knowledge in corporate America, pursuing a dual masters in public administration and integrated global communications, relentlessly Facebooking, enjoying the arts and trying to bring a wider perspective to the topics she covers while blogging.
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