Walter Isaacson has studied great innovators throughout his life by writing biographies about Leonadro da Vinci, Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein among other contributions. His fascination has been to discover the intersection of art and science:
‘The theme of all my books is that true creativity and innovation come from being able to stand at the intersection of art and science. That’s what made Steve Jobs such a genius. He knew that engineering should be beautiful. Leonardo da Vinci is history’s ultimate example of combining art and science. That’s what made him history’s greatest genius.’
He challenges people to become more cross-disciplinary in order to create innovation which touches many corners of our lives – to make ground-breaking discoveries which advance our daily lives and societal circumstances:
‘Which is if you can be interested in everything, if you can be cross-disciplinary, then you can see the patterns of our cosmos and how we connect to them. That’s the magic of Ben Franklin. But even Steve Jobs, who loved art and engineering. He loved the humanities and technology. Of course, the ultimate of that is Leonardo da Vinci, who was the greatest creative genius in history because he spanned disciplines. So yes, this is something we can push ourselves to do in our everyday lives.
If you’re really interested in technology and science and coding, make sure you understand the beauty of music, and poetry, and literature. If you love literature, don’t forget that you have to understand how a transistor works. How a circuit processes logical sequences. Because you want to stand like Leonardo and Ben Franklin did at that intersection of art and science.
You’ve got to blur the edge between the possible and the impossible. Steve Jobs called that – or the people that worked with Steve called it – reality distortion field. He would push people to do the impossible. Likewise, it’s often useful to blur the line between observation and imagination.
In other words, to be able to see things exactly, but also to use Leonardo’s line, be able to see things that nature has not yet created to imagine and create in your own mind the fanciful things. Whether it’s the angels coming down in the Angel of the Annunciation painting or so much of his art and much of his theater and science, he blurred that line between fantasy and reality and the possible and the impossible so he would know where the line was. But he realized that in the real world, there are not a lot of sharp lines. Most lines are blurry. ‘ /Walter Isaacson, Tim Ferriss podcast #273/
On the other hand, this makes me think of the saying: ‘Courage is knowing it might hurt and doing it anyway. Stupidity is the same. And that’s why life is hard’. I think it’s also important to keep in mind while trying to blur the lines between what’s impossible and possible to not blur the lines between genius and idiot too much.
On another note, I think it would be a great start if both fields would simply start appreciating one other more. One of my favourite Estonians (if such a thing exists) is the investor Indrek Kasela who invests both in tech AND art/artists, highlighting and supporting the value of both. If artists stopped saying that ‘they just don’t get math’ and engineers stopped mocking artists for creating ‘meaningless crap’, our world would be such a lovely place and we would live happily ever after! OK maybe not, but everybody would definitely win some.
There is a stereotypical division between art and science – you either are a ‘emotional creator’ or a ‘rational engineer’. I chose the field of product development in order to merge myself in the intersection of the worlds – art and engineering. As I liked science but also to immerse myself into hours of dancing then choosing a creative engineering field seemed reasonable. I think overall science is underestimated in creativity. It’s daily goal is to design new ways of thinking and exploring influences/variations. Developing a piece of art is quite similar to somewhat conducting research. I am not so close to research at the moment, but for instance looking at my partner work as a research engineer in the field of machine learning – in an open space he’s creating new systems through daily experimentation and “playing around” with different variables. In every field you can develop the state of flow – it’s not only the field of art where you can get lost in. Perhaps everything we do in life is a form of art.
For achieving the state of flow, it is advised to go in depth and be consumed by your field to become an expert – develop a certain set of skills. And expertise will always be necessary to create a near perfect product or a piece of art – the question is will it only be perfect to your world?
The ‘everything in life is art’ reminds me of one of my all time favourite quotes by Helena Bonham Carter:
“I think everything in life is art. What you do. How you dress. The way you love someone, and how you talk. Your smile and your personality. What you believe in, and all your dreams. The way you drink your tea. How you decorate your home. Or party. Your grocery list. The food you make. How your writing looks. And the way you feel. Life is art.”
That’s why I was also not too afraid of going into chemistry and biotechnology after studying in-depth humanities, as part of me had faith that this could pay off a lot one day. Now finally having reached this ‘one day’ I’m more and more content of always choosing the paths I did, even if they were rather different from each other. What I believe has always benefited me, is my sense of wonder. I believe it’s something all more ‘creative souls’ (must) have. From a great book to a great piece of art and now to biology and technology and engineering. The feeling of amazement and gratitude towards something beautiful, let it be in nature or in an art museum fuels my passion and helps me keep going even when things get complicated. Looking at Da Vinci’s amazing sketches of whatever one can think of, I recognize the same sense of wonder I also feel almost every day either in the lab or just on my way home in a bookstore. I mean, most engineers also drool over new discoveries and technologies, but most of them would rather not step their feet into a contemporary dance show or an art gallery. So their ‘wonder’ seems a bit skewed more to the tech side.
What’s cool is that some people even manage to hustle on both ‘sides’. Usually, though, it happens more often that one works in STEM and does something more artsy by the side as a hobby. A really inspiring example of the other way around for me has for a long time been Ann Makosinski. You’ve probably heard of her as the winner of Google Science Fair with her hand-powered flashlight. As a kid she just to built electrical circuits whatnot as those were the toys her parents gave her (eeeh?). So Ann built a strong tech background on her own and later on chose to study literature and film at the university level, explaining the same way that she sees a lot of use in immersing herself in both worlds. How cool!
I’ve been wondering for a long time, if there are different kind of creativities in more artsy fields and in the more rational fields. I mean, one creativity usually needs to follow the laws of nature – one can do all the drugs in the world and meditate for a hundred years but probably would not construct a perpetuum mobile, because it is just simply against the laws of physics. On the other hand, in the arts, it seems a bit ‘easier’ as there seem to be less strict laws to follow. That’s why I also feel often that creativity in science&tech is largely based on how much you read/grasp! Seeing what’s been done and how, using different methods, related to your own field or to something on a larger scale, helps you in thinking out of the box and synthesise some new ideas, I believe. But perhaps that’s also what all composers, painters, writers do as well? I can’t recall who said that ‘to be creative you just have to hide your sources really well’…
But in business not every form of art succeeds – there it will be assessed monetarily. Many creations which never succeed in the market because the producers don’t understand the needs of their end user or create added complexity which needs more input than output is worth in terms of time, energy and money. In order to succeed the product needs to be solving a widespread pain among the population and give a well-functioning as well as an appealing solution. The simpler it is, the better.
That has also been the underlying advise to all start-ups: do the simple things first. You think you might know what your audience wants, but without trying it and having a feedback loop – there is no way of validating it. So for feature development, it’s the best way to start with the simple solution, try it out and then develop a more complex structure after validating the necessity of the function. For more, read the ‘The Lean Start-up’ book by Eric Ries (the unofficial start-up bible).
I think this is the part where me and Kerli agreed to disagree. Coming from biotech where the first thing you learn is that getting a drug from zero to market takes 10-15 years certainly puts you in a mindset that not every minimal viable product can be built in six months. To me it seems pharma is not the only field where this stands true, as whatever idea that has bigger risk on e.g human health or the environment probably needs more thought than just the simple first product. Think of the automobile industry, food industry (GMOs!!!), cybersecurity, materials etc. Of course it sounds all great and feasible when you are trying to get a simple game/app/gadget on the market, but saying simplicity is the key seems like a huge generalisation. I wonder what experienced deep-tech entrepreneurs think of this concept? Anyway, it’s a bit off-topic.
It’s not only failing fast through testing your audience, it’s rather learning from the failures. How do you know if the failure has been due to poor execution or idea itself? Or if your VCs are just not seeing the opportunity or there is none? There is a fine line between being ‘stupidly’ stubborn or persistent. When do you leave an idea behind or make the extra effort of pushing to prove it? Instagram started off as check-in app for sharing your location with friends, Facebook was a ‘Hot or Not’ voting site and Youtube a dating site. Only Google has been the odd one out which actually started out as a search engine platform and grew on from it without larger pivots. How did the founders know when to switch or work through the lows?
I think it boils down to grasping the ‘whole picture’ – being able to step away from the in-depth view and assessing what is affecting the audience rather than just pleasing them. You cannot foresee creating a disruptive technology, but you can challenge the society in ways to test their reactions. One needs to understand societal needs, engineering capabilities and the beauty of creation whether it is a piece of art, UI design, outer shell or a media production.
There is where the word ‘generalist’ comes to play, the word everyone is slightly afraid of. The one who has cross-disciplinary skills with knowledge from a range of fields but not in the depth of being an expert. Not every limitation jumps into their mind like for an experienced engineer nor can they predict the societal acceptance of certain innovations. That’s the essence of generalists – their playground lies in all field to challenge the knowledge present in it. As an outsider, it is often easier to question the fundamental understandings and ask the ‘foolish’ questions which might uncover ‘unknown’ areas and make people rethink to get out of the box or push the boundaries of possible. At the same time generalists need very skilful experts at their side in order to test the boundaries and give the depth that they’re missing. For generalists it is important to have excellent communication (or even persuasion) skills to convey people to explore their visions/push boundaries. Also, they need to have ‘their ego in check’ as they will always need to surround themselves with ‘smarter’ people than them for execution.
I see myself as a generalist as well as I am interested in cross-disciplinary skills and always juggled many different fields at once. I like the challenge of finding solutions for problems which need to take into account multiple variables (if there ever is a problem which only has one variable). I currently am in a position where I can tackle different problem areas across departments (which is also a common set up in every start-up where you end up doing a little bit of everything). At the same time, I wonder if I should be giving more attention to honing my engineering skill-set for better output later in my career in cross-disciplinary positions.
So, is being a generalist of grasping the big picture enough in fast-paced companies? I guess the further magic lies in having the intersection of expert and generalists in order to explore in-depth as well as have the ability of taking one-self out the work for decisions which spread across domains for an educated guess. It’s not only important to be persistent in your own field to develop in-depth skills but to jump over to other fields and find challenges in new unknown areas – perhaps through hobbies or developing tools for everyday life and so forth. Or just get thrown into the deep end and crawl out through learning different skill-sets on the go. There is nothing more motivating than survival (of your company).
To add, I wonder, how come we think today that one can only be very good at one or the other? Why can’t you be an expert in both? Da Vinci and Ben Franklin were both what you call polymaths and they did basically everything between engineering and art, and also excelled at everything. Pretty drastic examples both but to think about it, there are several others also around today who are capable of excelling at several different fields. Most of my friends who were high achievers on the academic level were also top in their music school classes or part of national sports teams. The fancy start-up CEOs also probably run ten ultramarathons a year whatnot. I also have a neat example from Chalmers, where a professor of mine – Jens Nielsen – is a spectacular scientist with an h-index of million (or a little less) and at the same time he has built several biotech start-ups and today also leads the Bioinnovation Institute in Copenhagen. He also claims his favourite thing about his career has been ‘building cultures’ as he is truly one of those professors/scientists who is really good with leading people also. Moreover, even his research covers topics from systems biology of cancer and other diseases to biofuels production. I understand it’s pretty unrealistic to believe we are all capable of such madness but we all have 70+ years on this planet (if all goes well). To me that seems like a really long time to get really good at several fields! You don’t need to be a perfect combination of a leader and engineer in your 20s but if you get there in your 40s or 50s, then that’s also pretty badass and sounds much more realistic, maybe even achievable.
I think it might be that in nowadays world everyone wants everything now – but darling you can’t really have it all at once. So play around like 30-40 years and strive for being an expert in many fields – maybe that is the time mature enough to actually start a company that will actually make an impact!
A ‘split-the-bill’ app which calculated the portions based on your demographics – taking into account labor statistics data. Just interesting to check out how small nudges like these could create better awareness. Check out the EquiTable!
I was lucky enough to spend four days at a conference in a magical place called Djurönäset near Stockholm. If you need a weekend getaway in Sweden, this is the place to go to!