Don’t just talk to people who do what you do

I have been made aware recently of a lot of thinking about the value of cross-fertilizing ideas and working across disciplines to gain smarter insights and achieve greater success.

It started with Eric Kandel, the Nobelist godfather of neuroscience (thanks to his long and intense focus on sea snails) who I heard speaking about the intellectual ferment that was Vienna around 1900. In this hothouse era, doctors became painters and writers; painters and writers hung out with biologists; playwrights and scientists all mixed their ideas together. From this came the work of Freud, Schiele and Schnitzler; Kokoschka’s paintings that revealed medical symptoms unnoticed by doctors, and Klimt’s sensuous art that is layered with references to biological science.

These artists and scientists were strongly influenced by anatomist Emil Zuckerkandl, who pointed out the absolute importance of looking beneath the surface of things to find out in depth what is really going on. Seems obvious, doesn’t it, but it was a revolutionary idea at the time.

Kandel’s new book the Age of Insight will likely turn out to be fundamental in helping us understand the young science of neuro-aesthetics – the study of how our body chemistry responds to the details, colors and textures in works of art. This exciting advance in understanding ourselves was made possible because Kandel turned away from his single-minded focus on the sea snails to bring science and art together.

Secondly, there’s Matt Ridley’s oft-quoted TED talk about how progress and prosperity are the children born when “ideas have sex” with each other. He emphasizes the importance of specialization in human development – and while in his TED talk he focuses on making objects, and how the coffee grower provides for the oil rigger who in turn supplies the plastics manufacturer and so on – Ridley’s catchy tag line “ideas have sex” takes us back to Kandel’s Vienna and how our progress and prosperity depend on us working together across disciplines.

And thirdly, an Internet entrepreneur told me that he has always gained enormous value in his career from asking questions of his friends who work in other fields. By asking filmmakers, musicians, photographers and writers how they solved problems, he has seen that each calling seems to have developed its own methodology for solving what are essentially the same problems of creating art and doing business. He has learnt something from each of them and brought together the best of the insights and techniques.

So it seems that this is the key: specialize, collaborate across disciplines, grant your ideas the freedom to mate and you will be smarter and achieve more.