The Medici Effect and Distancing (Psychological, not Social)

Business consultant and author Frans Johansson describes the Medici effect as the emergence of new ideas and creative solutions when different backgrounds and disciplines come together. The term is derived from the 15th-century Medici family, which helped usher in the Renaissance by bringing together artists, writers, philosophers, mathematicians, and other creatives from all over the world. Arguably, the Renaissance was a result of the exchange of ideas between these different groups all being in close proximity with each other in 15th-century Florence and Rome.

Johansson proposes that in the modern business world as well, the Medici effect is the key to best meeting client needs and maximizing profits while minimizing costs. Believing that all new ideas come from merging existing ideas in creative ways, he recommends utilizing a mix of backgrounds, experiences, and expertise in staffing to bring about the best possible solutions, perspectives, and innovations in business.

And the same holds true for creativity in general as well—pulling in knowledge from different disciplines and relating things from various fields are powerful tools for generating creative ideas. A common object in one field may be an extraordinary tool in another. A perspective or approach might be commonplace in one discipline but revolutionary in a different one. A conventional concept in one discipline may have new and interesting applications in a different domain.

For example, creative ways of implementing traffic rules have pulled ideas from not only electronics, engineering, and information technology but also from visual arts, psychology, and advertising. It’s a familiar concept in psychology that people, when making decisions, rely on not only rational information but also emotional cues. Utilized in implementing traffic laws, this concept has led to the innovation of using smiley faces in traffic lights to get more people to respond better to them.

The advantages offered by pulling together knowledge and resources from multiple disciplines to aid problem-solving are evident in the findings of researcher and professor Brian Uzzi. Analyzing over 26 million scientific papers published over the last several centuries, Professor Uzzi found that the most impactful have been those done by teams with members coming from an atypical combination of backgrounds. Another investigation he conducted also revealed that top-performing studies cited an atypical combination of other studies, often pulling in at least 10 percent of their citations from fields other than their own.

Thus, to be creative, you’ll need to evoke the Medici effect by broadening your perspective to encompass different disciplines and not being afraid to wander outside your current area of focus. In other words, you’ll need to think outside the box. Poke your nose into other fields and pull from them ideas that might work in combination with what you already have. By bringing in knowledge from other disciplines, you introduce a fresh take on your creative venture and give yourself the best chance of coming up with remarkable innovations and solutions.

It is perhaps no coincidence that we still speak of da Vinci and his polymathic tendencies—perhaps it is due to those very tendencies. At the very least, he was an accomplished painter, sculptor, engineer, architect, and anatomist. He also possessed keen interests in ornithology, machinery, and ciphers. He is the prime example of how different disciplines can come together, synergize, and spit out creative work that is revolutionary and innovative. It is also no coincidence that the Medici family was one of da Vinci’s prime patrons during his lifetime.

Albert Einstein also utilized this concept in his method of combinatory play, which we will cover in a later chapter when we delve more deeply into his specific tactics for creativity and innovative thinking.

Distance Yourself

We’ve mentioned the widespread myth of creativity being an inborn trait gifted to just a few special individuals. Such a view is not only discouraging to those who think they weren’t born with such a trait, it’s also not accurate. Creativity is not the domain only of a few gifted ones; it’s a skill anyone can develop by having the right perspective and thinking tools.

The final building block of creativity is learning how to create psychological distance between you and the creative task. This is the concept that when we are too closely invested in something, we lose the ability to see clearly and we become trapped by our own perceptions. Just imagine how easy it is to give dating advice to friends, and even easier yet to give it to strangers. Now, how difficult is it to apply that same advice to yourself? That is the power of psychological distance and, conversely, the dangers of being too closely invested. (Does this also remind you of the default mode network from the first chapter?)

When you are too invested, emotionally or otherwise, you are unable to take yourself out of the equation.

Psychological distance may be achieved by separating yourself in space, in time, or in probability. In other words, you can increase your creativity by imagining things as far away from you (distancing in space), projecting things as happening further into the future (distancing in time), or considering things as not very likely to actually happen (distancing in probability).

You may also create psychological distance by imagining things as concerning someone else instead of you (distancing in person). The premise is that by increasing psychological distance, you will represent things in your head in a more abstract way, better enabling you to imagine unusual connections, unexpected combinations, and more unique innovations. When you’re invested or attached, you can only see the limitations, and you will operate from a place of fear or protection. Distance frees you from these constraints.

This idea has thus far been proven true by studies such as one conducted by Lile Jia and colleagues from the Indiana University at Bloomington. Their research looked into the effect of spatial distance (distancing in space) on creativity. The participants of the study were given a creative generation task in which they had to enumerate as many different modes of transportation as they could.

One group was told the task was developed by Indiana University students studying in Greece (distant condition), while another group was told it was set by Indiana University students studying in Indiana (near condition). The result showed that participants in the distant condition came up with more numerous and original ideas than those in the near one.

Such a result was replicated in their second study, which tested the participants’ abilities to solve problems that required insight. As in the above outcome, participants who were told that the insight problems were developed by a research institute “around 2,000 miles away” (distant condition) were able to solve more problems compared to two other groups: those who were told that the problems were set by an institute just “two miles away” (near condition) and those who were given no information about location (control condition). The problems thus seemed to be easier to solve the further away they appeared to occur.

Additionally, previous studies on psychological distance concerning time and probability have shown similar results. As revealed by a series of experiments, participants who were asked to imagine working on a task a year later (distant future) performed better on insight and creativity tasks than those who imagined working on the task the next day (near future). Participants were also able to solve more visual insight problems when they believed they were unlikely (low probability) to face the full task.

The results of the above studies thus show that psychological distance sparks more creative thoughts. When you think of a problem as being further from you in terms of space, time, or likelihood, you get to extract yourself from a limited, concrete view of it and assume a more objective and abstract perspective. When we include ourselves in the equation, we become constrained by our own limitations. This shift frees your mind to think of other possibilities beyond your current situation, and thus enables you to arrive at more creative ideas and solutions.

So the next time you feel wrung out of fresh ideas for a creative venture, try to consider the task as coming from somewhere far away, or maybe think about how it might be tackled if it occurred in a distant place. You can also set the problem as happening in the distant future, say fifty years from now, and imagine how it might be solved then.

Alternatively, think about solutions or events related to your task that would probably never happen in reality. Or mentally pass on your problem to a friend and imagine how they would solve it. All these methods would create the psychological distance you need to think more abstractly and thus creatively about your creative endeavor.

Say you have to think of all the new methods you can for cooking without using gas-powered or electric equipment. To stimulate your imagination, create psychological distance by thinking of the task as a problem faced by someone living halfway across the globe from you. How might this person solve the problem of cooking with such limited means? Would they think to use certain materials, tools, or the natural environment, maybe?

You may also project this problem as something you face fifty years from now. Can you imagine more modern means of cooking you may have access to decades into the future? How might technology have evolved to accomplish cooking without using gas or electricity? By creating such psychological distance, you would surely rouse your mind to come up with more creative solutions for your problem.

So there you have it—the four building blocks of creativity. First, recognize that nothing is new. That’s a good thing because it means you don’t need to think up something out of nothing; you need only see what’s already there in a new light. Second, treat creativity like a skill that requires discipline and endurance instead of like some magical quest for inspiration. Third, learn how to combine disparate elements and pull knowledge from different disciplines. And fourth, try to distance yourself from the problem or the task to gain a new perspective.

These four building blocks will change your view of the world around you and of creativity itself, so you can become more naturally creative.

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