Last week I attended the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. It's like the CES of food, with over 1,300 exhibitors from 35 countries showing 80,000 products to over 17,000 attendees. If that sounds like a recipe for something big and overwhelming, well, you'd be right — after seven hours walking the floor (even with two espressos and a bunch of bacon chocolate in me), I was ready to cry uncle. But don't get me wrong — it was really a cool experience!
Thing is, I am not a fancy food aficionado, nor am I an expert on anything concerning the food industry. To be sure, my employer IDEO does significant work across the domains of food, nutrition, beverages, water, and wellness, but I'm not directly involved with much of that work. So why did I take a valuable weekend day to attend this show? Well, the answer is twofold. First, I wanted to gain more empathy for my colleagues who care very deeply about this stuff; I want to really understand their passion for food.
Second, immersing yourself in new places, situations and experiences is how you become and stay an innovative soul. I'm a strong believer in taking a stroll through pastures far flung from those one naturally gravitates to. It's not hard to convince me to attend gatherings focused on networks of things, robotics, software, or Porsches. But, if I only ever pay attention to those types of events, my ability to see patterns or make breakthrough associations across unconnected worlds will diminish over time. If creativity is about making connections between seemingly unrelated things, then living in a bubble (or even a handful of bubbles) becomes a limiting factor on the heights your imagination can reach. If you're engaged in the art and science of bringing cool stuff to life, you owe it to yourself to expose your brain to an ever more diverse set of inputs and experiences.
How? I always think of a point made by — I think by Buckminster Fuller, I'm not really sure? — which in essence said that, to enlarge one's scope of awareness, one should always buy the magazine located in the upper right corner of a newstand. Doing so ensures that you are always exploring an area you don't know anything about. In 2013 terms, I think this means following random (but interesting) folks on Twitter, letting your eyes run wild on Instagram, and going to things like the Fancy Food Show. If you only follow people you know and like on Twitter, how will you ever hear about anything that doesn't make sense to your current worldview?
What did I learn at the Fancy Food Show? I'm not sure yet, to be honest. I did experience some, ahem, interesting branding choices, such as a breakfast cereal called Holy Crap. Aside from those unexpected jolts to my sense of right and wrong and good taste in the universe ("…I wonder how they came up with that?" was a common refrain in my brain), I didn't have an earth-shattering moment. Yet. And that's the point. It may be a year, five years down the road where some synapses fire and what I saw last week makes a difference. That's what living at the intersection is all about.
So, what next for this year? I'm planning to have several wilder kinesthetic experiences this year, such as a rally driving school, because I think they're even stickier than a purely intellectual experience, and so have a greater chance of really knocking your hat in the creek, innovation-wise. In that same vein, I'd really like to run a Zero One Odysseys adventure sometime soon. And I'll also be trying to attend some technology conferences I've never been to, and I'm going to visit a couple of places I've never been before. Who knows what I'll learn!
How will you try living at the intersection this year?