My mother, originally from Hickory, North Carolina, is Black and Cherokee, and my dad is Swedish. My sister and I were raised in Sweden, among the fields and the forests, lakes and the oceans. Although Sweden today is becoming increasingly diverse (yet noticeably noninclusive), that was not the case when I was growing up. Our family was quite unique. Not only that, but my parents’ ideas, perspectives and norms also intertwined across countries, cultures and ethnic boundaries, which turned me on to the power of diversity.
IMAGE: My parents...and their parents.
There are three major differences between pancakes in Sweden and those in the US: American pancakes are thicker and smaller, and are served as breakfast. Swedish ones, on the other hand, look more like a French crêpe, and are served either as a main meal or as a dessert. My parents combined the two styles and served my sister and me Swedish pancakes for breakfast. Although it may may not have been a stunning innovation, it woke me up to what can happen when you combine ideas from different cultures--a lesson I have never forgotten in life.
IMAGE: Swedish pancakes...for breakfast.
UrDraken is a very large, very mean dragon in a book I wrote for Drakar och Demoner, the Swedish version of Dungeons and Dragons. You can only kill it with a spear that goes by the name of Scatter, forged during the Age of War in the dying kingdom of Taramermin. While in high school, I sold the manuscript to a publisher (but they went out of business before it was published). Still, it gave me the confidence to know that I could write a book, whenever I were to try it again.
IMAGE: Drawing made by Kristian Ribberström a great age ago.
While in junior high school, I fell in love with quantum physics after seeing a diagram of the double-slit experiment in John Gribbin’s book In Search for Schrodinger’s Cat. The experiment suggested that reality is far weirder than I had been taught. Although I didn't understand everything in the book, it was a clarifying moment on the statistical nature of reality. I have carried these ideas with me, and they have inspired me to view the world less deterministically and more intuitively.
IMAGE: A 20-sided die (called d20 in Dungeons and Dragons parlance)
If hunting is warfare, then fishing is diplomacy. The fish has to bite on its own volition—a moose has, so to speak, no choice in the matter. I never went hunting as a kid, but I always loved fishing. Fly fishing, deep sea fishing, fishing in lakes and rivers. Eels at midnight and that type of stuff. This, by the way, I realized, also holds true for ideas. Ideas are never more powerful than when people adopt them on their own volition, rather than having them forced upon them.
IMAGE: Getting ready to catch some eel.
My interest in fishing led me to major in environmental science at Brown University. The interdisciplinary nature of this field (I studied chemistry, biology, physics, geology, oceanography and policy) opened my eyes to the power of making unique connections between the various sciences.
I created a magazine called Catalyst designed to connect the various scientific fields on campus, and I came to understand that the connections between disciplines could be just as strong as they are between cultures. (The magazine celebrated its 20th anniversary last year).
IMAGE: The first issue of Catalyst
My dad loves to write, and he loves to fish. Naturally, he combined these passions and started a sport fishing magazine, despite never having graduated from high school. It ended up being the leading fishing magazine in Scandinavia. “Do what you love,” he would always say, “the rest takes care of itself.”
IMAGE: My dad with a nice trout.
After college, my cousin and I started a company based on my aunt’s research at Johns Hopkins. She was the university’s first African-American female tenured professor. One of our projects involved taking good ideas used by hospitals in the US and introducing them to hospitals in Sweden. It was remarkable how quickly we became seen as experts by simply taking existing knowledge into a new geography. I realized the same holds true for taking old ideas into new fields or disciplines.
IMAGE: My cousin and I
When applying for a Ph.D in Marine Biology, one of my recommenders forgot to turn his letter in on time. I was waitlisted, but the hiccup made me re-examine my career goals, and I noticed that something felt off. Instead, I applied to business school, something I would have never considered a few months earlier. It made me realize that serendipity can have a huge influence on someone’s career. What if the recommender had gotten the job done in time?
IMAGE: My interest in marine biology came from my interest in fishing. This is a 700 lb marlin that I caught and released off of the Azores Islands.
While at Harvard Business School, my cousin and I launched a software company. We scaled quickly, left the MBA program and got quite a bit of press. But none of that means you have a successful business—and we didn’t. Yet, the experience provided a key clue: failures are critical to innovation. All the complex forces in my life were now converging: writing, entrepreneurship, interdisciplinary science, and diversity all caught in a chaotic swirl. One moment would be enough to fuse them together.
IMAGE: A cover story about how my startup was leading the charge on a new incubator model. And, yes, that's me as an egg.
I woke up one morning in March of 2001 with a clear vision. I saw, in my mind’s eye, two light beams intersecting, with each beam representing a different field or culture. I realized that if: 1) new ideas are combinations of existing ideas, and 2) more ideas lead to better ideas, then intersections should favor innovation, because instead of adding the number of idea combinations in each field, you are now multiplying them. The vision stayed with me for less than a minute, but came to define my life.
The idea quickly evolved into a book project. I started researching it in earnest through an independent study with the queen of creativity, Teresa Amabile, at the Harvard Business School. Actually writing the book took far longer than I ever imagined, but given my history with UrDraken I knew it could be done—even when it got really rough. At one point, I only had $2.45 cents in my bank account, along with mountains of debt. But THE MEDICI EFFECT finally got published.
People found THE MEDICI EFFECT inspirational, innovative and insightful, and the book keeps finding new audiences around the world. Its message launched my global speaking career and, later, my consulting firm, The Medici Group. THE MEDICI EFFECT and its follow-up THE CLICK MOMENT have had an impact on industries, fields and leaders way, way beyond my expectations. The look on my face in that picture, represents how I have felt throughout this entire, unexpected journey.
IMAGE: Experiencing Zero G (yes, that’s Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google, in the corner)
My Filipina-American wife was getting her master's degree at the Harvard School of Public Health when we met at her birthday party. We started dancing with each other right away and our lives have been an exploration of intersections ever since. Perhaps it was just coincidence or perhaps it was destiny that we would start dating the same week I got the idea for the book. I told her about the vision and how I wished to make intersections accessible to everyone. “These ideas,” she said, “I believe in them, too.”
I have grown fond of saying that the future lies at the Intersection. Looking at our children, it feels truer today than ever before. We are all crossing over, combining ideas between different fields and industries, cultures and countries. But for children growing up today, this diversity and acceptance of difference, will become ever more natural. Let us make sure they can make the most of it.
IMAGE: Our two daughters