SXSW – It’s About Your Brain

SXSW is not for cowards. You must do your homework before you go or you will wander around the halls of the Austin Convention Center and have little to show for it.

Two talks I attended on Saturday at SXSW 2013 continued the theme of trying to make sense of all that has happened these past few years in digital. We are bombarded with information and dis-information every second of every day. It’s exhilarating but exhausting at the same time. Getting a handle on all this is something we all wrestle with.

The Laws of Subtraction: Rules to Innovate By – Matthew E. May

Matthew E. May, author, blogger and founder of Edit Information talked about my favorite property of mathematics; subtraction. I consider myself an intrapreneur inside my firm, That is someone who has entrepreneurship in their DNA but chooses to work inside a large company. We are the ones who want to move fast and in an iterative fashion and want to simplify the complicated world of corporate America. We are viewed as different and push others to operate on the edges.

Mr. May is all about elegant design and delivering only what is necessary, perhaps even only what is essential. People who live in this world are keenly observant and frequently students of history. We like to say the old days were simpler but I disagree. Each time is as complex as the one before and the one that will come next. This is why we need to study the past and integrate it into the present.

To attain knowledge, add things everyday. To attain wisdom subtract things everyday.— Lao Tzu

May showed numerous examples of the simple. The arrow embedded in the FedEx logo, how comic book panels tell only part of the story, and some eye-mind tricks. He has boiled down his experience into Six Laws of Subtraction.

Laws of Subtraction

In many companies today there is a major piling on of ideas and insertions of rows in spreadsheets. When you ask people to solve a problem our minds immediately go to all the things that can be done or tried. This is the brainstorming period and is very useful but not efficient. From there it goes to what should or could be done. That’s prioritization. But we usually don’t subtract. Subtraction is scary because we are frightened that we might lose an idea. So instead we output a prioritized list, which is very, very long. This is not as helpful as it may seem. I’m going to publish his list to my staff on Monday.

Mr. May reminds us that our brains use different wires or pathways depending on whether we are adding or subtracting. He provides more support for how our minds can get caught up in irrational rituals and block out fresh thinking. This is why we need these reminders. The session description and link to Mr. May’s presentation can be found here.

The second talk addressed how our brain deals with creativity. We ply our cranium with large amounts external stimuli: caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, prescriptions drugs, perhaps even illicit drugs. But we don’t spend much time on feeding it creativity.

Your Brain on Creativity – Denise Jacobs

Ms. Jacobs is a web designer and consultant who obviously lives in the C (creative ) world. She won my attention when she dismissed multi-tasking as something that is harmful, not helpful. She went so far as to say that multitasking is bad for creativity on a neurological level. Science! Only the very few can genuinely multitask. For the rest of us it’s called distraction. Single-tasking is the way to go to advance our ability to absorb, understand and create. Her slides traversed neurology, culture and relaxation techniques.

Relaxed Brain Waves

Something she said really struck me. “Creativity is an internal job.” Yes it is. We have a personal responsibility to nurture our own creativity. To consciously place our bodies and minds in the proper space, both physically and mentally. We need to work at this. It’s not always obvious, but it’s critical to our advancement on many levels. She made it clear that one needs to do this for business success and personal peace of mind. They are intertwined, not separate. The left and right sides of our brain are quite different. Balancing them is important for our well being, and particularly for our ability to be creative.

One of the unique benefits of SXSW is you can find yourself sitting in exactly the right place at the right time. Serendipity is one of the great inconspicuous benefits of attending  SXSW.

One thought on “SXSW – It’s About Your Brain”

  1. Steve, I always felt that multi-tasking takes more time than performing tasks sequentially… great article.

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