Why doctors should have "idea sex" more often.

Elon Musk has "idea sex" all the time and so should you. Find out why.

Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
6th Mar 2018 • 7m read

Humans can’t survive on Mars.

Unlike the earth, Mars doesn’t have a magnetic core that shields its surface from charged particles emitted by the sun. I’ll spare you the details. Put bluntly, the red planet is too cold, too dry and too “naked” to shelter us.

But that’s not exactly news, right? Every 8-year-old knows that. It’s such a solid fact of life, that most of us wouldn’t have given it a second thought past elementary school.

Most of us. But not Elon Musk.

As a child, Musk’s parents thought he was deaf. The future entrepreneur and multi-billionaire spent hours at a time staring off into the distance, paying no attention to his surroundings. His doctors even removed his adenoids, hoping it would help. Later, they realised he was simply daydreaming. His mother, when interviewed for a book about his life, remarked that “He goes into his brain, and then you just see he is in another world… Now I just leave him be because I know he is designing a new rocket or something.”

We all daydream, though. What makes Musk special and what does that have to do with Mars?

In a 2015 interview with Stephen Colbert, Musk announced that he was planning to colonize Mars. He planned to make it habitable by creating two “suns” above the Martian poles that will nuke the sky every few moments to keep the planet warm by converting frozen CO2 into gas.

Wait...what? Who even comes up with stuff like that?

People like Elon Musk. And Steve Jobs. And every other daydreamer who thinks beyond the confines of everyday reality. When we daydream, we’re shutting down the voice inside of us that tries to analyze every thought, idea and consequence that goes through our mind. It gives our brain a free-pass to come up with insane ideas and solutions to very hairy problems. That’s why you come up with your best ideas in the shower and just as you’re falling asleep. Daydreaming enables divergent thinking which subsequently enables creativity & problem-solving. When you allow yourself the room to think outside the square, the square disappears and reality merges with imagination to create what could be.

As medical professionals, we’re solving problems all day long. But we’re bogged down in them. We rarely give our minds the space and breathing room to consider fresh approaches to old problems.

But it is precisely this ability to step back and see the bigger picture that allows your mind to combine two seemingly unrelated ideas to create unexpected and breathtaking solutions. Notorious blogger and marketing expert James Altucher calls this process “idea sex” and claims he’s made millions by doing it everyday. The more professional name for this phenomenon is the Medici Effect. The Medici Effect, a term coined by Swedish entrepreneur Frans Johansson in 2004, describes the innovation that occurs when ideas from different industries and disciplines intersect.

The Medici Effect in Medicine

William Osler was a notable dreamer. He was also a keen observer and innovator. Like Einstein and his famous thought experiments, Osler often came up with unexpected solutions to medical enigmas of the day by nurturing ideas that moved beyond accepted theory. After being appointed Professor of Medicine at McGill University, Osler quickly earned a reputation for being an innovative thinker, insisting that his students learn both in the classroom and in clinical settings. Though this may seem logical today, Osler's new approach to teaching medicine was developed at a time when medical students would complete their entire education without touching a patient. This novel (and at the time, questionable) approach led to the practise-based medical education frameworks that we take for granted today. Osler was adamant that "to study medicine without books is to sail an uncharted sea, while to study medicine only from books is not to go to sea at all."

But Osler’s open-mindedness and idealism was not accidental; he knew that “nothing in life is more glaring than the contrast between possibilities and actualities, between the ideal and the real”. He was a intrepid traveller, insatiably curious and interested in topics that ranged from the arts and humanities right through to politics and philosophy. He saw first-hand– through his extensive travels and the intellectual journeys he took through his vast and diverse personal library–that reality today was simply a consequence of the idealists of yesterday. His mind was a fertile ground for “idea sex” to happen. His curiosity and creativity combined with his willingness to take risks turned him into the man that would turn medical education on its head and continue to influence our profession today.

Osler isn’t the only one reimagining medicine. We’ve interviewed over a dozen rockstar physicians on the Medmastery show and the one thing they all have in common is their willingness to go beyond what is to ask what if? Doctors today are more curious, adventurous and brazen than ever. Medtech is progressing at an incredible rate and the sorts of innovations transforming the way we practise medicine are getting crazier and more exciting by the day. Thanks to the Medici Effect, we’re seeing new examples of medicine intersecting with emerging technologies such as augmented reality, artificial intelligence and blockchain everyday. This wave is being driven largely by doctors who’ve been inspired to think a little differently.

Creativity is as much a skill as it is an innate drive. We are all born creative but lose it somewhere along the way. Just like you hone your clinical skills through consistent practise, honing the habit of creativity and divergent thinking is as simple as introducing some simple yet highly effective habits into your life.

4 habits to boost your creativity

  1. Have idea sex. Often.

James Altucher has made millions from his ideas. He’s built multiple successful businesses and implores his readers to come up with a list of 10 new ideas every, single day. A list of 10 potential businesses you can start. 10 blog post topic ideas. 10 storybook titles. It doesn’t matter how bad those ideas are. Just make sure you do it. Consistently. It can be hard at first, particularly for those who aren’t used to thinking so laterally. A popular method of breaking through the little voice in your head that criticises everything you do is through a habit called Morning Pages. Each morning, spend 10 uninterrupted minutes writing whatever comes to your mind into your journal, no matter how silly, trivial or irrelevant. By the end of the year, you’ll have 3650 ideas sitting in your pretty, little journal. Even if you’re the most non-creative, boring thinker in the universe, at least 1 or 2 of those ideas will be good enough to potentially turn into something tangible.Then (and this is the fun part), combine those ideas to come up with even better ideas. Which leads us onto the next creativity habit...

  1. Play the “what if…?”game.

What if you could grow chocolate bars on a tree? What if you could download all 7 seasons of Suits straight into your brain? What if you could build a robot that can cook? What if….(insert hypothetical here)? All the best ideas of the world started as humble what if…? questions. Practise your what if…? muscle as you go about your daily life. Here’s one you can play right now. Select two random objects around you and invent something new by asking, “What if I combined my cup of coffee with my printer?” (maybe a 3D printer that could pump out a hot cup of coffee at will?). Have fun with it and maybe even get your kids involved!

  1. Read everything.

A creative mind demands a constant flow of inspiration. By continually learning new things, you plant new ideas in your mind and expand your thinking abilities. Be willing to try different ideas, read things you wouldn’t usually read and mentally grapple with new ideas that conflict with your own. As per Aristotle’s saying, “It is the mark of the educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”. Develop both your vertical knowledge–which is a deep dive into a particular topic–and horizontal knowledge, which is a working understanding of a wide variety of fields. The Magic of Medici happens at the intersection between expertise and generalist knowledge. Spend time deliberately trying to mix and match the new learnings you’ve made across different industries and again, have fun with it.

  1. Daydream

Tap into the natural creativity that you had as a child by picking up the habit of daydreaming again. All kids are born creative but most eventually lose that ability. NASA scientists developed a “creativity test” to use with their engineers and decided to study the results of kids taking the test vs adults. What they discovered stunned them. 98% of kids under the age of 5 fell into the genius category of creativity. Adults taking the same test? Only 2%.

So what happens along the way to adulthood? We stop dreaming.

Kids love to play and pretend, creating imaginary worlds where anything is possible. They let their minds wander, explore and daydream. As doctors and scientists, we are trained to think rationally and be analytical at all times. But critical thinking, whilst crucial in our profession, gets in the way of creativity. Rekindle that wonder and let your brain go free again. Allow it to explore possibilities that seem completely stupid and illogical because that’s often where the best ideas come from.

Keep a journal of your craziest ideas, however fantastical or unrealistic they might be. Giving your mind the time to dream and problem-solve is a great way to build your creative muscle.

Got ideas for cultivating creativity? Share them in the comments below!

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