Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Crossroads

The corner of Telegraph Avenue and Channing Way in Berkeley was at the crossroads in 1977. An angry man in a torn shirt waved his arms helter-skelter, hollering gibberish as he kicked a newspaper stand into the intersection. The commotion drew the attention of the hippy bead-sellers and t-shirt vendors; even the scraggy-bearded students took notice. Fittingly, the name of the newspaper in the broken stand was “Appeal to Reason.” Oblivious to the racket, a blind tarot-card reader wearing a Scottish plaid stared upward as he shouted predictions to a freshman who had paid his 5 bucks: “You are about to go through great change!” went the fortune, as his wrinkled old fingers probed the braille card face up on the table. Amazed at this clairvoyance, the student nodded open-jawed, “Yes, how did you know?!” Berkeley in the 1970s was at the crossroads, where novel combinations created unforgettable oddities.

It turns out that the crossroads create more than local color. At the crossroads, novel combinations often go nowhere; but now and then you see genius: Bill Gates built BASIC software for the Altair hobby computer, thereby getting to know the folks at IBM – and then accepting as a “side project” the job of getting their PC’s operating system to work. Bell Labs scientists Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson measuring background radiation from space in an effort to improve microwave communications; then finding the evidence that would win them the Nobel Prize for the “Big Bang” theory. Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce, and the others of the “traitorous eight” meeting at Shockley Labs in Mountain View, and from there forming Fairchild and the foundation of the Silicon Valley.

Great minds? Yes, but there are many great minds. In case after case, innovation explodes when such people find themselves crossing paths in the right place at the right time.

And these meetings need not involve technology: The crossroads have spawned great films, new approaches to banking, fusion cuisine, masterpieces of literature, new musical genre – the list goes on. Often my family and I raft the Rogue River, stopping to do yoga along the way. Sounds strange, but this marvelous innovation resulted when the rafting guru Peter Fox met yoga master Susan Schneck. Strange and beautiful combinations happen at the crossroads.

Want to be at the right place at the right time?  Go to the crossroads. You may discover genius, or not. But you won’t end up doing, yet again, the predictable.



Systematic research on this idea appears in the work of Lee Fleming.