Thursday, May 28, 2009

Kao Korner

Brilliant individuals tend to be unusual, interesting -- and creative and inventive to boot. John Kao must have received several extra doses of the Unusual Ray prior to his birth, for his life has followed a rather remarkable trajectory. This article from the New York Times provides a fascinating into what made Kao what he is.
Kao was born in Chicago to parents who had come from China to attend graduate school at Northwestern University. The Kaos must have stayed back, for John grew up in the US. Like the high-achieving children of many Asian immigrants, John Kao was an outstanding student and went to college at Yale, where -- under pressure from his family -- he proceeded to attend medical school. He completed his residency at Harvard Medical School and thereby qualified as a medical doctor -- something I had never guessed at, since I always believed he was creativity guru who taught at Harvard Business School.

Kao has never been one to let his education interfere with his learning: over the years, he has been a pianist with Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention; producer for TV programs and films; medical technology entrepreneur; business school professor, consultant and a successful author of business books such as Jamming and Innovation . He comments thus on the rather unusual
Innovation is his key for understanding his own work, which he said he had long viewed as a series of disparate episodes, not a career arc. “It is only in the last 10 or 15 years that it’s become clear to me that I was filling out a pattern,” he said. “The pattern allows me to do what I am doing now.”

Dr. Kao, who is 57, was born in Chicago to parents who came from China for graduate study at Northwestern. Growing up in Garden City, N.Y., “I’d wake up in a Confucian house and go to an American elementary school and play baseball and go back to the Chinese house,” he recalled. “I had to figure out how to balance two very different cultural references.”
On what he learned from studying psychiatry.
“What I had learned about behavior and the cognitive realm was incredibly relevant,” he said. Before long he had written dozens of the kinds of case studies that are the basis of the school’s teaching and had organized a course on entrepreneurship, creativity and organizations.
And though he abandoned psychiatry, its “mental framework” pervades his work today, he said, even if his clients do not realize it. “It goes into the way I think about things,” he said. “It’s a kind of environmental sense of what it is like when you go into a company and there are certain kinds of d├ęcor in the lobby or the receptionist treats you in a certain way. Everything becomes text.
On what is positive about US culture that is conducive to creativity and innovation:
Many of his cases were about failures — individuals under pressure, partnerships unraveling, learning through trial and error and so on. Today, Dr. Kao says failure’s relative lack of stigma is “a unique aspect of U.S. culture” that does not exist even in countries like Singapore or Finland, both clients and both, he said, “relatively hip.”
Which leads to the role for the US in human affairs:
The United States is never going to lead in areas like low-cost production, he said, but it can be a dynamo for devising new technologies and combining existing technologies in new ways. “The world needs us, even if it does not believe it,” he said. “I don’t believe in this ‘post-America’ world at all.”
John Kao would likely have lived a creative life even if had been born and raised in China. It is almost certain, however that at least two factors greatly amplified his ability to engage in highly creative and innovative behaviors:
  1. Highly varied life experiences: child of parents born in China but living in the US [“I’d wake up in a Confucian house and go to an American elementary school and play baseball and go back to the Chinese house,” he recalled. “I had to figure out how to balance two very different cultural references.”] a pianist for Frank Zappa's band who studied philosophy as well as medicine but became a business consultant, entrepreneur, film producer and writer.
  2. Living and working in the US whose culture encourages and supports varied experiences and activities.
Kao's diversity of experiences has made him capable of bringing together under a single roof, groups that might never find common ground and helping them to craft a broader vision for society. Innovation is, among other things, seeing connections where none seem to exist and it takes highly plastic minds like Kao's to make such connections happen.

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