Skip to content

A DJ Saved My Life: Lessons from the Director of the MIT Media Lab

“To me, being a DJ and being the Director of the Media Lab are essentially the same thing,” says Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab. 

What’s the Big Idea?

Most academics work alongside other academics in the same field to arrive at the deepest possible understanding of a particular subject. At the MIT Media Lab, researchers focus on breadth, not depth, of knowledge. On any given day, you could come across an engineer, an economist, and an opera singer brainstorming solutions to projects that span across multiple disciplines and perspectives. Recent questions include how to engage people in creative learning experiences and  how to give computers human-like intuition so they can better understand us.

“The world is full of expertise,” says Joi Ito, Executive Director. “What it lacks is agility and context.” Watch here:

The mission of the Media Lab – symbolized by its glass walls – is to mitigate the isolating effects of specialization by creating a common space where brilliant people in every field can share ideas, English major to mathematician. (One team built a sensor for Yo-Yo Ma’s bow using technology that was later deployed in automobiles.)

The difficulty, of course, is encouraging people to take risks and contribute, even when they’re not 100% sure of themselves. Putting it all out there often, as hard as it may be, often produces the most surprising, counterintuitive results. So it helps that the executive director is a former DJ.

What’s the Significance?
“To me, being a DJ and being the Director of the Media Lab are essentially the same thing,” says Ito. A DJ surveys the scene of a party and makes snap judgements about what to play based on the context. How many people are at the bar drinking? How many people are on the floor?  What kind of people are in the room? What time of day is it? Success depends on whether you can correctly interpret individuals, anticipate their reactions, and ultimately bring a disparate group together as a cohesive whole.

“You’re kind of like a Shaman,” says Ito. “You’re influencing and supporting the energy and the activity in the room. A bad DJ will dissipate and destroy the energy; a good DJ will keep the energy going.”

Is getting people to work together as hard as getting people to dance? Perhaps. Ito’s lesson is clear: if you want to be a good leader, you have to practice finding similarities and consensus among people who may not be coming from the same place. “It’s an interesting position to be in because you’re not actually being creative in a certain type of primary sense, but you’re really being creative at the sort of institutional sense,” he concludes.

This post is part of the series Input/Output, sponsored by HP Input/Output

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


Up Next