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Saturday, April 5, 2014

To Innovate, First Expand Your Mind 04-05

To Innovate, First Expand Your Mind

It’s no secret that creativity feeds on contrasting perspectives. Innovative ideas are often sparked by mixing up the concepts and perspectives of quite different disciplines, stirring the pot of metaphorical reasoning we all carry within our own minds.
One of the things I do, personally, to try to keep my thinking sharper and my perspectives more original, is spend time consciously trying to absorb information and ideas from disciplines that are totally unrelated to marketing, sales, customer service, or business strategy.
Consider, for instance, the following list of random and interesting facts from a variety of disciplines:
  • 90% of the cells in a human body are bacteria.

  • All the light we are able to see – that is, the entire visible world (to us) – comes from less than 1 ten-trillionth of the electromagnetic spectrum.
  • In 2010 twelve witches were burned in Haiti. In the US, 39% of people believe astrology is a science, and 40% believe the human species is less than ten thousand years old.
  • Statistically, you are less likely to die from a spider bite than from the stress caused by a fear of spiders.
  • A million high-school seniors rated themselves on their “ability to get along with others.” Virtually no one came in “below average,” and 25% felt they were in the top 1%.
Each of these facts, and many others, can be found in a single, highly stimulating book entitled (appropriately)This Will Make You Smarter: 150 New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking (Harper Perennial, 2012), compiled and edited by John Brockman. The book is composed of 150 brief essays (two or three pages each) by some of the brightest scientific, economic, and philosophical thinkers of our time.
And the perspectives are indeed profound. This may come as a shock, for instance, but there is no such thing as “scientific proof.” Science is a process of increasingly accurate approximation, and the vast majority of today’s scientific theories will eventually prove to be wrong, in one aspect or another.
Even today, however, most people aren’t fully cognizant of how the scientific method is applied, so Richard Dawkins suggests one of the single most important tasks for a school should be to teach students how to do a double-blind control experiment. If people graduated from high school (or even university!) with this knowledge, Dawkins says, then we would “learn not to generalize from anecdotes. We would learn how to assess the likelihood that an apparently important effect might have happened by chance alone. We would learn how extremely difficult it is to eliminate subjective bias, and that subjective bias does not imply dishonesty or venality of any kind.” Just think how this skill could, all by itself, elevate the quality of the vitriolic and often moronic political discussion in this country about the right kind of economic policy to follow, or the correct response to global warming.
As our world becomes more complex, applying the scientific method is likely to become more and more important. Gerald Smallberg, a neurologist, points out that the “exponential explosion of information and its accessibility make our ability to gauge its truthfulness not only more important but also more difficult. Information has importance in proportion to its relevance and meaning.” (This is, in fact, similar to the argument Martha Rogers and I make in Extreme Trust in which, among other things, we suggest people’s ability to trust information depends on both its accuracy and its objectivity.)
And the world is indeed getting more and more complex as we add information from our tools and devices, as well as from our connections with others. Nicholas A. Christakis, the physician and social networks expert (he wrote a classic book explaining the nature of social networks, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives), says that complexity is particularly acute when it comes to the information generated by networks of people:
“If we have 10 people in a group, there are a maximum of 10 x 9/2 = 45 possible connections between them. If we increase the number of people to 1,000, the number of possible ties increases to 1,000 x 999/2 = 499,500. So, while the number of people has increased by a hundredfold (from 10 to 1,000), the number of possible ties (and hence this one measure of the system’s complexity) has increased more than ten-thousandfold.”
There are many other “fascinating facts” in This Will Make You Smarter including, for instance:
  • Bacteria can be programmed to solve Sudoku problems (did you know that?)
  • There are roughly a hundred thousand earth-like planets in our own galaxy
  • The ability to deceive is an extremely important – perhaps the most important - evolutionary advantage for higher animals (including humans)
  • People tend to think more creatively when exposed either to a picture of a light bulb or to the Apple logo
  • Birds have local dialects
  • One in every four species of mammals is threatened with extinction today
  • Emissions reduction has no hope of stopping global warming. To do that we have to develop technologies to draw down the amount of CO2 already in the atmosphere.
If you want to expand your own creative potential, this is the kind of book even the most attention-span-challenged reader can get into. Consume it 5 minutes at a time, or (as I did) gorge yourself for hours on one challenging new perspective after another.
By the way, Brockman has also brought out a more recent, similarly organized book, This Explains Everything, which was touted by CNN's Fareed Zakaria as reading like a collection of "the best TED talks ever." Again, the book is a compilation of short essays from some 150 scientists and academic experts, but this time Brockman asked each to name a theory or scientific explanation they considered to be particularly profound or beautiful, and to comment on it. This book is also worth a read (and you can consume it, too, in small doses), but if your goal is to to get your creative juices flowing, then I'd recommend starting with the first one.
(Picture credit to Umberto Santucci.)