“To understand something you need to view it from at least three perspectives.”
– Leonardo Davinci
Humans crave novelty in the forms of insights and surprise. We need stimulus to grow. One way to gain new perspectives is to look at the world differently: look more broadly, look more closely, or think younger. In the book Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly studied what made 91 exceptional people successful. This study examined Nobel Prize winners, famous authors, and famous artists. He found three things these experts needed to succeed.
- Knowledge: Tremendous amounts of information. This provides many perspectives.
- Interaction: Motivation to combine ideas.
- Network to Exploit: Criteria of judgment for the field.
This study also found several characteristics these successful people shared. They could take opposing perspectives simultaneously in many areas:
- Smart and naive
- Playful and disciplined
- Imagination (fantasy and whim) and reality
- Opposite tendencies on introversion and extroversion. Need solitude and interaction.
- Humble and proud
- Escape gender prototypes – psychologically androgynous
- Rebellious and independent
- Passionate (attachment) and objective (detachment)
- Open and Curious
- Use and restore energy on demand
These characteristics allowed them to gather perspectives and seek the intersections where new innovation happens. We see the power of intersections of ideas from many fields through time. In The Medici Effect by Frans Johansson, Frans describes how the Medici family drove the invention that came out of the Renaissance by paying people from multiple disciplines to come to the Republic of Florence and work. Anywhere ideas can mingle has been a place of innovation. During the rise of the first coffee shops in the 1500s (coffeehouse), people from different walks of life gathered and shared different ideas and perspectives. If you are stuck on a problem, by definition, you need another way to approach the problem; that is another perspective.
“Being a little weird is just a natural side-effect of being awesome.”
– Sue Fitzmaurice
In the book Smartcuts: The Breakthrough Power of Lateral Thinking by Shane Snow, Shane describes the power of lateral thinking (similar to intersectional thinking, i.e. jumping fields). He describes how people have climbed higher by jumping laterally to a different ladder. For instance, Obama jumped ladders from a Freshman Senator to President by using data analytics and social media. In the trade up game (popular with young Mormons), everyone starts with a toothpick and trades it for something else (that is something on a different value ladder). In one game, a young man traded for a house after 14 trades over 6 months, starting with merely a toothpick!
Astro Teller tells a story about the British Air Force during WWII. The Germans were taking a dramatic toll on the British Air Force. They were rapidly losing planes and pilots. They knew they had to add armor to the planes or lose the war. The planes would be too heavy and slow if they armored the whole plane. They didn’t know where to put the armor. So, they called in a professor from one of the universities to look at the problem. He went off for a week, crawling around planes and mapping where the bullet holes were. The air command staff had forgotten the professor was working on the problem when he showed up. The commander told him they decided to put armor where the holes were. The professor said that would be a bad idea. He handed them a map of where they should put armor on the planes, and they asked him to explain. He said these planes all have one thing in common; these pilots and planes survived. This means, where the bullet holes were didn’t destroy the plane, so armor where the holes weren’t. This worked. This is an example of taking a different perspective on a problem. Sometimes, you must question the status quo. Dell started by asking why computers cost 5x the cost of parts (book Little Bets).
“Discoveries are often made by not following instructions, by going off the main road, by trying the untried.” – Frank Tyger
Many successful people have talked about how they collect and eventually connect the dots (find the intersections) to succeed. Steve Jobs followed his curiosity after dropping out of college and attending a calligraphy class. Later, this drove the fonts in the graphical interface of the mac and a desktop publishing revolution. Elon Musk is a master of this intersectional and lateral thinking. He has founded / created many businesses using this thinking, including PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla, SolarOne, and Hyperloop. Here are examples of lateral jumps Elon has made.
- Take the reusability of planes to rockets to reduce space travel costs.
- Take the light construction of rockets to cars to enable light electric cars.
- Turned cars into upgradeable computers to enable new vehicle features to be uploaded.
“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”
– Albert Einstein
Here are three takeaways for you to become an innovative, deeply unconventional thinker.
- Be poly-curious (curious about many things). Collect different ideas and perspectives broadly.
- Connect ideas laterally across fields. Always be thinking how you can apply something you learn to another field. Recognize what is important.
- Be able to compare and hold opposing ideas simultaneously. Look from many perspectives.
I find a couple of techniques useful for filling my idea / perspective cue. I am always looking for interesting books. I use Google alerts to be notified of new articles in topics that interest me. I determine which people and blogs are most interesting and follow them on Twitter. Twitter gives you a rapid way to evaluate content, through a forced 140-character limit describing what the article contains and an image. If you want to dig deeper, just click on the article. Ted Talks are another great way to collect perspectives. Ted Talks are under 20 minutes and contain some of the best compressed knowledge by experts in every field. There are an unlimited number of things you can learn and explore on the Internet. Keep finding insights, connecting, and looking with multiple perspectives.
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