I can’t actually remember the original source, but I think it might have been the audiobook Smarter, Better, Faster by Charles Duhigg, which I’m listening to right now…
Anyway, whatever I was listening to made the interesting point that new ideas only tend to come about when certain preconditions are met: namely, the person involved must already possess a level of expertise and mastery in the area, knowing most or all of the relevant information on a particular subject. Once he gets to that point, he has access to what this author calls the “Adjacent Possible”.
I picture this sort of like someone who’s lived most of his life in an isolated, tiny little town, and has no idea what’s outside of its borders. As long as he stays within the borders of that town, he’s never going to learn anything about the world that anybody else in the town might know. But as soon as he ventures to the edge, now there’s the possibility of newness.
This is the reason why most scientific advances show up in duplicate or triplicate: it’s very common for new ideas to arise independently in multiple parts of the world, by experts who all are aware of the cannon of literature on a given subject. (Apparently this phenomenon is so well-documented it has a name: Multiple Discovery.) A few famous examples:
- Calculus was simultaneously discovered by Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz.
- Sun spots were simultaneously discovered by Thomas Harriot, the brothers Fabricius, Galileo, and Christoph Scheiner
- The telephone: Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell
- The phonograph: Charles Cros and Thomas Edison
While the official Multiple Discovery title primarily seems to apply to science and tech, I suspect the same thing is true in any subject. I find the concept of Multiple Discovery fascinating because it means you have to first become an expert in something before it becomes possible to do anything truly unique or revolutionary in that space.
This seems obvious when I say it like that… but as an avid consumer of business and marketing podcasts and books and articles, it seems that the focus so often seems to be on finding a great idea as fast as possible, getting it out there, and marketing the heck out of it. It’s another example of our “microwave” society: we want success, and we want it now, without having to slog through the many hours of work it takes to first gain expert status. But only then will we have access to the Adjacent Possible, and possess the preconditions necessary to come up with revolutionary ideas.
Another good reason to never stop learning!