May 05

This post is part of an ongoing series entitled “a post a day for the month of May.” It’s an unfolding exploration of the concepts from the book “Get Lucky.”

If Motion is the skill that generates the raw seeds of serendipity then Preparation is the skill that ensures they fall on fertile ground. In CH 3 the authors step through a series of stories that illustrate various examples of situations in which being mentally prepared allowed the subjects to make quantum leaps of reasoning. They distill the commonalities across various situations involving serendipity and propose that the innovators who were able to make these mental leaps shared three fundamental traits:

  1. Compelled out of sheer curiosity.
  2. Had a knack for identifying and “arresting exceptions.”
  3. Able to slip out of the mental straightjacket of conventional thought and question underlying assumptions that others took for granted.

The story of the floppy-eared rabbits and the subsequent discovery of the root vectors in rheumatoid arthritis was an awesome illustration of all three of these concepts. It shares a near identical trajectory to the discovery of Viagra which you may not know came purely from accident. Pfizer scientists were at the time in search of compounds that would help address the conditions of hypertension and angina. Their experiments failed to yield the results they were seeking however they did yield something interesting: boners. Subject after subject reported having an erection after five days of participation in the study. This finding “stood out” enough for scientists to recognize an unintended side effect of manipulating enzymes that dealt with blood flow. Pfizer executed what we could call today a “pivot” and went on to turn this chance discovery into the drug which most know them by today: Viagra. Had the scientists doing the research chose to discard the findings which had nothing to do with their intended outcome instead of “going off road” and investigating this unintended side effect, they would have missed out on the creation of what is now the $5BN/yr industry of erectile dysfunction drugs.

“Hard logic is the basis for so much of our education and business life, but it does nothing to help us to form the new ideas or hypotheses that help us cope with unpredictable change.”

Ok no “hard logic” jokes – clear your head of the Viagra example and let’s get serious for a sec. Think about the above sentence from the book. This is something I’ve advocated the past few years in terms of a core brokenness with our current educational system. We load kids up with facts via rote memorization but we fail to teach the mechanics of how to “learn to learn.” And what’s worse is we’re not just “crowding out” the useful learning mechanics topics from the curriculum, we’re cementing the wrong ones. Arguably the current approach is dulling the edges and dimming the lights on kids who would otherwise be bright. And bold posts from teachers like this one invite the question whether this is from benign ignorance or malicious design.

There’s a phrase “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” That may have been true thus far but given the accelerating pace of change for knowledge workers I would argue even teaching the act of fishing at this point not adequate. We need to operate at a more core level with students inspiring them, coaxing out their natural talents and instilling these concepts of Preparation at an early age. If you learn that fishing is “threading the line like this, casting just so, jerking the line to set the hook and reeling once you have a strike” then kids end up with a brittle understanding of what it means to extract food from the sea. If instead you inspire them with open ended projects like “how else might you obtain food from the ocean in a world where there are no nets or fishing poles?” you wind up with a far more interesting discussion, lessons which are more firmly encoded and students who become inspired to solve hard problems. Failing to shift how we teach, we’ll end up with a nation of managers who understand how to color within the lines but no leaders to make the coloring books.

The good news is admission of a problem is the first step to recovery and we have promising “green shoots” with projects like the Bright Works school mentioned later in the book. There are people who grasp the concepts of planned serendipity and Preparation who are flipping industries on their head. There are people like Janine Benyus who are taking stodgy Dupont engineers on field trips to the Galapagos islands and giving them epiphanies of insight for solving complex calcification issues in pipes by studying the compounds snails have used for millennia to solve the same problems. There are people like Jennifer Pahlka who are exercising these principles in a “domestic Peace Corps for hackers” to bring hacker mentality to bear on problems in government that can be addressed with a tech, crowd sourcing and thinking differently.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the first aspect of Preparation: creating space. In the meantime check out this 2min video from one of my role models, a Nobel prize-winning scientist and bongo player who maintained a child-like fascination through eighty years of life and produced arguably more original insight than any other physicist:

Change your tune: Whitley – More than Life

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