Solve Hard Problems by Thinking, Being on the Margin

In Wired Magazine’s feature on failure as a (seemingly counterintuitive, but) powerful path to success, Jonah Lehrer explores how thinking outside the mainstream helps solve problems:

Einstein’s Relative Thinking

According to Veblen’s logic, if Einstein had gotten tenure at an elite German university, he would have become just another physics professor with a vested interest in the space-time status quo. He would never have noticed the anomalies that led him to develop the theory of relativity.

Predictably, Veblen’s essay was potentially controversial, and not just because he was a Lutheran from Wisconsin. The magazine editor evidently was not pleased; Veblen could be seen as an apologist for anti-Semitism. But his larger point is crucial: There are advantages to thinking on the margin. When we look at a problem from the outside, we’re more likely to notice what doesn’t work. Instead of suppressing the unexpected, shunting it aside with our “Oh shit!” circuit and Delete key, we can take the mistake seriously. A new theory emerges from the ashes of our surprise.

Temporary Outsiders

While the scientific process is typically seen as a lonely pursuit — researchers solve problems by themselves — Dunbar found that most new scientific ideas emerged from lab meetings, those weekly sessions in which people publicly present their data. Interestingly, the most important element of the lab meeting wasn’t the presentation — it was the debate that followed.

Dunbar observed that the skeptical (and sometimes heated) questions asked during a group session frequently triggered breakthroughs, as the scientists were forced to reconsider data they’d previously ignored. The new theory was a product of spontaneous conversation, not solitude; a single bracing query was enough to turn scientists into temporary outsiders, able to look anew at their own work.

(Via swiss-miss)

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