The problems and opportunities we face require much more than conventional thinking. They demand that we expose ourselves to a wide range of ideas and inspirations.
Steve McCurry is one of the most accomplished photographers and photojournalists of our time. As a young man, he crossed the Pakistan border into Afghanistan just as the Soviet invasion of that country was beginning, returning with rolls of film sewn into the fabric of his clothing to avoid detection. His iconic photo Afghan Girl appeared on the front cover of National Geographic in June of 1985, marking the public start of an extraordinary career. I had the pleasure this past weekend of seeing McCurry’s work on exhibit at the Musee Maillol in Paris. McCurry’s life of seeing and understanding the world through photographing the seven continents reminded me of the role that travel plays in introducing us to new and fresh perspectives. As Seneca once remarked, “Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.”
In 1967, psychologist Edward De Bono coined the term "lateral thinking” to describe an important phenomenon – namely, that our most creative ideas come not just from thinking critically about a problem but by being exposed to ideas lateral to (or outside of) the problem we’re trying to solve. Famously, Johannes Gutenberg’s inspiration for the printing press came from a combination of two lateral phenomena – the flexibility of a coin punch and the power of a wine press. Likewise, George de Mestral came upon the idea of Velcro when he returned from a hike and noticed seed burrs attached to his pants and his dog’s coat. Under the microscope, Mestral discovered tiny hooks on each of the burrs which explained the strength of their attachment to the surface of his clothing and his dog’s fur.
We are undoubtedly living in an increasingly complex world. The problems and opportunities we face require much more than conventional thinking. They demand that we expose ourselves to a wide range of ideas and inspirations through travel, reading, and meeting interesting people. This is an important part of my work and a critical way that I work with senior leaders. For example, I recently encouraged the CEO of a major pharmaceutical company that I work with to explore web 3.0. You might think that there is zero overlap between life sciences and the next iteration of the internet. This CEO, however, has a vision for transforming the way his company is organized and works. He has much to gain by understanding the distributed, decentralized nature of web 3.0 as he embarks on this important journey.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them,” quipped the famous lateral thinker, Albert Einstein. This is perhaps truer today than it ever has been. Think about a hard problem you are trying to solve right now. And then ask yourself, “What lateral field of study would I benefit from understanding?” Make it your mission to understand it. And then let your amazing mind do the natural work of being inspired. This is how great ideas happen. It is how the big problems of our time will be solved.