How Groundbreaking Thinkers Come Up With New Ideas

How Groundbreaking Thinkers Come Up With New Ideas

What do Steve Jobs, Vincent Van Gogh, and Albert Einstein have in common? They all followed this process.

There are plenty of stories out there about the unusual places business leaders find creativity. Take Steve Jobs. Didn't you know he once took a course in calligraphy?

I wouldn't blame you if you think the creativity connection there sounds a little too good to be true. Here's the thing: It had little to do with the act of drawing fancy letters. It was his application of calligraphy's design and visual tenets to the then-clunky world of computers--a pre-Macintosh world in dire need of aesthetic principles.

As it turns out, the act of combining concepts from different fields is linked to the birth of many game-changing ideas.

"Some of the most significant ideas come about when someone sees a problem in a new way--often by combining disparate elements that initially seemed unrelated," writes marketing and strategy consultant Dorie Clark in her new book, " Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It."

Harvard Medical School professor Albert Rothenberg dubbed this process "Janusian Thinking." Janus, as you may recall from your dusty Edith Hamilton paperback, was a Roman god with two faces, each looking in the opposite direction.

For Rothenberg, notes creativity researcher Michael Michalko, the two faces of Janus symbolized a state of mind that often yields creative insights: The ability to simultaneously conceive of an idea and its opposite. He writes:

Einstein, Mozart, Edison, Van Gogh, Pasteur, Joseph Conrad and Picasso all demonstrated this ability. It was Vincent Van Gogh who showed in Bedroom at Arles how one might see two different points of view at the same time. Pablo Picasso achieved his cubist perspective by mentally tearing objects apart and rearranging the elements so as to present them from a dozen points of view simultaneously... In physics, Einstein was able to imagine an object in motion and at rest at the same time.

So the question becomes: In your search for groundbreaking ideas, how do you tap into your own version of Janusian thinking?

Insights From Other Fields

Applying a fresh perspective from a different profession or discipline can stimulate creative breakthroughs. Jobs' marriage of the seemingly disparate fields of calligraphy and computers is but one example.

Eric Schadt, professor of genomics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, began his career as a mathematician. The math background "was perfect training for his eventual role disrupting the field of biology," Clark writes.

Here's why: In the late 90s, technology emerged enabling researchers to rapidly sequence RNA and DNA--giving them the ability to isolate and record the activity of single genes. To Schadt's math-trained perspective, there was one obvious ramification: biology was going to change from a qualitative to a highly quantitative discipline.

Today, awash in the analytics era, this insight doesn't seem shocking. But in the late 90s, most biologists were "ill-equipped to deal with vast amounts of data," Clark notes. Schadt was prepared, thanks to his background in a seemingly unrelated field.

By any measure, Schadt is now a well-regarded thought leader in genomics. But his path to respect was not an easy one, even though he came armed with big-data credentials. Initially, the biology community shut him down and dismissed his ideas as "fishing exhibitions"--accusing him, in other words, of casting a line and making up a story around it.

To them, he was an inexperienced outsider who didn't know what he was talking about.

In fact, his outsider status is what enabled him to have a fresh perspective on how the field of biology was about to undergo a tectonic shift.

Ultimately, it took about 15 years for Schadt's ideas to become mainstream. The lesson of his tale, from Clark's perspective, is that "there will always be people who have more experience... your outsider status and new perspective, however, can turn your ignorance to your advantage."

Staying Resilient

In a recent interview with Inc., Clark discussed how to keep pursuing your big idea--confident as you might be about it--even when itreceives a rude non-welcome from the industry mainstream.

"You have to keep perspective about why people are pushing back," she says. "People are going to feel threatened if you're bucking the establishment viewpoint. It threatens what brought them to power. They have been trained to view certain things as self-evident truths, and generally believe they are right."

In other words, you should view the pushback as a sign you've potentially hit a sweet spot. "You have to understand, your insight likely hasn't been raised before because of other people's fear of the pushback," she explains. "It's the price you have to pay for the chance to do something dramatically meaningful."

In addition, you can take tactical steps to minimize the effects any pushback might have on your emerging reputation. First and foremost, Clark suggests vetting your idea with trusted colleagues before sharing it publicly. "You want to make sure your idea is buttoned-up and your facts are right and it all makes sense," she says.

Next, you want to make sure you have the support of your inner circle when things inevitably get contentious in public spheres. The last thing you want is for the debate to become personal, as opposed to a discussion of facts and data. Any ad hominem situation favors the incumbents, rather than the outsider.

In her previous career working on gubernatorial campaigns, Clark and her campaign colleagues often faced the daunting task of introducing complex policy initiatives to the public, knowing those initiatives would be picked apart in the media minutes after they were released. In preparation, the campaign team would often alert an inner circle--and a slightly wider group of third-party outsiders--with key insights about the policy.

"We knew the media would call them for comment, and we wanted them knowledgeable and on our side," she says.

So while keeping the proper perspective about pushback is important, you can also strategize about your own counter-pushback campaign, aiming to keep the debate on point, rather than ad hominem.

A Thought Leader's Playbook

Clark's book is full of stories like Schadt's. Taken together, they essentially form a thought leader's playbook: Apply your expertise in one field to a different field in the quest to create novel, useful insights; hone the idea with trusted colleagues until it's airtight; take it public, and prepare to endure resistance from the establishment.

Schadt applied mathematics to biology; Eric Ries applied lean manufacturing to startups; Paco Underhill applied urban planning to retail settings; Nate Silver applied economics to baseball.

At this point you might be telling yourself: "Sounds good. The only problem is, I have no area of expertise that I can potentially apply to a disparate field."

That's where you're wrong.

Remember: It's not the calligraphy itself. It's about the insight you can gain by applying calligraphy's principles to a field--computers in the early 80s--that badly needed them.

Your area of expertise might be you yourself--your age, your ethnicity, your gender, your location, your demographics. Where is a voice like yours lacking? Could the venture capital community benefit from women investors? Could the minimum wage debate benefit from bloggers who actually earn minimum wage?

Moreover, you might have an area of expertise you're overlooking, either because you learned it long ago or dismiss it as a hobby. What parts of your resume have you deemed irrelevant? What do you find yourself reading about and researching, again and again, when you have 10 minutes to kill?

"Your area of expertise can seem commonplace to you because you're used to it," explains Clark. "But if you apply it in a new context, the effect can be dramatic."

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