Perhaps you’ve heard the old joke about the drunkard who was seen one night looking for his keys under the street light instead of where he dropped them, because, he said, the visibility was better there. The joke is meant to make the drunkard seem the fool, but on reflection, he may have been onto something. We rarely find what we need where we expect it to be. It can pay to be contrarian in one’s approach. And that’s doubly true when what you seek isn’t as concrete as a lost set of keys.
German Kaiser Wilhelm II, for example, is said to have improved his army’s logistics by studying how the circus got equipment on and off trains so quickly. That’s one of the more striking examples of the truism that you never know where the next good idea will come from. The key is to always be on the lookout for that unrelated bit of inspirational knowledge.
That’s easy to forget, especially as we enter a specific profession and start to specialize. We run the risk of becoming too cloistered in our own field of expertise, a danger heightened in today’s customized news environment where you can filter news to suit your special interests.
It reminds me of another joke: The specialist knows more and more about less and less until he (or she) knows everything about nothing, while the generalist knows less and less about more and more until he/she knows nothing about everything. To avoid those traps, you need to stay open to a wide range of new ideas from unfiltered sources and to use that rich material to fertilize your thinking in your field. A recently published reading list written by famed astronomer Carl Sagan shows how he did that. He read everything from the classics of Plato and Shakespeare to the 20th century novelists Aldous Huxley, Andre Gide, and John Gunther.