Why We Need More Useless Knowledge
Innovation is discovery, but it’s also a race.
There’s tension between these two sides of innovation, and in our rush to resolve it, we can squelch valuable forms of discovery because they seem useless at first. We do it at work, when we kill off promising new ideas before they’ve had time to scale up. And we do it personally, when we stop learning for fun because we’re afraid it won’t help us get ahead. We tell ourselves to put down that book about history, skip the art museum trip, turn off that cool documentary about astronomy, and get busy learning coding, or management, or accounting. “Make yourself useful!” we’re told from a very young age. We only have so much time before somebody more disciplined gets the upper hand, right?
Turns out that’s not how innovation really works. We need to be relentless, and keep our eye on the competition, but there also needs to be give and take between exploring for fun and exploring to find a leg up. Theory and application, art and science, work and play don’t have set boundaries.
You see this mindset even in the most ruthlessly practical innovators. Charles Proteus Steinmetz invented the modern research lab for GE in the early 20th Century. After Edison, he’s arguably the most important engineer in GE history. Without him we wouldn’t know how to use alternating current, the kind of electricity used in all modern power supplies. Most electric motors used today are built on his ideas. And Peter Drucker credits him with inventing the whole field of market-based scientific research.
And yet, Steinmetz started out as a pure research scientist and was a lifelong advocate for a liberal arts education, especially for engineers. He encouraged his GE protégées to study the classics, specifically The Odyssey by Homer. Learning to read Greek helped him understand scientific terminology and think creatively by understanding a time and place very different from early 20th Century America. Plus, he said, it had really cool stories about “giants and monsters.”
Scratch the surface of successful careers in business or the arts and you’ll find a healthy play between the humanities and the sciences. The submarine was invented by engineers inspired by 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Jeff Bezos invented the Kindle because he was inspired by the science fiction of Neal Stephenson. Steve Jobs was inspired by a class in typography he took at Reed college to incorporate pleasing design into computer interfaces. Beatrix Potter, author of the Peter Rabbit books, only started drawing plants and animals because she studied nature as a scientist and conservationist. William Herschel, the astronomer who discovered the planet Uranus, used to write in a mix of musical and mathematical notation when he was working out his theories in his notebooks. I’m nowhere in the same league as the examples I just mentioned, but my own career as a marketer has been helped by my study of biology and a love of art & design. We all have things we do just for fun or the love of learning, and they almost always end up helping us out in our careers when we least expect it.
I believe innovation comes from the unexpected collision of ideas. We need collaboration between diverse people for that to work. But it also helps to have as diverse a population of ideas knocking around in our own heads first. The more disparate, diverse, and weird the better.
What “useless knowledge” has come in handy in your career?