The 20% Rule: Applying the Wisdom of Benjamin Franklin and Isaac Newton
The term Eureka was first used by the Greek mathematician Archimedes.
He was getting into a bath when he noticed that the water level rose as he entered the tub. His sudden insight being that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body that he submerged.
As it’s told, he yelled “Eureka!” twice in succession to celebrate. The word is now commonly used to acknowledge a sudden discovery or invention.
The most famous example of a situation that would warrant it would be Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity. From what we know, in his later years, Newton would talk about how seeing an apple fall to the ground in his youth led him to ask the questions that inspired the formulation of his theory.
Similarly, the invention of penicillin by Alexander Fleming was pretty much an accident, and Louis Pasteur’s contribution to the discovery of the chicken chorea vaccine was a product of similar serendipity.
In fact, psychologist Kevin Dunbar estimates that 30% to 50% of all scientific discoveries are accidental in nature.
Benjamin Franklin, the father of electricity, was a notorious scheduler and planner of habits. Yet, in his later years, he also made room for randomness and experimentation to fuel his creativity and broaden his experiences.
In a world so consumed by mapping every minute of the day, what if the real secret to productivity and breakthroughs lie elsewhere?
The Importance of Chaos
The power of planning can’t and shouldn’t be understated. Having a strong strategic direction in whatever it is you want to accomplish is the first step in getting yourself onto the right path.
That said, if all you’re ever doing is exposing yourself to a pre-planned life, you’re also severely limiting your exposure to growth and discovery.
As author and statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb says,
“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.”
This applies especially to us as humans not only because randomness and chaos can lead to creative insight, but more importantly, because there are some things that we can’t understand and apply to our lives unless we experience them in select situations.
If you’re currently childless, try asking a parent how being a mother or a father changes you. They may put together a string of words, and these words may even evoke an emotion, but there is nothing someone can say to prepare you for something of that magnitude until you experience it.
Similarly, there are many things out there that you can’t plan for.
Introducing the 20% Rule
One of my favorite things in the world is serendipity. The word was initially coined by Horace Walpole in a letter to a friend, and it essentially stands for a pleasant surprise. Something random, but welcomed.
The whole idea is that it can’t be designed or planned for. That said, it is possible to nurture the conditions necessary for it to take form.
One of the things I try to do fairly regularly is to introduce an intentional disturbance into my schedule and my plans. I aim for roughly 20% of my life, whether it be measured in weeks or months, to be completely random.
Some days, this might mean taking an evening to hop on the train to the other side of the city, while other times, I’ll plan a sudden trip to somewhere.
My criteria for doing this is simple. If I’ve woken up and done the same thing for too many days in a row, I’ll let my mind wander to random possibilities that I can pursue. If I like the thought of something, and it’s feasible given the demands of my life, I go and do it.
A few ideas for things to do may include:
- Taking a weekend road trip to somewhere you’ve never been before
- Randomly exploring parts of a city you otherwise wouldn’t
- Striking up a conversation with strangers in situations that warrant it
- Trying something you’ve either feared or dismissed as “not you”
Now, I can’t promise that any of these things will suddenly change your life.
That said, on more than one occasion, I’ve found myself getting unstuck in times of confusion, I’ve learned to appreciate things I previously dismissed, and I’ve had my perspective changed in ways I otherwise wouldn’t have.
Sometimes, serendipity is more than just an unplanned gift.
While researchers have known for a while that serendipitous experiences have a role to play in creative and productive insight, there is more to it, too.
Granted, the fall of that apple did quite a lot for Newton and that the experimentation Franklin engaged in helped him get more out of both his personal adventures and work projects. But these things were only possible because they were prepared for them with prior knowledge.
Planning and strategic thinking are important parts of life. That said, there are some things that just lie beyond their scope. Some experiences can’t quite be internalized until you’ve been randomly exposed to them.
While most of us would like to think that we know ourselves pretty well, the truth is that we don’t know what we want or what we like or what we enjoy until we have had a chance to actually engage in an experience.
Intellectualization can only take you so far.
Whether or not you want to dedicate 20% of your life to exploration is up to you. But there is no doubt that some exposure to disorder can lead to powerful, and sometimes even transformative, experiences.
Maybe you’re stuck. Maybe you’ve been doing the same thing for too long. Maybe it’s just time for something a little more exciting.
Whatever it is, chaos can help.
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