So, I’m someone who has always been too curious for his own good. Just in the past few weeks I have been trying to learn how to pick locks, make soap and build an aquaponic setup. And those are just the things I can link to (follow me on Instagram).
I’ve often considered this a negative. My inability to focus on just one thing means I inevitably have less subject knowledge than someone who specialises. My knowledge is wide but not really deep. I can talk to almost anyone, about almost anything, but not for very long.
But just in time for some post hoc justification, economist Tim Harford has written a book that makes it all ok. It’s called Messy and it’s an examination of the beauty of chaos. Most of the media coverage has concentrated on Harford’s message that untidy desks and workspaces can be a boon, but it really extends far beyond that. From the power of improvised speeches through random events that upset path dependence in your daily commute.
And riddled throughout are some amazing anecdotes just for curious people like me.
The top scientists switched topics frequently. Over the course of their first hundred published papers, the long-lived high-impact researchers switched topics an average of 43 times. The leaps were less dramatic than the ones Erez Aiden likes to take, but the pattern is the same: the top scientists keep changing the subject if they wish to stay productive.
The researchers investigated the creative habits of almost a hundred exceptionally creative people, including performers such as Ravi Shankar; Paul MacCready, who built the first human-powered aeroplane; Nobel laureates in literature such as Nadine Gordimer; twelve-time Emmy award-winning TV producer Joan Konner; great non-fiction writers such as Stephen Jay Gould; and a pair of double Nobel laureates, Linus Pauling and John Bardeen. Every single one of this galaxy of creative stars had multiple projects on the go at the same time.
Charles Darwin, who throughout his life alternated between research in geology, zoology, psychology and botany, always with some projects in the foreground and others in the background competing for his attention. He undertook his celebrated voyage on the Beagle with ‘an ample and unprofessional vagueness in his goals’.
There are a few reasons Harford gives for the benefits of bouncing between projects. But in the end it seems to come back to something I have written about before – the necessity of letting in as many influences as you can. There are some great rewards to be reaped by expanding your adjacent possible. Just think how important the interplay of geology, zoology, psychology and botany were in Darwin’s work. Would his theorising have been at all possible if he was a specialist?
The practical benefit is that the multiple projects cross-fertilise one another. The knowledge gained in one enterprise provides the key to unlock another. This is Erez Aiden’s advantage. He moves back and forth across his network of enterprises, solving an impasse on one project with ideas from another or unexpectedly fusing two disparate lines of work.
The psychological advantages may be just as important. First, the point emphasised by Brian Eno, is that a fresh context is exciting; having several projects may seem distracting, but instead the variety grabs our attention like a tourist gawping at details that a local would find mundane.
I haven’t enjoyed a non-fiction book this much in a long time. Not least because it justified my natural proclivities and confirmed my bias. Chaos is a fun topic and the sheer breadth of examples Harford employs keep it very fresh. Really recommend you go pick up Messy.