David Epstein: How Innovations Happen

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Range" by David J. Epstein. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What drives innovation? How does efficiency prevent people from generating innovative ideas?

In his book Range, David Epstein explains that trying to work efficiently and seriously—as many scientists and innovators do—will actually make it more difficult to innovate. When you let go of expectations and the fear of failure and experiment for the joy of experimenting, that’s when many breakthroughs tend to happen.

Here is how innovation happens, according to David Epstein.

How Playful Curiosity Yields New Ideas

How do innovations happen? One way generalists come up with creative ideas is by deliberately cultivating a sense of playful thinking.

Epstein argues that when professionals loosen up and temporarily abandon the need to accomplish anything serious, they often make wild breakthroughs that would never have normally been discovered. By freeing themselves from the constraints of serious work, they’re more likely to explore uncharted territory with unexpected value.

Because generalists largely only pursue things they’re excited about, through short-term planning and fearless pivoting, it’s easier for them to produce work for the intrinsic joy of exploration. Obviously, you need rules and direction to get most work done, but a healthy amount of playful thinking and curiosity can be surprisingly valuable.

For example, Epstein recounts how Nobel-winning physicist Andre Geim schedules “Friday night experiments”—time dedicated to fooling around in the lab with whatever interests him, regardless if he thinks it’ll amount to anything. One Friday night, he unexpectedly discovered that the water in a frog’s body was magnetic enough to levitate a frog in midair. On another, he found out that Scotch tape was able to strip off extremely thin layers of graphite, directly leading him to discover how to isolate graphene, a nanomaterial that’s one atom thick and two hundred times stronger than steel—which won him the Nobel.

The Power of Detachment

The defining characteristic of Geim’s Friday Night Experiments is detachment from outcomes—full acceptance of the possibility of failure and waste. In fact, this detachment is precisely what makes them so successful.

Detachment from the outcomes of your actions at first sounds just like giving up. However, it can be a powerful tool to achieve your goals, as well as an invaluable blessing for your mental health. Detaching from the outcome doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t care about the outcome. Instead, you’re simply becoming less hostile toward unfavorable outcomes. This mental shift provides a number of pragmatic benefits.

Being less desperate for a specific outcome gives you more power in negotiations and makes you appear more competent. It keeps you oriented toward future opportunities instead of tunnel-visioning into whatever is in front of you. It preserves your emotional energy for the tasks that really matter. Attaching yourself to a single outcome blinds you to everything else in the world, and in creative fields, this makes your job infinitely more difficult.

Efficiency-obsessed specialists would see Geim’s Friday night experiments as a waste of time, but they’re another example of why efficiency shouldn’t be your highest priority.

Epstein mourns that today’s science is far too concerned with efficiency. Research grants are more likely to be doled out if the research can prove that it’s worth the resources, but only funding research that looks promising is the quickest way to stifle new discoveries.

Epstein cites the example of HIV—before the AIDS epidemic, scientists believed that retroviruses were an insignificant phenomenon found only in animals. Curious scientists studied them anyway, amassing a body of knowledge that led to the speedy development of treatment for AIDS. Curiosity for its own sake needs to be preserved for science to operate effectively.

Roll the Dice on Research Funding

Epstein isn’t the only one criticizing today’s efficiency-obsessed system of funding research. Multiple studies have shown that grant reviewers are extremely subjective, unreliable judges of potential research. On top of this, they’re biased toward research that appears promising instead of what’s actually promising. One researcher claims that this funding structure “is turning scientists into entrepreneurs and managers” as they compete based on appearances. The desire to bring back curiosity-driven research without pre-ordained outcomes has inspired some creative suggestions for reform.

The idea to have random chance decide what research gets funded was first suggested in 2016 by microbiologist Arturo Casadevall and his team, whom we introduced back in Part 1 of this guide. The proposal is to allow reviewers to reject any research that seems entirely worthless and enter the rest into a lottery in which randomly selected research is funded. Theoretically, this would allow unpredictably valuable research, like the retroviruses that helped doctors treat HIV, to once again become possible.

Exercise: Brainstorm Analogies to Solve Your Problems

Deliberately brainstorming a wide range of analogies is a proven strategy to reframe your problems and make them easier to solve. Try it for yourself.

  • Think of a problem that’s been troubling you for some time. This might be an obstacle at work, a bad habit you want to break, or a conflict with a family member. Have you encountered any problems like this before? How did you solve them?
  • Think of the last movie you saw. In what ways can you relate the characters’ problems to yours? Remember, distant analogies often work best—even if it’s a stretch, try to make some connection.
  • Go to any Wikipedia page and click the “random article” button on the left. Can you think of anything this article has to do with your problem? Is it sparking any new ideas?
  • If you’re still stuck, free-write for a bit, as quickly as you can. Come up with any analogy you can to describe your problem in a new way.
David Epstein: How Innovations Happen

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Here's what you'll find in our full Range summary:

  • Why it's better to be proficient in a range of skills rather than becoming a specialist in one
  • Why you're never “too late” to pursue something you’re interested in
  • Why the nontraditional background of a generalist gives them an edge

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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