“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” —Shunryū Suzuki
“Neuralink is developing ultra-high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers. We are looking for exceptional engineers and scientists. No neuroscience experience is required: talent and drive matter far more. We expect most of our team to come from other areas and industries …”
So reads the homepage of Elon Musk’s new neuroscience company, Neuralink. If there is one thing Musk knows, it’s that if he is to achieve a breakthrough in something as complex as invasive “brain-machine interfaces,” the last thing he’s going to need is experts in neuroscience.
While this may strike you as completely counterintuitive, I can tell you that Musk knows what he is talking about. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that grand challenge competitions are almost always won by people and teams who have little or no expertise in a prize’s domain. Why is that? It’s because they don’t know what not to try. These people attempt amazing things that everyone else in a particular industry assumes will not work.
Domain experts are very good at two things: 1) telling you why some things won’t work, and 2) coming up with solutions to problems that are only incrementally better than the current state of the art. Worse, as their expertise grows, they begin to assume a mantle of conceit—“an iron gate” that admits no new knowledge or potentially expansive possibilities. And in the process, real, exponential, and entirely possible progress is stalled. As Max Planck lamented, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die.” Science thus advances one funeral at a time.
In short, don’t ever look to an industry expert for a disruptive solution. Disruptive ideas come from outsiders. If you happen to be an expert, unless you believe that maintaining a marginally better status quo is the best and highest use of your intellect, you may find it difficult to achieve anything noteworthy in your field. If you are such an expert, do yourself and others in the world a great favor by going out and applying your expertise in a completely different area—a field where you have no domain-specific knowledge. The likes of Elon Musk are waiting for you.
My belief is that once you become competent in a particular domain, you can only improve it incrementally—you can never disrupt it. Disruption happens when someone who has no idea about your industry begins to challenge the very foundations of everything that the experts have taken for granted.
The entrepreneurial dissenter wants to demolish the prevailing systems and recreate them without all the accumulated baggage that invariably attends those systems. “Moonshots” are possible only because audacious entrepreneurs are able to look at a problem from a perspective that the experts have never considered. Thinking in the abstract is something the industry expert can no longer do. And they have their expert brain to thank for that.
The brain is the best pattern-matching machine ever created. When an expert is faced with a problem in his domain, he finds an exact match in his historical pattern-matching repository, and perhaps modifies it a bit to fit the situation at hand. The nonexpert, on the other hand, lacks that pattern-matching repository. Consequently, the nonexpert brain will not find a match, and it will be forced to move further up in its hierarchy, becoming increasingly abstract as it goes. In the process, with a little help from imagination, it begins connecting different dots and other possibilities that have never before been combined, and voilà!—a radically new and creative idea is born. And the expert said it couldn’t be done.
It turns out that qualities like imagination and creativity have life cycles of their own. As people accumulate knowledge in their respective fields, they become increasingly constrained by that knowledge, as well as by their practices and thought habits. They develop a “way of doing things” that may or may not be amendable to new problems that require completely different thought processes and approaches.
I am admittedly painting a picture of experts here with a very broad brush. Not all experts are alike. That said, experts do tend to fall into one of two camps: those who approach problems conceptually and those who approach them experimentally.
Conceptual thinkers ask very specific questions and then quickly solve them deductively, that is, by making reasoned inferences. The experimenters, on the other hand, ask general questions, which they solve inductively over time by amassing evidence that supports their conclusions and serves new generalizations. What do these differences mean to the dissenting entrepreneur as he builds his team? In short, the world.
First, to be fair to the experts, let’s clarify one important detail. Conceptualizers and experimenters peak at very different points in their careers, particularly when evaluated within a single discipline. When Einstein quipped, “A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so,” it was with a decided bias toward the conceptual thinker. On this score, he, too, was painting with a very broad brush.
It is true that for conceptual thinkers, breakthroughs tend to come early in their careers. This is natural, considering that conceptual or theoretical work can proceed apace, unburdened as it is by years of painstaking empirical research. Youth, however, does confer a kind of advantage upon the conceptual thinker: the younger he is, the less knowledge he has accumulated, and thus the more likely he is to challenge the norms and assumptions of his field. In other words, he still doesn’t know what “can’t be done.” But herein lies a trap: having now made his “great contribution,” he is instantly transported across the divide. He is now an expert, and therefore, an incrementalist. He now knows too much—he has eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and his knowledge is now more a hindrance than a help. His exponential mindset has become a linear one. No more radical new abstract ideations that are key to breakthrough innovations will be forthcoming. Having thus been exposed to the kryptonite of his expertise, his best work is now behind him, like the old athlete who lives on the mental reruns of his game-winning shot in the final seconds of the homecoming game.
Breakthroughs happen when curious ignorance meets inspired imagination—qualities the expert now lacks. He is now on the downslope side of the inverted-U curve, where knowledge has extinguished inquisitiveness and, with it, his taste for discovery. But it doesn’t have to end like this. Our expert will suffer this horrible fate only if he remains within his field of expertise!
Indeed, there is nothing like “knowing it all” to kill one’s imagination. That’s nothing more than a shortcut to closed-mindedness. Why keep looking when you’ve already seen it all? Sadly this also comes at a great cost to one’s sense of wonder and curiosity—of being an awe-struck beginner.
Steve Jobs realized in retrospect that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that ever happened to him. “The heaviness of being successful,” he said, “was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”
It’s true that experts tend to have very narrow points of view. They actually know surprisingly little outside their areas of expertise. Astrophysicist Martin Rees calls out his peers on this point, characterizing them as “depressingly lay outside their specialties.” Being so focused, they never build the essential capacity for cross-pollination that comes with cross-discipline collaboration that in turn gives rise to novel and potentially exponential ideas. They are so far down their respective rabbit holes that they never see the light of day.
This is precisely why conceptual thinkers, once having made a significant breakthrough in one field, need to come out of those holes or down from their silos (or ivory towers) and jump into fresh fields where they can once again engage their natural propensities for imagining extreme departures from existing conventions—where they can once again become that unencumbered upstart brimming with big ideas. Or they can stick with their cronies, grow long, grey beards, and become cynics in academia, like their fellow extinct volcanoes.
But what about the experimenters? Are they a horse of a different color? It turns out that unlike the conceptual thinkers who outlive their creative shelf lives, experimenters are just getting started because they have accumulated a critical mass of knowledge in their fields. In fact, the more knowledge they gain, the more creative they become! Their tentative but methodical trial-and-error processes work to yield increasing levels of clarity, ultimately delivering the long-sought epiphanies. The downside to this process, in times of rapid change, is the long gestation period that experimenters have historically required. But new practices enabled by high-throughput experimentation techniques can dramatically compress these otherwise long timescales, perhaps even making experimenters temporally competitive with their conceptually driven peers.
While experts are busy generating new knowledge, this is not where the real value lies. Conventional wisdom says that knowledge is power, but this is no longer true. Knowledge has become commoditized, and is increasingly so. There’s so much of it, in fact, that it can scarcely be digested—even when it concerns a given expert’s domain. The dissenting entrepreneur’s concern is the service to which that knowledge can be put in pursuit of a larger goal—an audacious goal whose objective was originally framed by a question—a big “what if” kind of question. Today, the ability to conceive substantive questions is power. We are drowning in knowledge but thirsting for questions. Can we count on the experts, conceptual, experimental, or otherwise, to ask the right questions? I don’t think so.
This essay is adapted from the book, Moonshots—Creating a World of Abundance, by Naveen Jain and John Schroeter.