From someplace we don’t expect

In a passage from Debt, David Graeber speculates on the origins of exciting new ideas:

“Who’s to say? The one thing we can be confident of is that history is not over, and that wherever the most exciting new ideas of the next century come from, it will almost certainly be from someplace we don’t expect.”

Which begs the question: if we’re looking to create (and/or capture) the most value in the future then shouldn’t we make a special effort to explore the unexpected? Answer: yes. But how to do it? Where to look? Simple—we should explore unexpected people, unexpected places and unexpected things.

People. Look to the mavericks. The people who exist at the extremes of disciplines. Look to the outlaws. To the shunned. Re-discover those who have been forgotten and those who were never remembered in the first place. Similarly, take a closer look, or a different look, at the people everyone already knows about. Perhaps a person is respected in one domain, but also pursued an interest in another: explore their explorations. Finally, talk to people that rarely get the chance to talk at all, because sometimes the seemingly unremarkable are just waiting for an opportunity to share the most wondrous of tales and insights.

Places. Go where others ain’t, in a concrete and abstract sense. Travel to the edge of the world and its centre. Explore peaks and valleys, empty spaces and terrifyingly full ones. Further, dare to tread in realms of ideas and influences that your colleagues and competition would never consider. If you are a physicist, look to the mystic. If you are a conceptual artist, explore inorganic chemistry. Look not only to the opposites of the places you typically occupy, but also to places that seem to have no connection to you or what you do.

Things. Every craft has its preferred tools. But the preferred tools are not the only ones. So borrow. So X is meant to do Y? What happens when you use it to do Z? Find out. Has a tool been abandoned due to developments in efficiency or effectiveness? Bring it back. Use it for its old purpose or find a new one for it. And this doesn’t just apply to tools in the physical realm. We can get creative with conceptual tools too—with models, clusters of ideas, processes, methodologies, procedures etc.

There are many more paths to the unexpected—I haven’t listed them all. But one thing that unites them is the disregard with which we treat them; we perceive no value in them because we expect no value to arise from them. So perhaps the key is this: to change what we find, we first have to change how we look.