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The secret to avoiding tunnel vision

Posted in the following categories: Life Lessons, Personal Development

When J.K. Rowling submitted a draft copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to publishing houses, they were unanimous in their opinion.

They thought the book was not worth printing.

Her manuscript was rejected by no fewer than twelve different publishing houses, until it ended up on the desk of Nigel Newton, the chairman of Bloomsbury Publishing.

Newton saw potential in the book where his rivals missed it. What was Newton’s secret? His eight-year-old bookworm daughter, Alice. After Newton handed a sample from the book to Alice, she devoured it and nagged him for more: “Dad,” she said, “this is so much better than anything else.” Alice’s input convinced her father to write a £2,500 check to Joanne Kathleen Rowling as a meager advance for acquiring the rights to publish her book. The rest is history.

What gave Newton the multi-million-pound edge was his willingness to step outside of his echo chamber and get the opinion of his daughter, an outsider to the publishing industry but a member of the target audience for the book.

Most of us are reluctant to do what Newton did. We’re living in increasingly isolated echo chambers. We friend people like us on Facebook. We follow people like us on Twitter. We read the news outlets that are on the same political frequency as us. We rely on the same neural pathways to regurgitate the same talking points and the same quotes, in order to reach the same conclusions. Our echo chambers get louder and louder with the sounds of the same voices.

Modern tribalism exacerbates the problem. Tribes define themselves by creating insiders and outsiders. Tribalism promotes conformity over disagreement, uniformity over dissent, and the opinion of “us” over the opinions of “them.”

Outsider opinions create tension and discomfort. Our instinct is to invoke an easy excuse to reflexively dismiss them. They don’t know what they’re talking about. They haven’t attended the relevant meetings. They don’t have the necessary background. They’re out of their element.

Yet it’s precisely for these reasons that outsider opinion holds value. Outsiders are terrific at challenging conventional wisdom because they have zero attachments to it. Unlike the insiders, whose identity or salary can depend on the existing state of affairs, outsiders have no stake in the status quo. They ask dumb questions that force the insiders to question basic assumptions, pinpoint their blindspots, and force them out of the comfort of their echo chamber.

For example, the continental drift theory, which posited that continents were one big mass and drifted apart overtime, was initially declared absurd by the community of geologists. The rejection and ridicule came in large part because the proponent of the theory, Alfred Wegener, was a meteorologist, not a geologist.

Specialization is all the rage these days, but it comes at a cost. It stifles the cross-pollination of ideas from different disciplines. We remain in our humanities track or science track and shut off our minds to concepts from across the aisle. If you’re an English major, what use do you have for quantum mechanics? If you’re an engineer, why bother reading the Homer’s Odyssey?

When I first started out in academia as a law professor, I would exclusively read law books and articles. Anything else, I told myself, was a distraction. After a while, I noticed that my writing began to stagnate. It’s only when I branched out to political science, started to read behavioral psychology, and reconnected with my background in astronomy, that I started making counter-intuitive connections.

Life, it turns out, doesn’t happen in compartmentalized silos.

During moments of difficulty, Albert Einstein would grab his violin and play Mozart to decipher the music of the cosmos. Steve Jobs borrowed from calligraphy to create multiple typefaces and proportionally spaced fonts on the Macintosh. Leonardo da Vinci’s inspiration for art and technology also came from the outside–in his case, nature. Larry Page and Sergey Brin adopted an idea from academia–the frequency of citations to an academic paper indicates its popularity–and applied it to search engines to create Google. In crafting his theory of evolution, Charles Darwin was inspired by the economist Thomas Malthus, who argued that populations tend to outgrow resources, creating a competition for survival. Darwin then began to ponder which populations are better situated than others to survive.

What’s ordinary in one field is extraordinary in the other. A revolution in one industry can begin with the adoption of a seemingly simple idea from another.

Just ask Bernard Sadow. Until 1970, suitcases were missing an ancient invention: wheels. Wheels were ubiquitous on other objects, but no one thought to attach them to suitcases until Sadow came along. Inspired by the sight of a worker using a wheeled skid to roll a heavy machine, he decided to do the same for luggages. And the wheeled luggage was born.

You can also take your cue from this industrial manufacturer that produces aircraft parts. Their inspection process was unnecessarily long primarily because it took seven hours to properly insert a camera into a particular aircraft part. An administrative assistant at the company, who had recently seen the movie Minority Report, asked what most executives would have dismissed as a dumb question: “Why can’t we send a robotic spider into the part, like the ones in the movie?” The Chief Technology Officer was intrigued. He tested the idea, and it worked spectacularly. This simple fix, prompted by an outsider, reduced the inspection time by 85%.

You can start small. Pick up a magazine or book about a subject you know nothing about (try this one on military coups). Attend a different industry’s conference and figure out what’s on the cutting edge. Bring employees from other departments to get their opinion. Instead of nodding and pretending to listen when a friend discusses her job, ask, “What’s the most interesting thing you’re working on right now?”

It doesn’t take an imaginative polymath to avoid tunnel vision.

All it takes is genuine curiosity and a willingness to make space for outsiders–whether it’s your eight-year-old daughter nagging you to publish Harry Potter or a colleague at work with a crazy idea from a movie she just saw.

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