“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible,” wrote science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke in what would become the 2nd of his famous 3 laws. Echoing Einstein who said that “the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious,” Clarke recognized that there are few greater catalysts for discovery than a willingness to embrace the unknown.
And yet, the unknown and the mysterious become easy things to neglect. In today’s cult of productivity, a willingness to explore beyond the rational seems like a luxury.
Worse still, faced with the growing trends of pseudoscience, post-truth, and seemingly growing factions committed to their own ignorance, it’s easy to adopt a default mode of cynicism. Surrounded by groups who are so open-minded that their brains seem to have fallen out, it’s understandable that we’ve begun to see the unproven with derision and condescension.
But a cynic’s view – one that’s unwilling to entertain the unproven and mysterious – is not the answer. That path only leads to stagnation. As Caitlin Moran wrote on the topic,
“When cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. Cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas.”
An inherent skepticism is critical to keep us from falling in with modern day phrenologists and conservatives, but it needs to be balanced with that often-neglected sense of wonder. Skepticism without wonder sets us up for a life limited to the proven ideas of others. Or, as Carl Sagan once described, “You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world.”
And while there’s plenty of evidence to support that perspective, it still prevents us from recognizing those new opportunities worth pursuing. Indeed, our sense of wonder – our willingness to wade into the mysterious – is often the critical driver for innovation and growth.
A Catalyst for Innovation
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” is Arthur C. Clarke’s 3rd law, explaining our typical awe when we encounter a new technology for the first time. And just as a new advancement may seem magical to us, often that first spark of a new idea comes from a similar pursuit of the unknown.
Before Robert Boyle became the father of modern chemistry, he was an alchemist. His initial experiments were aimed at turning lead into gold. His experiments that proved the existence of atoms, demonstrated the inverse proportionality of pressure and volume, and pioneered the modern Scientific method, all started from an interest in the mysterious and the magical.
Nikola Tesla, whose work with alternating current and induction motors impacts us all every day, began his journey into electricity by a mysterious incident from his childhood. As he recounted in a 1939 letter, Tesla told the story of how petting his cat, Macak, shocked him into a lifelong fascination with electricity.
“In the dusk of the evening as I stroked Macak’s back, I saw a miracle which made me speechless with amazement. Macak’s back was a sheet of light, and my hand produced a shower of crackling sparks loud enough to be heard all over the house … My mother seemed charmed — ‘Stop playing with the cat,’ she said. ‘He might start a fire.’ But I was thinking abstractly. Is Nature a gigantic cat? If so, who strokes its back?… I cannot exaggerate the effect of this marvelous night on my childish imagination. Day after day I have asked myself, what is electricity?”
When we’re young, we’re often surrounded by the magical and the mysterious. We play pretend and listen to fairy tales. We read about superheroes and believe in all sorts of fantasies.
Eventually we grow older and learn the truth behind these tales. And as adults, we’re expected to root ourselves in the known and rational world.
Yet by shutting ourselves off from these mysteries, we miss out on countless opportunities to break beyond our current boundaries. By limiting ourselves to the rational and the established, we sacrifice our ability to discover the new.
We all develop our own mental models of the world. We fill them with explanations that explain how the world works. We fill them with constraints – both known and assumed – that bound our current views of reality.
Magic, mystery, the unknown – all of these are simply things that challenge those constraints. If we’re not willing to embrace these areas, how do we ever expect to break beyond our current limits?
Look for What Doesn’t Make Sense
“The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.” – Eden Phillpotts
How often do you hear someone say, that something just doesn’t make sense?
Whenever people encounter a new fact that’s at odds with their definition of the world, their typical response is to say that it just doesn’t make sense.
But ultimately the world always makes sense. It’s just that our understanding of it hasn’t always caught up with reality.
Instead, we should be saying that our current mental model no longer makes sense. It’s been presented with new evidence and is now outdated.
In one of my favorite commencement speeches of all time, David Foster Wallace argued that “learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.”
We’re surrounded by the mysterious and the unknown every day. All around us are things that can challenge our current view of the world. We each get to choose how and what we think about these opportunities. And how we respond when they present themselves.
The cynic writes them off as something that doesn’t make sense – refusing to grow their perspectives of the world. The alternative is to seek out the mysterious. Embrace the unknown. Look for what doesn’t make sense and go there. As Oscar Wilde put it,
“The secret of life is to appreciate the pleasure of being terribly, terribly deceived.”