Listening to radio while driving to a meeting, I heard an interview with Brian May. He was co-founder and lead guitarist for Queen, the rock group known for such songs as “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “We Are the Champions” and “We Will Rock You” (which May wrote). What fascinated me was not my reminiscing about my younger days when the group was popular but rather the introduction that included the fact that he had a Ph.D. in Astrophysics. His dissertation was on interplanetary dust (now published as Bang! A Complete History of the Universe). During the interview they talked about another interest of his: stereography. His latest book, A Village Lost and Found is a collection of stereographic images from the 1850’s which have to be viewed with an assemble-it-yourself viewer (included) which May designed.
One of the things that has become apparent in the interviews I’ve been doing is that most innovators have expertise/interests in a variety of areas. That internal diversity of perspectives probably helps them see possibilities that others miss. It keeps showing up.
I just finished reading Feynman’s Rainbow. The subject is Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman in his later years as told by Leonard Mlodinow. Mlodinow had been a research fellow at California Institute of Technology (aka Cal Tech) in the 1980s, right after receiving his Ph.D., and he had taped his conversation with this physicist who had inspired him in the first place. Feynman, known for his work in quantum electrodynamics and particle physics, was also interested in deciphering Mayan hieroglyphs, playing bongos, juggling, and painting. So again- an innovator with a variety of interests that informed his view of the world.
Mlodinow himself is quite an innovator. His dissertation received a lot of recognition, making him a physics notable early in his career. After getting his Ph.D. at UC-Berkeley, he did the research fellowship at Cal Tech and then at the Max Planck Institute in Munich. He’s also created computer games and authored several other books including Drunkard’s Walk and The Last Dinosaur (yes, it is a children’s book). Ok, you may be wondering- so clearly he’s into physics in different forms. What are his other interests? After returning from Germany, he became a Hollywood screenwriter for TV shows including Star Trek: Next Generation, Mac Gyver, and Night Court. Writing was always a passion of his and having proven himself in the physics arena, he went on to pursue it. That said, he continued to do physics research and is now teaching at Cal Tech (and still writing screenplays).
Earlier this year I wrote about innovations being brought about by Dr. Laura Esserman. The focus of that blog was performing triage on broken medical procedures, not the people doing it. But there is as much to say about the woman herself as there is about her innovative work. As one of the women I interviewed for my forthcoming book on gender and innovation, I know that in addition to her clinical and research medical activities, Laura is an accomplished singer and pianist. Plus, while doing her residency at Stanford Medical Center she also got an MBA from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business to purposely diversify her experience. Again, she has a breadth of knowledge and interests in addition to her deep expertise in breast cancer research and treatment, supporting her innovative activities.
Focus and practice in a given area leads to mastery but the person who becomes consumed with one endeavor is likely to miss out on the greatest discoveries. It’s looking through another lens that often reveals the secret within. What are you doing to broaden your perspective?