For anyone on the path to success, we’ve all heard that “working incredibly hard and staying focused” is your best bet of getting there. But is it really?
Jon Youshaei over at Forbes recently conducted an interview with Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. What’s interesting about Biz compared to most tech startup founders is that he had a huge passion for drama and spent countless hours studying theater. At this point, you might think that his lack of focus in tech would put him at a disadvantage compared to everyone else right? A 1980 experiment conducted by Psychologists Mary Gick and Keith Holyoaka at the University of Michigan thinks otherwise.
In the experiment, subjects were presented with the following brain teaser:
Suppose you’re a doctor faced with a patient who has a malignant tumor in his stomach. It’s impossible to operate on the patient, but unless the tumor is destroyed, the patient will die.
There is a kind of ray that can destroy the tumor. If the rays reach the tumor all at once at a sufficiently high intensity, the tumor will be destroyed. Unfortunately, at this intensity, the healthy tissue that the rays pass through on the way to the tumor will also be destroyed. At lower intensities, the rays are harmless to healthy tissue but will not affect the tumor either.
What type of procedure might be used to destroy the tumor with the rays, and at the same time avoid destroying the healthy tissue?
Only 3% of the subjects were able to solve the problem. They were then asked to read the following passage completely unrelated to the original brain teaser.
A fortress was located in the center of the country. Many roads radiated out from the fortress. A general wanted to capture the fortress with his army. But he also wanted to prevent mines on the roads from destroying his army and neighboring villages.
As a result, the entire army could not all go down one road to attack the fortress. However, the entire army was needed to capture the fortress; an attack by one small group could not succeed.
The general therefore divided his army into several small groups. He positioned the small groups at the heads of the different roads. The small groups simultaneously converged on the fortress. In this way, the army captured the fortress.
After reading this, subjects were 67% more likely to find the solution. For anyone wondering, you basically blast low intensity rays from different angles and have them converge on the tumor, thus producing enough power to destroy it without harming the surrounding healthy tissue. This is the same strategy the army used to conquered the fortress.
This concept of problem solving using indirectly related analogies is called conceptual blending. Youshaei notes that this is exactly how Henry Ford developed the idea for automobile assembly lines after seeing slaughterhouses process pigs in a similar way.
Conceptual blending is pretty much the secret weapon that helped Biz Stone become successful. Because of his experience in other areas aside from tech, he acquired valuable assets others in the industry didn’t have. Theater gave him the charisma needed to motivate and win people over, as well as allow him to become more of a creative problem solver. In the interview, Stone said:
“If you want to be good at what you do, you have to have new, varied experiences as much as possible,” Stone explained. “I’ve always thought that creativity and problem-solving comes from lateral thinking. In other words, the ability to connect dots you otherwise couldn’t connect if you didn’t have a robust set of experiences to draw from.”
So, for anyone working hard to perfect their craft, make sure to dabble onto other areas as well. You’d never know if it could come in handy one day.