Human progress relies on a pan-generational dissemination of knowledge. Information discovered by one group of people is passed on to the next, who contribute to and modify that knowledge. Isaac Newton expressed gratitude to those who came before him, saying that even he "stood on the shoulders of giants." But every so often, an individual comes forward with a completely original idea that changes how we view the world, starting as if from nowhere, without relying on the gains of the past.
Having set down the precepts for logical argumentation and moral behavior, Aristotle is perhaps the example most taken for granted. The creation of the computer, which has revolutionized modern life, relied on a break with Aristotle's logic. A contradiction in set theory was discovered by Claude Shannon which stated that information is separate from content. More recently still, the iconoclastic physicist Richard Feynman envisioned nanotechnology, seemingly from his own imagination. Today, it is a multi-billion dollar industry.
Aristotle, Shannon, and Feynman were all brilliant polymaths capable of synthesizing information from across various fields. To arrive at novel ideas about our current fields, we must venture outside them. This cross-pollination of information is what can ignite the strongest creative spark within us.
The actor Rainn Wilson recommends taking some drastic action to change your surroundings if you're looking for creative inspiration:
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