Lateral thinking: The reason you’ve heard of Nintendo and Marvel

Here's why generalists triumph over specialists in the new era of innovation.

DAVID EPSTEIN: One of the researchers I spoke with was himself an innovator and was picked by R&D Magazine as the Innovator of the Year. But he also studied innovation. And what he found in studying patent databases is maybe a change in the importance of specialists and generalists over time. And he defined this by looking at people's work histories.

So, creators who are very specialized did all their work in one or a small number of areas of technology as classified by the US Patent and Trademark Office. Creators who were more broad spread their work across a large number of technology classes, sometimes merging many into one project. And since about the 1990s, the explosion of the knowledge economy, what he found was that these more generalist inventors, or sometimes they were even polymaths with some depth and breadth, were making larger and larger and more and more important contributions whereas the specialists, who were still very important, were often making less impactful contributions.

And he thinks that this is part of the rise of rapid communication technologies, that the information created in many cases by specialists is so rapidly and thoroughly disseminated that there are many more opportunities than ever before to invent something new by taking things that aren't new and combining them in new ways. And one of my favorite examples of this is a Japanese man by the name of Gunpei Yokoi, who didn't score well in his electronics exams so he had to settle for a job in Kyoto as a machine maintenance worker at a playing card factory while a lot of his peers went off to big companies in Tokyo.

He realized that he wasn't equipped to work at the cutting edge, but that so much information was easily available that specialists were overlooking that he could just combine older and well understood technologies in ways that specialists couldn't see because they didn't have a broad enough view. In doing that, he started a toy and game operation at that playing card company -- that playing card company is called Nintendo -- and he continued combining old technologies for his magnum opus, the Game Boy. All of the technology was long out of date by the time it appeared and yet it became the best-selling video game console of the 20th century.

Yokoi called his creative philosophy 'lateral thinking with withered technology'. What he meant by lateral thinking was taking information from one area that may not be new, but just bringing it somewhere else where suddenly it's new to that area, combining technologies in ways that other people hadn't. By withered technology, he meant this older, well understood, often cheaper technology so he didn't have to worry about competing at the cutting edge.

And that's a nice story, but I think it also fits with multiple studies of patent research that show in many cases the biggest impacts come not from the people who drilled the deepest into a technological class, but those who spread their work across a large number of technological classes. And incidentally, there are analogous findings in other industries. In a really interesting study of comic book creators, researchers guessed at what would make comic book creators make commercially valuable comics, and also what would make them more likely to make a blockbuster comic. And it was a great study because they could track the value of comic books both up and down, it didn't suffer from the survivor bias that a lot of studies of excellence do. And they posited pretty intuitively that the resources of a publisher would make a creator better, or their years of experience would, or the number of comics they'd made previously. And they were wrong, wrong, and wrong. The most important factor was the number of different genres that a creator had worked in. The genres ranged from comedy, and crime, to fantasy, adult, horror, non-fiction.

And it was true that you could make a team and combine teams of genre specialists to get some of that diversity. But that was actually pretty limited. So if you had an individual who'd worked in two genres, you were better off having a team of three who had worked in one genre each. But after four genres, then an individual who had worked in more than four genres did better than a team who had the same genre experienced by platoon. So you could not re-create the diverse experience of an individual entirely with a team of specialists.

So these researchers named their paper 'Superman or the Fantastic Four'. They said, if you can find a Superman who has worked in a very diverse array of genres, do it. And if not, then create a fantastic team with diverse genre experience by platoon.

  • Since the explosion of the knowledge economy in the 1990s, generalist inventors have been making larger and more important contributions than specialists.
  • One theory is that the rise of rapid communication technologies allowed the information created by specialists to be rapidly disseminated, meaning generalists can combine information across disciplines to invent something new.
  • Here, David Epstein explains how Nintendo's Game Boy was a case of "lateral thinking with withered technology." He also relays the findings of a fascinating study that found the common factor of success among comic book authors.

Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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