I’ve been watching James Burke’s “Connections” series on YouTube, and it’s caused me to consider the possibility that for a good part of my life I may have been pursuing counterproductive strategies.
I like to go off on my own, study a problem, and beetle away on solving it. Rewatching “Connections” has reminded me that an awful lot of significant stuff was created not by doing this, or at least not only by doing this, but by bringing together disparate pieces that other people had developed in a novel way.
To play that game, you need to know what other people are working on. The difficulty is that what you need to know will not be obvious; novel integrations, almost by definition, will involve pieces that don’t seem to be related and that a normal course of study wouldn’t uncover.
This means that breadth of knowledge can be more important than depth. In fact, since one’s attention is limited, there is a tradeoff between expertise and integration; one must look at many things in which one is not an expert in order to find the few which may be handy.
This is where other people can be very useful; discussions with those who have very different expertise from yours may turn up tools or techniques that you would not have discovered or appreciated on your own. As Senor Ferrari would put it: “In this world, today, isolationism is no longer a practical policy.”
Postscript: Burke in general, and the Connections schtick in particular, can be a matter of taste. However, I defy you, as a simple matter of showmanship and TV craftsmanship, not to be impressed by the bit which begins at 8:35 of this clip: That’s a live shot, not rear-projection, and for obvious reasons there could be only one take.