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Thinking Continuously: how adopting Isaac Newton’s approach would improve your business

February 11, 2013

One of my clients last week acclaimed me as a genius with numbers, as I’d prepared a complex cashflow model that gave him every permutation imaginable on product unit sales and prices for his business forecasts. I smiled and replied that the accolade of ‘a genius with numbers’ belonged to one man – Isaac Newton – who had always been someone I revered. Maths is like love – a simple idea but it can get complicated, and some of Newton’s thinking was undoubtedly the mark of a genius, in the language of mathematics.

It has been said that the main difference between a genius and an ordinary man, is only that a genius knows how to think, rather than what to think. Often the word genius is accompanied by words like creativity, or maybe it is their IQ, or some combination of the two that sets them apart from the rest.

Maybe there is more. Geniuses look for entirely new concepts and believe that anything is possible. It is this belief that leads them to approach problems in different ways – often a genius will see connections and patterns where the majority of people don’t. So what makes a genius? Let’s look at Isaac Newton to see if we can identify some traits, and how we can learn from them to enhance our own thinking styles.

Isaac Newton experienced a difficult and lonely childhood. His father, a farmer, died three months before he was born on Christmas Day 1642 at Woolsthorpe in Lincolnshire, and when he was two years old, his mother, Hannah, moved away to remarry, leaving Isaac to be brought up by his grandmother for eight years.

He was a thinker from a young age, making a working windmill driven by mice running around a treadmill aged eight. After Grammar School, his prodigious academic talent was recognised and in 1661 he went to Trinity College Cambridge.

Having dabbled in the study of alchemy, combining ‘the magical and the mechanical’, the first sign of his unique thinking style, by the end of 1666 he became the first to describe techniques for differential calculus, using his own definitions of ‘fluxions’. It was during this period too, when prompted by a falling apple, he compared the attraction exerted by the Earth at its surface with that required to keep the Moon in orbit, and the concept of ‘the universal law of gravity’ was born.

Not content with this, Newton then went on to conduct a series of brilliant experiments and he was the first to discover the true properties of white light, that it was composed of more basic rays, each of which had its own colour – the spectrum.

As a result of his endeavours, Newton was made a Fellow of Trinity College in 1667, but his academic career was only just beginning. Over the next few years he refined his mathematical research. Newton’s published his masterwork Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica in 1687, known as Principia. In this work, Newton stated the three universal laws of motion.

Principia is undoubtedly one of the books that changed the world. However, it’s a modest volume, about 6 by 8 inches, weighs about three pounds and consists of 512 pages written in Latin filled with mathematical problems, calculations and diagrams. Newton’s work was quickly recognised as that of a genius, and in 1703 he received the ultimate accolade in British science by being elected president of the Royal Society. He was knighted two years later.

Newton was a difficult man, working in solitude, prone to depression and often involved in bitter arguments with other scientists, but by the early 1700s he was the dominant figure in British and European science. He died on 31 March 1727 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Newton towered intellectually above his contemporaries as no other since – Einstein had his picture on his office wall – writing his own epic of scientific discoveries and contribution to mathematical thinking. Newton himself had been rather more modest of his own achievements, famously writing in a letter to Robert Hooke in February 1676: If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Newton himself often told the story that he was inspired to formulate his theory of gravitation by watching the fall of an apple from a tree.Although he did not arrive at his theory of gravity in any single moment,watching the falling apple was his eureka moment – though not the cartoon version that the apple actually hit Newton’s head. It’s an enduring image, and following a period working in orchards in Oregon during his vagabond years, Steve Jobs named his company ‘Apple’ and the original logo was that of Newton sat under an apple tree.

So, how do geniuses come up with ideas, and generate alternatives and conjectures? Why are so many of their ideas so rich and varied? How do they produce the variations that lead to the original and novel? By studying the notebooks, correspondence, conversations and ideas of Newton, researchers have teased out particular common thinking strategies and styles of thought that enabled him to generate a prodigious variety of novel and original ideas. The following are thumbnail descriptions of strategies that are perceived in Newton’s thinking.

Newton looked at problems in many different ways. Genius often comes from finding a new perspective that no one else has spotted. Newton believed that to find a solution to a problem, you begin by learning how to restructure it in many different ways. With each move, his understanding would deepen and he would begin to understand the essence of the problem.

Newton used pictures to share his thinking. The explosion of thinking in the Newton was intimately tied to the recording and conveying of a vast knowledge in drawings, graphs and diagrams, also seen in the renowned diagrams of da Vinci and Galileo.

Newton was productive. A distinguishing characteristic of genius is immense productivity. Thomas Edison held 1,093 patents. He guaranteed productivity by giving himself idea quotas. His own personal quota was one minor invention every 10 days and a major invention every six months. Newton too was a prodigiously novel and disruptive thinker. In his yearning for Theory of Everything he sometimes worked 18 or 20 hours a day. This gargantuan capacity for work he continued for a quarter of a century when in his prime.

Newton made novel connections. Like a child playing with Lego, a genius is constantly combining and recombining ideas, images and thoughts into different combinations in their conscious and subconscious minds. Newton’s falling apple moment enabled him to combine differing concepts in a novel way, and as a result he was able to look at the same world as everyone else and see something different. Leonardo da Vinci forced a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water. This enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves.

Newton thought in contradictions. Geniuses think different thoughts because they tolerate ambivalence between opposites or two incompatible subjects. Because Newton could tolerate juxtapositions and variations, he was open to novel and ambiguous stimuli, and could see the hidden relationships that led to his spontaneous breakthroughs.

Newton made bets. Newton’s process was trial and error, a journey down many dead-ends that eventually gave him a solution. It is not luck, but creative insight of the highest order. Newton’s diaries show he often noted things as ‘interesting’ and wondered if it had potential. This curiosity of an unrestrained search for ideas led to his hypotheses or bets, which he would explore and ultimately prove.

The Science of Genius by Dean Keith Simonton provides some striking quotations to support this analysis of Newton’s thinking styles, such as John Dryden on beginning to write a play when it was only a confused mass of thoughts, tumbling over one another in the dark or Poincaré: Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making stable combinations.

The mind of a genius is capable of generating large numbers of variations, and their output is not under control. Simonton recounts some substantial statistical work showing that with genius, past performance is no guarantee of future returns: a year of rich production by an artist or composer may be followed by an artistic drought, and there’s no way to tell what’s coming next. Still, if this is something like luck, it’s the fate of creative geniuses that they tend to have an awful lot of it.

Recognising these thinking strategies of Newton and applying them will make you more creative in your work and personal life. Newton ‘knew how to think’, so adopt some of his ways to improve your own thinking – it will work. Sociologist Harriet Zuckerman published an interesting study of Nobel Prize winners. She discovered that six of Enrico Fermi’s students won the prize. Ernst Lawrence and Niels Bohr each had four, whilst J. Thompson and Ernest Rutherford between them trained seventeen Nobel laureates. It is obvious that these Nobel laureates were not only geniuses in their own right, but were also able to teach others how to think like one too.

Yet for all their creative energy, they don’t always make the best employees, colleagues or leaders. They are notoriously prickly people, they don’t suffer fools gladly and they can be fiercely individualistic and often are not team players. Moreover, the inner lives of geniuses can be surprisingly fragile. They frequently act with flamboyance but inside, they can be deeply vulnerable. Steve Jobs had these traits, and it’s poignant that the father of modern computing, Alan Turing, committed suicide eating a cyanide tablet from an apple.

Despite these obstacles, working with and managing genius is precisely what companies must learn to do to harness their original thinking and gain competitive advantage. They go the extra mile to make the unique breakthroughs. Einstein was once asked what the difference was between him and the average person. He said, if you asked the average person to find a needle in the haystack, the person would stop when he or she found a needle. Me, on the other hand, I would tear through the entire haystack looking for all the possible needles. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. He was a restless thinker.

So embrace the thinking of Newton in your every day habits and approach to work, and you’ll unearth new ideas to take your business forward. Give yourself 10% of the working week – that’s just one afternoon or morning – to thinking. Newton made the most telling remark on the process of thought that I have ever encountered. It is also the simplest. When asked how he had come upon his theory of gravity, he said, By thinking on it continuously.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Paul Marioni permalink
    February 11, 2013 2:03 pm

    Great article Ian, enjoayable reading as usua and always thought provoking, practical too

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