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Failure? Maybe it’s a good thing

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Evidence is mounting that seeing things as an outsider has advantages.

When you’re on the outside looking in, you’re more likely to notice failures and anomalies. Sociologists long have wondered whether Albert Einstein, if he’d become a physics professor on the tenure track instead of a lowly patent clerk, would ever have noticed the anomalies that led him to develop the theory of relativity.

Some philosophers argue that the only scientists who can see irregularities and start revolutions are very young or very inexperienced.

Another example: Two science labs were working on the same problem. One was an E. coli group, tightly focused and very methodical. They slowly worked through various fixes and eventually solved the problem but chewed up a lot of time.

The other group came from diverse research backgrounds and no expertise in the subject. Because they all were outsiders, they began a wide-ranging search for solutions. To express themselves, the diverse group relied on metaphors and analogies. Ten more minutes and they solved the problem. They made it look easy.

This is why two heads are better than one, why screwing up one thing can help solve another thing, and why a radically different point of view can shock us out of our mental boxes.

“I saw it all the time,” one researcher says. “A scientist would describe his approach, and then he’d get this quizzical look. It was like he’d finally understood what was important.”

The best example yet comes from two scientists who inadvertently proved the big bang theory. Their radio telescope kept getting a constant loud static they couldn’t explain and tried to ignore. It was a humongous failure. That is, until an outside scientist realized they were listening to noise left over from the beginning of the universe. Their failure was the solution to a different problem, and earned them a Nobel Prize.

— Adapted from “Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up,” Jonah Lehrer, Wired.

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