How Do You Make A Contribution To A Field?

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Tuesday, 6.43pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I was absolutely a non-starter at games. My report for rugby said, ‘Nigel’s chief contribution is his presence on the field.’ I used to pray for rain and sometimes it did rain – and we played anyway. – Nigel Rees

If you’re considering going into a programme of deeper study, something like a doctoral programme, how should you think about the problems facing you – about what it is that you’re going to start learning about and discovering? What is it that you’re going to have to do?

The first thing to think about is how others have approaches the problem before you. There is a tendency for marketers and promoters to try and build a story around something – to create a narrative that something is “unique”. Most things are not unique. The majority of thoughts people have are badly told rehashed versions of thoughts that were first originated centuries ago. Think about it for a second – how many things do you think you know that you came up with yourself? What do you know that you discovered for the first time?

What is more often the case is that someone comes across an idea and then repackages it with a small difference in order to lay a claim on it. Take mind maps, for example. They’ve been around since the third century but they were made popular by Tony Buzan who went on to trademark the words “Mind Map” and then attempt to control how it was used. This is often the end result of such approaches and techniques – an attempt to create something of value that can be protected and monetised using one of the instruments of intellectual property.

The problem with this, of course, is that a “rose by any other name would smell as sweet” unless you were forbidden to smell it at all. Trying to pretend that something is new by changing its name or some small part of it is not really a contribution to human knowledge. If anything, it’s a waste of time – even if it makes you money.

The starting point has to be, then, to look at what people have done before and pull the various strands together in a way that makes sense. Fortunately we live in a world that has Wikipedia and the contributors there do much of the work for us. If you read the entry on Mind Maps you get much of the associated history.

It’s perhaps a little harder when you get into fields that aren’t as well known. For example, I recently learned of the Macy conferences that aimed to “set the foundations for a general science of the workings of the human mind” between 1941 and 1960. There is much work in this space, from theories based on observable behaviour to what we’ve learned from scanning brains more recently. What we have an opportunity to work in is understanding human beings from the inside-out and outside-in – from having rich conversations to looking at MRIs. And this leads to some very interesting concepts.

Try this. Draw a squiggle – just a few lines. Something like this.

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Then add two ears at the top – something like this.

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Now, doesn’t it almost instantly transform into an animal for you? Can’t you see the fox or cheetah or whatever else in your drawing? This ability to spot something in a line by picking out a pattern is something that’s part of our visual biology. And it’s fascinating.

Anyway, I suppose when you enter into a field you always feel like what’s been done before was done by giants – what is possibly there that you could contribute? But knowledge is built on insight after insight. Not on regurgitated marketing but patient and consistent work.

If you want to do something useful then you have to start by showing up.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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