How can you maintain original thinking when learning a new field?
July 26, 2016 12:40 PM   Subscribe

When diving into a new field, how can you keep 'thinking outside the box' as you learn the traditional knowledge in a field? As you learn the patterns of thinking that a field promotes, I think it's hard to think outside of those patterns in the future. How do you maintain originality in thinking and avoid paradigm blindness? Some ideas inside.

This phenomenon is known as 'paradigm blindness' or the 'curse of knowledge'. What I'm worried about is how I'll continue to 'think outside the box' even as I learn about the traditional patterns/frameworks of thought in a field. Some ideas I've thought of:

- Writing your thoughts on a field before learning it. This way, you can try to get down some semi-original ideas before diving into the traditional knowledge in a field.

- Deliberately seeking out alternative viewpoints. Maybe this can make you see the limitations of a specific idea or a pattern of thought and come up with something new.

I'm also willing to consider that this isn't something to worry about, e.g. if the chance of coming up with a great idea without traditional knowledge is impractically small.
posted by markbao to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I've found that there's nothing to make me challenge my own assumptions and poke holes in my supposed knowledge of a field like teaching it to someone new. It really exposes your assumptions as you are forced to define your jargon, explain your axioms, and answer their questions, whatever those may be. The best is training an individual or a group firsthand, but even writing out lessons or explanatory materials can force you to think more fully, and sometimes trying to look at it from someone else's eyes can give you a new perspective and new ideas.
posted by spelunkingplato at 12:58 PM on July 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

Oops, I confused your question with maintaining original thinking after you've been in a field for awhile. I guess I'm not quite sure I understand the heart of what you're asking, then. I personally think that as you're learning a new field, you are already original and outside the box, which can be helpful or detrimental to your learning, depending on how you spin it--it's not until you've gotten more established that I would think you would need to worry about being cookie-cutter. Learn the rules before you learn to break them, and all that.
posted by spelunkingplato at 1:04 PM on July 26, 2016

Learn the field in a non-standard way or non-standard order if possible.

Depending on the field start by reading books on the subject from a 25-100 years ago. The questions implied by old texts will probably be different (and maybe unasked) compared to the modern modes of thinking.
posted by gregr at 1:15 PM on July 26, 2016

As you take in knowledge and learn a field, it's easy to think that you're losing your outside perspective, but that's not true. You are processing the things that you're learning and fitting them into a mental structure that you laid down according to the rules of your original field, rather than learning the new field from the ground up in college and creating the structure to put it into as you go.

So how to help you feel that you're maintaining that? Talk to people in the new field about what you're learning. Ask them the "why is that" kind of questions, and you might be surprised that what seems natural for you to ask why about is something they've taken as a given. Draw comparisons between your previous knowledge and the new area - in what ways is thing B you're learning similar to or different from thing A you already know about - and discuss that, too. You're a novice at thing B but an expert in thing A, so talk to someone who's an expert in thing B and maybe they've never heard of thing A, but even if they have, it's likely to be a connection they haven't made before.
posted by aimedwander at 1:15 PM on July 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

Maintain a "weird" hobby, something unusual for people in your field. This has a good track record of fostering cross pollination of ideas.

Writing down your thoughts about the field before you learn it is likely to just be a bunch of ignorant, useless blowhard opinions. But having a hobby or field of interest that imposes different ideas allows you to see things in a new light without it being just hogwash. It allows you two mental models for actual reality, both of which are solid, and this allows you to contemplate one field through the lens of the other and reframe things without it being just pure rubbish.
posted by Michele in California at 1:30 PM on July 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you tend to think outside the box you'll keep doing it. I often get called in to have ideas on other peoples projects. They'll feed me info till I have an idea they haven't thought of them say thanks and send me on my way. Its kind of just your own self, some people are good at math, some at art, I'm good at solving puzzles in weird ways.
posted by fshgrl at 2:01 PM on July 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is going to sound a little strange, but I am much more likely to find a new and quite different approach to a problem I've been working on for a long time in a 5 or 6 hour period after I have been profoundly stirred by listening to music (of any kind).
posted by jamjam at 2:20 PM on July 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

How old are you? Not a mean question, just a recognition that the older you are the less "primed" you are to take up a new paradigm to the degree you're anxious about. I came from a profoundly academic basic-research-never-justifies-itself background, but switched to a career in regulatory policy, in which everything must be justified by some application or greater good. I identify much more with the latter now (it's why I switched fields), but my skillset/mindset is still thoroughly couched in the former. I feel like a translator for people who came up in the latter mindest, even though I'm "one of them" now, because I know the jargon and experiences of the former. Had I been 19 or 20 or somesuch when I made the switch, that might not be the case.

So, tl;dr, if you're older and wiser (as they say) and you're switching gears, this isn't much of a concern. You've imprinted already, and your skills will always be a palimpsest of past experiences.

I say this from a field in the U.S. in which we've had a literal paradigm shift (caused by this literal new paradigm publication in 2007).
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:33 PM on July 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Being an expert in more than one field allows you to recognize when a problem in one field also occurs in another and is approached or solved or treated differently.

A huge amount of great innovation throughout history and the modern world has simply been making that connection, across disparate fields. (See James Burke's "Connections")

To maximize opportunity for original thinking, the fields in which you gain expertise should have little demographic overlap. If you're the first X-expert in Y-field, you're going to be able to see things that no-one previously has been in a position to see.
posted by anonymisc at 5:09 PM on July 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have had this problem. I've moved from industry to industry during my career and each time I have to get up to speed quickly with the basics and the safe assumptions ... Without losing track of the beginners mind I had by definition at the beginning. I have to fight self-consciousness about my newness as well as my genuine lack of knowledge.

However, as I've come to see the similar patterns between small business services and recruiting and real estate and factory automation, I've learned to ask why when things don't fit the patterns I've observed in the past. 25% of the time it's because the specific industry is actually unique, and 75% of the time it's actually something I can dig into. That's up from 50/50 five years ago, too.

Tl; dr: Ask why when something doesn't make sense. Keep asking.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:19 PM on July 26, 2016

It is my experience that if you have a habit of looking at things from a broader perspective that gives you an "outside of the box" approach, you will retain it regardless of your field. I do have a natural analytic tendency that I apply to pretty much everything, so perhaps my experience is not typical.

Also, nthg chesty_a_arthur, "Why" is a great question. I once asked five different people in my workplace how they performed a certain task in our system, and I got five substantially different answers. I also try to get people to separate "what" they are trying to accomplish, versus "how" they currently do it.
posted by Altomentis at 9:13 PM on July 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think, to some extent, that you have to know what the box is before you can reason about operating inside or out of it (and, indeed, which of those approaches is more desirable).

I say this because I'm, myself, pretty susceptible to the idea that I know better. Most of the time, like most people who are not domain experts, I don't. I'm a lot more likely to get there if I keep myself open to the knowledge that's already built up in an area, and try to rein in the assumptions baked into my previous experience. That doesn't mean operating uncritically. It just means keeping your own priors out of the way of learning the facts on the ground until you can draw useful connections to them.
posted by brennen at 5:21 PM on July 27, 2016

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