The paths that lead to new ideas tend to look unpromising

Tuesday, November 26th, 2019

Everyone knows that to do great work you need both natural ability and determination, Paul Graham notes, but there’s a third ingredient that’s not as well understood — an obsessive interest in a particular topic:

When you look at the lives of people who’ve done great work, you see a consistent pattern. They often begin with a bus ticket collector’s obsessive interest in something that would have seemed pointless to most of their contemporaries. One of the most striking features of Darwin’s book about his voyage on the Beagle is the sheer depth of his interest in natural history. His curiosity seems infinite. Ditto for Ramanujan, sitting by the hour working out on his slate what happens to series.

It’s a mistake to think they were “laying the groundwork” for the discoveries they made later. There’s too much intention in that metaphor. Like bus ticket collectors, they were doing it because they liked it.

But there is a difference between Ramanujan and a bus ticket collector. Series matter, and bus tickets don’t.

If I had to put the recipe for genius into one sentence, that might be it: to have a disinterested obsession with something that matters.


The paths that lead to new ideas tend to look unpromising. If they looked promising, other people would already have explored them. How do the people who do great work discover these paths that others overlook? The popular story is that they simply have better vision: because they’re so talented, they see paths that others miss. But if you look at the way great discoveries are made, that’s not what happens. Darwin didn’t pay closer attention to individual species than other people because he saw that this would lead to great discoveries, and they didn’t. He was just really, really interested in such things.


But there are some heuristics you can use to guess whether an obsession might be one that matters. For example, it’s more promising if you’re creating something, rather than just consuming something someone else creates. It’s more promising if something you’re interested in is difficult, especially if it’s more difficult for other people than it is for you. And the obsessions of talented people are more likely to be promising. When talented people become interested in random things, they’re not truly random.

I enjoyed this footnote:

[2] I worried a little about using the word “disinterested,” since some people mistakenly believe it means not interested. But anyone who expects to be a genius will have to know the meaning of such a basic word, so I figure they may as well start now.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    “…something that matters.”

    This is what separates an eccentric and difficult genius from a nerd.

    The difficulty is: unless you know how to tell what matters, you can’t tell a genius from a nerd.

  2. Kirk says:

    And, who is to say what “matters”?

    I’ve no doubt that there are some hidden intricacies and insights to be found in even the most prosaic things; to a degree, it is possible to know the universe through examination of the minutiae that underlie everything around us. Bus tickets may seem to be ineffably prosaic, but how certain can you be of that fact…?

    I don’t think that the issue is the question of what “matters”, but the question of recognition of the significance of things. Lots of people walk right by the evidence of something new, especially in science, but it takes either a genius or a new insight to recognize the real significance of things. How many researchers go along, looking for something, and dismissively ignore anything that doesn’t conform to their idea of what they’re looking for?

    Reality is not conducive to rigid preconceptions; you have to be loose, flowing, adaptive–Move and think like water, not stone. You cannot move the universe to conform to your prejudiced and preconceived notions of what the nature of things really are.The key insight is that you have to be observant and mindful of the actual implications of what you’re observing.

  3. Graham says:

    Yes. I suggest the two ends of this thought are somewhat unified by the observation that “what matters” is often, largely, or even exclusively determined after the fact.

  4. Harry Jones says:

    What mattered can only be known for certain after the fact.

    What’s likely to matter can be judged in advance. Someone who obsessively collects dryer lint is not a promising candidate for future greatness. It’s entirely possible that a cure for cancer can be found in dryer lint, but that’s not the way to bet.

    Anyway, so long as he’s not a danger to others and isn’t creating a fire hazard and isn’t a drain on the welfare system, let him collect his lint.

  5. Lucklucky says:

    So remembering some former topics, what made Europe advance like no other civilization was the capability of some of their citizens to be “obsessed” to the some of the right things <– i am always wondering what technologies could have appeared earlier like steam engine.

  6. Kirk says:

    Hiero of Alexandria demonstrated the ideas behind the steam turbine nearly two thousand years ago. The device was called an aeolipile, and like most of his inventions, was used mostly as a novelty toy to dress up religious ceremonies.

    This demonstrates my basic point from above–You can have the demonstration of principle before you, but if you cannot comprehend the potential uses of it, that means nothing at all. How many times did someone walk past oil seeping from the ground, before they thought to use it as fuel? How many times did someone dig up coal, and completely ignore the potential for it to be used as fuel…?

    You have to be cognizant of the potential, and be observant enough to connect what you observe with what you could do. I would wager that there were dozens of people who saw what effect penicillium mold had on things around it, but who did not connect the lack of bacterial life with anything useful. If I remember rightly, Fleming had several encounters with it “contaminating” his test agar Petri dishes before the significance of what it was doing registered with him. No doubt similar things happened to dozens of other researchers who subsequently discarded their work, failing to recognize what they were observing.

    The critical thing is the insight connecting the observation with the understanding and use. If you look at something, and fail to see the significance, then you’ll miss what you might do with it entirely. This is true of everything in life.

  7. Harry Jones says:

    This suggests some useful obsessions:

    1. An obsession with knowing how things work.

    2. An obsession with knowing why things work the way they do.

    3. An obsession with finding uses for things.

    The Law of Attraction is mainly true in a negative sense: it’s hard to find something if you’re not looking for it. Even if it’s right in front of you, you won’t see it if you’re not looking for it. Too much visual clutter everywhere.

    Collecting stuff has always seemed pointless to me. Building stuff has always seemed much more worthwhile. The only thing I deem worth collecting is information. Information tends to be useful in unpredictable ways. Train tickets aren’t much use at all in the US. The only conceivable use is to ride a train, and AMTRAK is not worth it.

  8. Bert says:

    Not a collector myself, but there’s a case for collecting: ordering, systematising, comparing, and just preserving specimens for future generations.

    Here’s a semi-serious example of the usefulness of collectors. An “OOT” artefact was found somewhere in the US. It was obviously man-made, but couldn’t be placed. Hence speculations about ancient technology, forgotten civilisations, etc. An organisation of spark plug collectors (yes, they exist) recognised it for a broken spark plug of a type made in the 1920s. Thus one path of useless speculation was cut short by (not quite) useless collectors.

  9. Lucklucky says:

    Yes, cognizance of potential does not appear from the aether. ;-) Like Harry Jones says, it needs experimentalism, and like you say, only after several times with Fleming and penicillin did he question what had happened.

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