In this TED Talk, Author Tim Harford shares how innovators like Einstein, Darwin, and others found their inspiration and productivity through cross-training their minds.
Tim Harford – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT
“To do two things at once is to do neither.”
It’s a great smackdown of multitasking, isn’t it, often attributed to the Roman writer Publilius Syrus, although you know how these things are, he probably never said it.
What I’m interested in, though, is — is it true? I mean, it’s obviously true for emailing at the dinner table or texting while driving or possibly for live tweeting at TED Talk, as well.
But I’d like to argue that for an important kind of activity, doing two things at once — or three or even four — is exactly what we should be aiming for. Look no further than.
Albert Einstein. In 1905, he published four remarkable scientific papers. One of them was on Brownian motion, it provided empirical evidence that atoms exist, and it laid out the basic mathematics behind most of financial economics.
Another one was on the theory of special relativity. Another one was on the photoelectric effect, that’s why solar panels work, it’s a nice one. Gave him the Nobel prize for that one. And the fourth introduced an equation you might have heard of: E equals mc squared.
So, tell me again how you shouldn’t do several things at once.
Now, obviously, working simultaneously on Brownian motion, special relativity and the photoelectric effect — it’s not exactly the same kind of multitasking as Snapchatting while you’re watching “Westworld.” Very different.
And Einstein, yeah, well, Einstein’s — he’s Einstein, he’s one of a kind, he’s unique. But the pattern of behavior that Einstein was demonstrating, that’s not unique at all. It’s very common among highly creative people, both artists and scientists, and I’d like to give it a name: slow-motion multitasking.
Slow-motion multitasking feels like a counterintuitive idea. What I’m describing here is having multiple projects on the go at the same time, and you move backwards and forwards between topics as the mood takes you, or as the situation demands.
But the reason it seems counterintuitive is because we’re used to lapsing into multitasking out of desperation. We’re in a hurry, we want to do everything at once. If we were willing to slow multitasking down, we might find that it works quite brilliantly.
Sixty years ago, a young psychologist by the name of Bernice Eiduson began a long research project into the personalities and the working habits of 40 leading scientists. Einstein was already dead, but four of her subjects won Nobel prizes, including Linus Pauling and Richard Feynman.
The research went on for decades, in fact, it continued even after professor Eiduson herself had died. And one of the questions that it answered was, “How is it that some scientists are able to go on producing important work right through their lives?”
What is it about these people? Is it their personality, is it their skill set, their daily routines, what? Well, a pattern that emerged was clear, and I think to some people surprising.
The top scientists kept changing the subject. They would shift topics repeatedly during their first 100 published research papers. Do you want to guess how often? Three times? Five times? No. On average, the most enduringly creative scientists switched topics 43 times in their first 100 research papers.
Seems that the secret to creativity is multitasking in slow motion. Eiduson’s research suggests we need to reclaim multitasking and remind ourselves how powerful it can be. And she’s not the only person to have found this.
Different researchers, using different methods to study different highly creative people have found that very often they have multiple projects in progress at the same time, and they’re also far more likely than most of us to have serious hobbies.
Slow-motion multitasking among creative people is ubiquitous. So, why? I think there are three reasons.
And the first is the simplest. Creativity often comes when you take an idea from its original context and you move it somewhere else. It’s easier to think outside the box if you spend your time clambering from one box into another. For an example of this, consider the original eureka moment Archimedes — he’s wrestling with a difficult problem. And he realizes, in a flash, he can solve it, using the displacement of water.
And if you believe the story, this idea comes to him as he’s taking a bath, lowering himself in, and he’s watching the water level rise and fall. And if solving a problem while having a bath isn’t multitasking, I don’t know what is.
The second reason that multitasking can work is that learning to do one thing well can often help you do something else. Any athlete can tell you about the benefits of cross-training. It’s possible to cross-train your mind, too.
A few years ago, researchers took 18 randomly chosen medical students and they enrolled them in a course at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where they learned to criticize and analyze works of visual art.
And at the end of the course, these students were compared with a control group of their fellow medical students. And the ones who had taken the art course had become substantially better at performing tasks such as diagnosing diseases of the eye by analyzing photographs. They’d become better eye doctors.
So if we want to become better at what we do, maybe we should spend some time doing something else, even if the two fields appear to be as completely distinct as ophthalmology and the history of art.
And if you’d like an example of this, should we go for a less intimidating example than Einstein? OK Michael Crichton, creator of “Jurassic Park” and “ER.”
So in the 1970s, he originally trained as a doctor, but then he wrote novels and he directed the original “Westworld” movie. But also, and this is less well-known, he also wrote nonfiction books, about art, about medicine, about computer programming.
So in 1995, he enjoyed the fruits of all this variety by penning the world’s most commercially successful book. And the world’s most commercially successful TV series. And the world’s most commercially successful movie. In 1996, he did it all over again.
There’s a third reason why slow-motion multitasking can help us solve problems. It can provide assistance when we’re stuck. This can’t happen in an instant. So, imagine that feeling of working on a crossword puzzle and you can’t figure out the answer, and the reason you can’t is because the wrong answer is stuck in your head. It’s very easy — just go and do something else.
You know, switch topics, switch context, you’ll forget the wrong answer and that gives the right answer space to pop into the front of your mind.
But on the slower timescale that interests me, being stuck is a much more serious thing. You get turned down for funding. Your cell cultures won’t grow, your rockets keep crashing. Nobody wants to publish your fantasy novel about a school for wizards. Or maybe you just can’t find the solution to the problem that you’re working on. And being stuck like that means stasis, stress, possibly even depression.
But if you have another exciting, challenging project to work on, being stuck on one is just an opportunity to do something else. We could all get stuck sometimes, even Albert Einstein. Ten years after the original, miraculous year that I described, Einstein was putting together the pieces of his theory of general relativity, his greatest achievement. And he was exhausted.
And so he turned to an easier problem. He proposed the stimulated emission of radiation. Which, as you may know, is the S in laser. So he’s laying down the theoretical foundation for the laser beam, and then, while he’s doing that, he moves back to general relativity, and he’s refreshed. He sees what the theory implies — that the universe isn’t static.