About cool ideas and backflips

  • Lounge
  • Posted: Fri, Jun 1 2012. 9:30 PM IST

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

Where do cool ideas come from? Every year, the online salon Edge.org poses one question and gets a bunch of smart people to answer it. The 2011 question was: What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?

The answers, compiled as a book with the laughably ambitious title,This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, has 165 contributions from eminent thinkers on subjects too disparate to be memorable: anthropophilia, cognitive humility, haecceity, and other such abstruse concepts. Some themes emerge out of this morass of ideas. One that informs this column is called dualism. Although the word immediately connotes spirituality and philosophy, dualism in this context has little to do with Dvaita or Descartes. Instead, it has its genesis in quantum theory and wave-particle duality.

The recipe: Adopting a new idea is like executing a back flip—trying is the most important aspect. Photo: Thinkstock

The recipe: Adopting a new idea is like executing a back flip—trying is the most important aspect. Photo: Thinkstock

Just as matter is both wave-like and particle-like, why can’t the same idea represent two opposing truths, ask the essayists? Ergo dualism: the notion that one underlying truth can be expressed by two opposite realities. I know. It’s a bit mind-bending, but don’t give up on me. As you will see, dualism comes naturally to us.Indians are adept at holding two contradictory thoughts in their heads every single day. We are a surging economy, yet our streets are filled with beggars. We have the fourth highest number of global dollar-billionaires, yet we fall deep down in the world poverty index. Even commonplace sights on our streets are rife with duality or two realities. Cows stand or sit beside road dividers yet they don’t get run over; the traffic weaves around them. The vendors who sell us fruits, vegetables and coconut water are both crafty and honest; in their own way. Extended families are both a pain and a pleasure, depending on the mood and the moment. Our food is both sweet and sour. Our cities are traffic nightmares and yet, there is little incidence of road rage in most Indian cities.

In this age of specialization, dualism presents a powerful alternative. To hold two contradictory ideas in your head implies a certain comfort with ambiguity, the grey zone. Children have this ability to hold not just two contradictory thoughts, but multiple such thoughts in their heads at the same time. We call it imagination.

Dualism represents a stark contrast to the dichotomy that percolates our cultural conversation these days. Embracing the physicist’s meaning of duality, says writer Amanda Gefter, “could serve as a potent antidote to our typically Boolean, two-valued, zero-sum thinking—where statements are either true or false, answers are yes or no, and if I’m right, then you are wrong. With duality, there’s a third option. Perhaps my argument is right and yours is wrong; perhaps your argument is right and mine is wrong; or, just maybe, our opposing arguments are dual to one another.”

Dualism is not just about quantum theory or world-changing ideas. It works in smaller contexts too. The next time you have an argument with your spouse or partner, maybe you can take the high road by preaching dualism. She may be convinced she is right; and you know you are right. Guess what? You both may be right. That’s dualism. Wrap your head around that concept.

As India grows from a service economy to an entrepreneurial one, I would like to submit that we capitalize on our natural inclination towards dualism and turn it into a potent wellspring for innovative ideas. Jugaad (improvisation) capitalism is well-known. It used to be lauded; it is now viewed pejoratively. Jugaad marries creativity with a tinkering, engineering mindset. As India grows in confidence, dualism can help us jump from this engineering, make-things-better mindset to the realms of true innovation.

What else can constitute a recipe for innovation? A smidgen of fear won’t hurt. Consider back flips. I attempted this in my building’s pool. After watching all the children do this routinely, to the point where they looked like somersaulting jellyfish, I decided to give it a try. It’s harder than you think, particularly if you learn it as an adult. I swim well. But it is one thing to plunge forward into the deep end or dive face first. It is quite another to fall backwards. So I stand at the deep end and listen to a little child yell at me to put my head back and down into the water. I can’t do it. Fear of falling; fear of drowning overcomes all my rational thoughts that I cannot drown in a swimming pool. I throw my head back, attempt a yogic chakrasana pose under water, and flip out. I come out gasping. Why do I persist? I hate this exercise. It is the foolish belief that out of this smidgen of fear will arise an expanse of possibility of what I can do. It is why people run marathons after age 60; or climb Mount Everest without oxygen tanks.

Where do cool ideas come from? Some, like Flipkart, are adapted from ideas that work. Some, like the boys on Chowpatty beach who will spread a mat on the sand and get your chaat order from the crowded stalls nearby, come from spotting a need and addressing it. Some, like the Nano, come from an engineering mindset of tinkering and improving. But true Einsteinian, Jobs-like innovation comes from none of these places. It comes from your solar plexus; from your gut; from your soul. It comes from that frisson of fear and excitement as you stand at the crossroads of an unknown place and realize that every notion you held as dear and true could be overturned in your head through a radical idea that came out of nowhere. That’s when you hug yourself with joy and nervousness. That’s when you call the private equity guys.

Shoba Narayan plans to call the private equity guys when she figures out a way to do back flips without gasping. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Also Read |Shoba’s previous Lounge columns