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December 2021
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By learning new things, our world grows. This can be scary.

Cover image of the book Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami published by Harvill Panther. Photo by the author.

In Haruki Murakami’s book Dance Dance Dance, the main character meets a famous novelist, who observes:

“It didn’t use to be that way. The world was smaller, you could get a handle on things, you knew — or thought you knew — what you were doing.”

Does he talk about the world being smaller in the past from his personal perspective? Or is his observation about the way the world has changed over time, looking at it from a fixed point in time?

Both is true. The world is continuously growing in its complexity, accelerated by the global economy and the internet, which makes it feel like it’s more difficult to get a handle on things. We simultaneously live in our village and the whole world.

But what is more intriguing is that as we — as individuals — gain more knowledge, our personal map of references grows larger. In a bizarre way, gaining more knowledge makes us realise how little we know.

“The older I get, the less I know. It’s wonderful — it makes the world so spacious.” — Swami Chetanananda

The bliss and dangers of operating in a small world

When our world is small, anything seems possible.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons why many startups are founded by people at an early stage of their career. And the world needs people with ideas, whose vision is not yet obscured by all the obstacles that lie ahead.

But a wise startup founder is one that also recognises the limits of their world and hands over the reigns to others when the time is right to bring in new perspectives. Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and many other companies that grew out of startups did this well. Mark Zuckerberg and his advisors at Meta (née Facebook) have to yet come to this insight.

If we keep operating within the small confines of our personal world while running a global business used by billions of people, this can have grave consequences.

When we need to grow our world to make a meaningful contribution

People setting out to do their PhD (to choose an example that I have personal experience with from both sides, having gone through this myself and having supervised many students on this journey), often believe they can change the world. In many cases this is what drives them to do a PhD.

But to make a meaningful contribution, they first need to narrow their scope. To do this, they have to expand their internal representation of the world — mostly by reading previously published literature relating to their topic. In design, this may also involve doing some initial design experimentation.

It is still possible to change the world by doing a PhD, but the change may be more targeted than initially anticipated. We all stand on the shoulders of giants after all; each PhD dissertation contributes a building block to form those giants.

Learning more about a topic area—whether through reading or experimentation—increases our knowledge but it also pushes out the boundaries of our world.

Growing and connecting multiple worlds

Studies of creative innovators (as recounted in books such as Messy and Creative Confidence) highlight the role that networks have played in their success. And this includes both social networks and knowledge networks.

Social networks can help us grow our knowledge network. Famous mathematician Paul Erdős was known to travel the world and sleep on the couch of colleagues, constantly finding new ideas by connecting with others and being exposed to different ways of thinking.

Charles Darwin, too, was a vivid traveller. He also engaged with many topics at once — studying medicine, natural science, geology, and economics — which led him to formulating his revolutionary theory of evolution as he was able to connect knowledge from different domains.


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