Friday, January 15, 2016

The Innovator’s Textbooks: by Asimov, Clarke, and Stephensen

Image by Chris Drumm
Becoming good at anything requires not just practice but some form of study.  Luckily, for innovative thinking, the reading list is highly enjoyable and available for free at your local library.  What better way to expand your mind to new possibilities and learn new paradigms to apply to problems than through the creative thinking and exposition of great science fiction writers?

Many of the most important technical innovations in recent history were predicted by science fiction.  These include communications satellites, earbuds, and debit cards to name a few.  It is important to note that just because a novel contains robots and spaceships does not mean that it is true science fiction (in our use of the term).  A good science fiction novel, for our purposes, is a novel that makes one or more hypotheses of the future (eg. energy becomes free, cyberspace becomes more important than real life, robots do all the work).  Then it explores the resulting world that arises from these hypotheses, looking for ground-changing and surprising repercussions (matter replication and the end of money, immortality and suicide, boredom as a cause of extinction and mass welfare).

This mirrors the process of innovative thinking, a hundred times in as many pages.  Reading science fiction is like reading an endless array of entertainingly written case studies.  Each story is full of lessons and provocative thought experiments to learn from.  It is important to note that the paradigms explored in science fiction are not limited to technological predictions.  Many truly impactful works of science fiction explore bits of economics, politics, religion, existential philosophy, and fundamentally what it means to be human.  When I look back at what has shaped my own way of thinking and inspired me to learn and grow, I always come back to the books that filled my childhood and continue to dominate my reading list even today.

“But this is fiction, not fact!” some might object.  True, but we are not trying to learn facts about the world.  We are trying to learn different views on how the world works.  Paradigms are never true or false.  They are all simply models used to view a problem.  Often opposite paradigms exist, and that’s okay.  They can both be true at different times.  The reading of science fiction and the expansion of your library of paradigms is meant to give you tools with which to tackle problems.  Innovation is not about having one correct lens; it is about having millions of lenses through which to look at a problem, and sifting through them to find the right one to use at the right time.

So what are you waiting for?  Get started by browsing the shelves of your local library, or by checking out some top lists and seeing what catches your eye.