The power of 'weak ties'

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by: John Caddell

"Smart World," a fascinating new book by Richard Ogle, paints a carefully-wrought, exhaustive picture of how creative breakthroughs happen. The persistent myth of the solo inventor, toiling alone in her workshop, is forcefully put to rest. In vibrant examples such as Crick's and Watson's discovery of the structure of DNA, to Gutenberg's invention of movable-type printing, to architect Frank Gehry's reinvention of modern architecture via the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Ogle makes the case that true breakthroughs come from immersing oneself in the ideas of the day, drawing inspiration from fields near and far, and synthesizing something new from these.

One area Ogle focuses on is the value of so-called "weak ties." In the same way that your most-distant connections can be the best source of a new job, given that their distance connects you to many you couldn't otherwise reach, so weak ties in the invention network serve as a potent energizer to creators. Writes Ogle about the invention of cubism by Picasso and Braque in the first decade of the twentieth century:

Cubism broke with a five-century-old tradition of figurative art by reaching out to a science [physics, where the theory of relativity was just gaining adherents] that was becoming radically more abstract and geometric, and in the process overturning our commonsense view of the world. This move created a weak tie that connected art with a whole domain of thought that was far removed from it…. Connecting to the hotspot of early-twentieth-century physics and the focus on abstract geometric form that it triggered released an avalanche of new ideas that spontaneously multiplied and are still playing themselves out. ("Smart World," p. 135)

What he means is: new ideas in one area + creative people searching for innovation in a distant one create the potential for a weak tie. Once the tie is made, the creators draw inspiration or analogies from the new area into their area of expertise. The stage is set, then, for breakthrough creativity.
And think about this. Most ideas that have changed the world were labeled crazy or heretical at one stage. So when people who hear your ideas shake their heads, dismiss you or say you're reaching too far, they may be right.
Or you may be onto something.