Rediscovering Discovery

Most of us have some familiarity with a sense of being engaged in the act of discovery.  We may not consciously think of it using this word but it might happen when we have a unique idea about a situation or are applying a new solution to a problem.  Different people’s attitudes vary in the extent to which they value this “discovery”. On one end, some think of the world as having nearly endless opportunities for the discovery of all kinds, given their own initiative and intent.  It is this that gets children genuinely excited about school, for instance. On the other end, some see the world as a place where one lives inside of a fixed system. In this view, the only role you play is one where you just live inside of what’s already been created by others and there is no room for the individual to play in discovery. While this dichotomy is an oversimplification, I think it is representative of how different people approach life. It appears to me that, in today’s world, the latter view of the world (as one with little room for discovery) is far more prominent than is healthy for anything, whether that be individuals, communities, societies, or humanity, at large.

Many insightful minds through history have touched on this issue of, let’s call it, discovery. Steve Jobs, one whose life has, in many respects, been profoundly characterized by “discovery”, made an insightful remark about how people view the world.  He said that most people view the world as, “the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much.”  He then spoke of a different attitude where one is looking for something ‘more’ to life. He said, “there’s something going on here in life beyond just what you see every day…beyond just a job, a family, and two cars in a garage, a career…a lot of people have set off throughout history to find out what that was.”

While this is an abstract idea, many people know what this is about even if it’s tricky to explain with normal standards of tractability. Steve Jobs associated this with artists, certain scientists, people like Thoreau, etc.  One might also associate it with highly-creative entrepreneurs. But one experiences it whenever they feel an enormous rush of some kind of insight and a profound sense of wonder and beauty in the world.  Though no one can experience this all the time, you would hope that we don’t develop habits of thinking and living that cut off the possibility for us to experience this.  However, it seems that as most people go through life, this kind of insight becomes a smaller and smaller part of life, as we ignore ourselves to adapt to the expectations of others.  Does this have to do with some cultural norms or an attitude that people adopt as they become adults?  Interestingly, it is not the case for everyone. Frank Lloyd Wright did some of his best and most influential work as an old man. Steve Jobs greatest breakthroughs were in his 40s.  Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod at the age of 44.


There seem to be two main factors that limit the prospect for “discovery” and may have to do with why that kind of breakthrough insight, described above, becomes less common as people get older. One is the mindset issue, described above. People are often taught to have a mindset in which the world is a fixed place, where your job is not to play a role in discovery but just to help keep the status quo of human institutions and affairs in motion. This is, in part, why people are told everyday not  to follow their passions and be “realistic”.

Additionally, to live a life filled with the pursuit of discovery, you need to have an independent mind and the willingness and ability to take risks.  If you’re told that your role in life is to pursue things your environment requires but do not come from your spontaneous initiative, then society is limited by the prospect for discovery. Take, for instance, an individual that is born into a nationalistic, collectivist society.  Your job is to do things for the glory of your nation. You have to do what your nation requires of you. What you think is important for your nation (or whatever else you value; humanity, your community, yourself) is utterly irrelevant.  It is the others who decide for you what is important for you to focus on. There is no discovery in this kind of a system in which you are a cog in a machine. Discovery involves the individual deciding what avenue to go down. When you have cogs and a machine, the machine has no interest in this.  This machine, as it were, has no interest in taking on these risks. A scientific experiment could disprove a hypothesis. An entrepreneurial venture could fail and lose investors’ money. A groundbreaking piece of artwork could find no audience and merely offend people.

The Culture of Instruction-Seeking

The second issue that limits the prospect for discovery is the tendency to always seek instructions outside of oneself. Nowadays, most people seem quick to seek instructions for everything.  At the slightest moment of doubt, confusion, and uncertainty, people seek outside instructions.  There is the age of the Buzzfeed listicle. Anything you want to achieve in life, there are multiple listicles for.  It is an age where one of the most common pieces of advice from self-help gurus is “If you want achieve a particular goal, it is best to imitate those that have already achieved it”.  There is a surfeit of classes, seminars, webinars, and “masterclasses” for everything. And people seem to be going along with this without questioning it very much. If an expert tells them, “to be successful, you must come off as confident”, then the next thing they do is to try to contrive confidence and watch Youtube videos about how to be (or look) more confident.  There are countless people offering “the 7 proven steps” on any desirable, challenging thing.

But this culture of impetuous instruction-seeking is a barrier to discovery in a number of ways.  The instructions tell you what’s important and what to do – discovery requires you to do most of that thinking yourself. In effect, many of these “resources” suggest that you attempt to make an original contribution to the world by imitating the past successes of another individual.  How much sense does that make?

I’m certainly not saying that others’ expertise is always useless. Of course it isn’t. But you need to be willing to carve your own path if you want to do new things in the world and make an original contribution.  And I suspect far more people want to do that than are doing so. However, the 21st century humans’ reliance on outside instructions makes this hard.  This instruction-seeking impulse is even the case with things for which instructions aren’t so applicable at all. For example, in a second, you can pull off dozens of listicles and easy-reads about how to be “more creative”.  I would suspect these exist more to give people a nice feeling rather than provide very much instructional value. This kind of content caters to the vast population suffering from a self-reliance deficit.

If you actually think that all things can be boiled down to some tried-and-true instructions and there’s nothing for you to contribute, then there’s nothing to be discovered. Of course, there’s also no use in reinventing the wheel.  So discovery then comes down to how one uses instructions. Are they used as supplement to one’s own work or are they viewed as all that is necessary?

Discovery and Individual Fulfillment

These issues are concerning because, it seems to me, the world is a better place when people care about discovery and originality. Moreover, the world needs this, even by the most conventional standards: innovation is a critical part of economic growth.

In practice, this “discovery” thing can look like any number of different things.  It could look like a scientist making a breakthrough discovery. It could look like a poet or artist bringing profound beauty to people’s lives. It could be an entrepreneur making useful, practical connections between certain markets and technologies in a way that has never been done before.  But it’s not just big life-changing things. We can value this in the smallest and most personal ways too. We’ve all (hopefully) met those people whose vibrance and insight had a profound impact on us. They may not be transforming industries and activating Copernican revolutions, but you wouldn’t diminish their prowess for a second.  Anyone can have this mindset that makes life with insight and discovery possible.  But it’s really determined by a very fundamental approach and questions that one asks themself.  To what extent do you value insight and discovery? How could this look in your life and decisions?