The year was 1928. A scientist walked into his laboratory in London after a two-week vacation with his family.
He looked around at the cluttered benches with numerous glassware of different sizes and bottles of chemicals.
His attention wandered off to a stack of plates sitting in the corner in a sink.
He suddenly remembered his culture plates and reached over to look at them.
One of his plates was contaminated with mold.
This is not very unusual and most scientists would just toss the plate away shaking their heads in disappointment. But that did not happen on that fateful day.
In a brief pause of reflective thought, the scientist could not believe his eyes.
The scientist was Sir Alexander Fleming and the contaminating mold was a fungus called penicillin.
And the rest of the story is history since that was the fateful day when antibiotics were discovered accidentally by a brilliant scientist and saved the lives of millions of humans.
Stories such as these abound in science and delight readers and capture their imagination. But is there a common thread of wisdom that we can learn from science?
I outline some of major life lessons that that I learned after working for a long time in a laboratory setting and engaging with science research up, close and personal.
1. You need to ask the right questions
And yes, there are no silly questions.
The quality and depth of your answers are a reflection of the questions that you ask. Great answers are revealed only after very specific and relevant questions are asked.
Sometime even the most basic questions may reveal the most profound revelations. When something appears very simple, you wonder if it is too good to be true. The thinking brain loves a complex challenge and when confronted with the utter simplicity of a solution, you may pass it by.
In a recent interview with Forbes magazine, Sir Richard Branson, entrepreneur extraordinaire said: “If something can’t be explained off the back of an envelope, it’s rubbish.” In science, the equivalent would be a small paper napkin that you grab to jot down the new ideas before they escape into the ether.
This advice is applicable directly to your life. Whenever you are tempted to make things too complicated, ask yourself if you can fit the idea and explain it on the back of an envelope. In my opinion, if you cannot explain your message to a seven year old or to your grandmother, it may be too complex.
Reframe and refine your questions to get to the heart of the matter. Scientists usually have weekly or bi-weekly meetings and also informal hallway chats where they are able to refine the questions that they are asking.
And there is an unwritten rule in science that there are no silly questions. Every idea and every question counts. Become curious as a child and ask simple questions to clarify your life experience.
2. Asking “why” is more important than asking “what” and “how”
One of the most profound lessons from science is the repeated asking of the question “why” to clarify the purpose of an experiment. The mechanics of how things work and what they do are very interesting parts of the puzzle.
However, the “why” connects you to the real purpose of your experiment. If you can fuel your life with a purpose driven “why”, your journey becomes meaningful and inspiring.
If you become very clear about why something happens or why you perform a particular experiment, the ways you can approach the problem become clear. Similarly in life, excavating the real reasons why you want to do something allows you to be very clear about what to accomplish.
In his TED talk, speaker Simon Sinek presents us with the golden circle theory where the center circle represents “why.” He argues that great companies begin with the question “why” and radiate outwards to “how and what.”
In my opinion, this causes a strong central message across to resonate across the company and reach the customers.
3. Engagement, trial and error, and forming alternate hypotheses can solve most problems
Engagement with a problem is key. It is the willingness to go the extra mile to solve the problem. When you form alternate hypotheses for scenarios that do not work out, you are directed towards the best possible outcome.
In the classic 1964 review paper titled Strong Inference (download the article here), Dr. John Platt argues that forming and testing alternate hypotheses and excluding the ones that do not work and recycling this method can bring forth a rapid solution of a problem.
He explains this as being similar to climbing a tree where you might be confronted to make a decision to choose which branch to climb.
Try this out in your life. Form several alternate hypotheses or possible outcomes to your problem and begin experimenting as if each of those hypotheses is a solution.
Exclude the ones that do not work and move on to the next hypothesis. Repeat this process and you can quickly assess what works for your situation and focus on that exclusively. Most people do not experiment and test out alternatives and as a consequence remain stuck in their comfort zone.
4. You are only as good as your tools allow you to be
The early microbe hunters did not find viruses that were too small to be viewed with the microscopes they put together. No matter how good the scientist is, if the tools do not allow a resolution of the problem, there will be aspects that they will miss out on.
In life, if your tools do not allow you to do your genius work, you need to upgrade. Ask people who are masters in the field about how they conduct their business. In order to excel, you will need skill and the right tools.
5. Synthesis and value generation
Science teaches you that you have to be good at collecting eclectic information, putting it together and making it relevant for the goal.
You will need to read and understand a lot of work that has been done previously and apply those ideas in creatively novel and meaningful ways to synthesize something wonderfully new and different.
Gathering knowledge is a great beginning but the other important part of the puzzle of creativity and life is the ability to synthesize meaning and value out of your knowledge. You will need to apply the knowledge and understanding you have gathered over the years in a meaningful framework to generate value to others.
6. Attention to detail is important
This is immediately observable and testable in a scientific setting. The moment you allow the small details to slip away, the experiment just stops working. When you troubleshoot and address the tiny details, the experiment miraculously starts working again.
In an interview with entrepreneur magazine, Sir Richard Branson mentioned that little details do matter and can also give you an edge in your small business. You can see this at play in your life.
Have you ever been to a restaurant where the food was great but you will probably not go back because some small but important detail was amiss such as the service was slow and inattentive or that you got a dirty menu?
7. Don’t miss the forest for the trees
The big picture is also important and getting caught up in tiny details may make you forget why you are doing it for the first place. It is very beneficial in a scientific setting to look at the big picture frequently so that you do not get lost in the maze of little details.
When you analyze the data of your life, keep in mind the forest AND the trees.
Keep your sight on the future big picture while engaging and biting small meaningful chunks in the present.
8. Trust the process
Sometimes after several days of experiments, you may not have any productive results to show or share. You may take one step forward and then slip two steps backwards.
This is very unsettling for newcomers in science, but the takeaway here is that the process itself might take more time.
The realization that after planting a seed, you need to nurture it and wait for some time before you can harvest the fruit is the key lesson here. Once you set the ball in motion, you need to fuel the movement by the power of your belief.
9. Failure is essential for success
In science research the formula is: Failure = Just another hypothesis ruled out + Valuable information showing how not to do something
Train yourself to treat failure as an experiment and welcome it! Most famous scientists have failed many times before they could make any significant discoveries. Edison is famously known to have failed repeatedly in his attempt to make a workable prototype and to commercialize the electric bulb. But he did not give up on his dream.
Remember that failure is a muscle waiting to be flexed. Being all right in the repeated face of failure and still improvising and moving ahead comes from repeated experience. You have to train yourself to be all right with the “failed experiment” and ask more basic questions and also pursue ideas that seem too unlikely at the outset.
In life, we need to change our attitude towards failure and take it in our stride and actually learn valuable information from it. If you need any training on how to fail and be all right with it, go work in a laboratory! Failure is not only probable but also certain in the journey towards results and solutions.
10. Persevere but don’t spin your wheels
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” – Einstein
If something does not work, chances are that you will get different results by altering something or getting feedback and improving your approach.
Sometime you need to cast aside your emotional investment in your favorite method and try something different.
In science, the approach is very similar as the one described by Thomas Kelley in his groundbreaking book, The Art of Innovation. Kelley describes the futility of wasting time and energy on problems when the collective knowledge and wisdom of a team can resolve it quickly.
The lesson here is that you might be spinning your wheels on a problem if you attempt to do it all by yourself. Connect with others and take advantage of what the world already knows.
11. Publish your work or perish
You have to get peer reviewed in science! Good science has to be shared and before it can be believed, it must be reviewed and tested.
You will also have to present your data in a meaningful manner that everyone else can understand. You have to distill the knowledge and wisdom from your experiments into useable and valuable information for people to apply in their own lives.
In life, we hesitate to launch our genius. The only way to find out if you have a marketable idea is to allow it to be released for your peers to evaluate. Your creative ideas will need to be published or suffer the fate of extinction.
12. Be excited about your work
If you are not excited and curious about your work, you will lose steam and no one else will be excited about your work either
Wonder, passion and energy are very important indicators of whether you are cut out for bench work or if you should pack your bags and leave.
Any endeavor or journey will require heaps of enthusiasm, energy and passion. If you have to push yourself through majority of your work, it is best to look for an escape route and do something else.
In the now famous Stanford commencement speech, the late Steve Jobs said: “Stay hungry, stay foolish.” That phrase captures the essence of curiosity and the hunger for knowledge and understanding in science. And it is pretty amazing life advice too.
Now over to you! Do you use any of the above lessons from science to solve problems in your life.