Progress Needs Beautiful (Absurd) Ideas

[Editor's Note: This piece and the video below are adapted from concepts in The Strategy Book and Adaptability.]

If something works then you’re doing something right. If something isn’t working then you’re doing something wrong – and it’s usually based on a wrong idea. Progress depends on better ideas but at the time that those ideas are first thought – or shared – a potentially beautiful idea may still be unpopular, viewed as ugly, pointless, unworkable, unacceptable, or plain crazy. It was Einstein who said to a colleague that if an idea wasn’t absurd there was no hope for it, and Niels Bohr, an equally brilliant physicist from Denmark who remarked that many ideas are insufficiently crazy to be true.

What is true for those working on theories grand enough to explain the universe is equally true for improving life on earth. Ideas often have to seem laughable, absurd and, above all, unrealistic for them to have any hope of making a difference in the real world. To improve a situation, one that is already good or one that is unhappy and in danger of collapse, requires imagination that goes beyond the obvious. Progress demands non-obvious answers to obvious questions, and so instead of resisting, misunderstanding or ignoring them, the truly wise among us will embrace, or at least entertain, unacceptable wisdom so that together we may create a more beautiful future.

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