Knowledge and Naiveté: The Outsider Effect

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innovation2“Our thoughts are shackled by the familiar. The brain is a neural tangle of near-infinite possibility, which means that it spends a lot of time and energy choosing what not to notice. As a result, creativity is traded for efficiency: people think in literal prose, not symbolist poetry.” - Johan Lehrer, Imagine

Specialize, they tell you. Niche down, they say. Become an authority, they suggest.

It doesn’t really matter who “they” are. It may be your colleagues, your parents, your peers, or your significant other. We are constantly pushed by those around us to pick a field and stick with it. Society puts a premium on experience, knowledge, and understanding, and people are rewarded for becoming experts.

There are many schools of thought regarding deep specialization in a subject. The newest strategy is to niche down. "Niche down ’til it hurts," you might have heard people say. Niching down - or becoming a leading authority in a specific field - isn’t a bad strategy on the surface. Many people have becoming wildly successful by becoming a specialist in both well known as well as off the wall concentrations.

But while deep knowledge in a subject is important, and specialization is good for a safe career, it’s a strategy that shouldn’t be followed without thought. We always focus on what we are gaining by finding a niche, but what are we giving up?

On the flip side of the “niche down” strategy is a concept known as "the outsider effect". The outsider effect champions the idea that innovation occurs at the boundary of disciplines. In other words, true innovation and inspiration occurs not when someone has deep knowledge of a specific niche, but rather occurs when someone views a field with a fresh set of eyes. An outsider will be able to approach a problem with outside the box thinking  (no pun intended) because, for lack of a better saying, they don’t know any better.

innovationRather than being inundated or bogged down by years of knowledge in a certain field, their mind will be able to free associate and approach a subject, field, or market with an unburdened mind. Like a child, they are naive enough to ask “why?” Or more importantly, “why not?”

Take Albert Einstein, for example. When people think of Einstein, they naturally think of his theory of general relativity. What people don’t widely know, however, is that Einstein spent years in a German patent office before his breakthrough in physics. His knowledge of physics was immense, yes; he had an advanced degree from renown Zurich Polytechnic. But his time spent reviewing the validity of wide-ranging patents gave him the wide-eyed world view needed to put the parts of his famous theory together.

Einstein was given time to ponder many different fields, concentrations, and experts during his time as a patent reviewer. He trained himself to have a healthy level of naiveté that allowed him to look at his own field with fresh eyes. He had deep knowledge in physics, but it was his constant exposure to new and radical ideas that allowed him to create his masterpiece theory.

We may not be able to shift our thinking right away. Reversing the social conditioning that knowledge trumps naiveté in the search for inspiration is hard. But, as Dean Simonton, a psychologist at UC Davis reminds us, “if you can keep finding new challenges, than you can think like a young person even when you’re old and gray.”

Let’s face it, specified knowledge is important. When that knowledge lowers our level of inspiration, however, it ends up doing more harm than good. So, rather than focus on niching down, focus on niching out. Focus on learning any and everything that you find interesting. Don’t worry about if it pertains to your chosen field. Learn it anyway.

By keeping ourselves in constant wide-eyed wonderment, we give our mindset a level of childish naiveté that will lead to inspiration, innovation, and ultimately personal success and life fulfillment.


- Knowledge is important, but so is a healthy level of naiveté
- Niching down isn’t a bad approach for creating a career of finding your passion
- Better than niching down, however, is niching out, where you are in a constant search of expanded knowledge
- By niching out, you will begin to connect the dots within your brain and make associations that would be impossible otherwise
- Don’t think of being naive as being uninformed; think of naiveté as approaching the world with wide-eyed wonderment

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