Summary: A distinctive skill many successful people share is their ability to amass knowledge and expertise from different fields and connect it in new ways. Mastering an interdisciplinary skill set allows for innovative pathways in science, technology, business, and the arts. The ability to learn fast, learn about a broad range of subjects, get in-depth understanding, and combine your knowledge in creative ways, is the ultimate gamechanger in your capacity to innovate, the key component of success. I will show you how to hone in the potential compound knowledge has for you.
What is Compound Knowledge?
Knowledge compounds. This means that learning doesn’t grow in a linear way. When you’ve acquired a large amount of knowledge and skills, the new knowledge you learn has much more value than if you hadn’t learnt that much.
This key insight has the capacity to transform your career and your life.
If two people read the same thing, the person with the larger knowledge base will learn more, because they’d have more pieces of knowledge to connect the new ideas to. This is the core idea of the compounding nature of knowledge.
Furthermore, there is a special form of compounding knowledge that has laid the foundation of the business success of many of the world’s most successful billionaires / businessmen as well as scientists / Nobel laureates: Amassing large amounts of compounding knowledge in two unrelated fields and combing the insights into truly innovative insights. I call these individuals Expert Compounders and if you want to become one of the most successful people in the world, I’d suggest you become an expert compounder, too.
I want to show you how compound knowledge works and how to leverage its power to upscale your innovation capacity.
Firstly, I will explain how compound knowledge leads to innovation. Understanding the mechanisms behind will hopefully help you harness its potential.
Secondly, I will explain how interdisciplinary innovation in any field always leads and give examples of expert compounders that have excelled in their careers.
Thirdly, I will present 4 key practices to maximize innovation through compound knowledge.
The key takeaway: there’s a popular idea that if you put 10,000 hours of work into an activity, you can master it. Innovation is much more than the 10,000 hour rule. Innovators are not mere experts; instead of going down a specific path, they tend to curate their own independent career which combines various, multidisciplinary, skills. To become an expert compounder and master innovation, it will be crucial to diversify your skills and knowledge, rather than double down on one specific field.
How Compound Knowledge Enhances Innovation
Building a vast and diverse foundation of knowledge across multiple fields can be a catalyst for groundbreaking innovation.
By embracing the technique of compound knowledge, you can unlock your full potential and make connections that have previously remained unexplored. This will enhance your problem-solving abilities, your ability to foresee the future, and your capacity to innovate.
If you start accumulating expertise in various disciplines, you’ll witness how this powerful strategy can revolutionize the way you think, create, and innovate.
How exactly does compound knowledge work?
It boils down to the fact that the more you know, the more you know. This seeming truism is actually a powerful insight.
When you know a few facts about the world, they tend to be disjoint and independent of each other. However, when you know lots of stuff, connections between the knowledge pieces start to develop, and knowledge becomes a network. You develop a detailed model of the world.
The facts you then acquire are not free-floating pieces of information, but rather ‘sticky’ nodes in a network that enable the formation of novel structures by binding with other nodes. Thus, the larger your knowledge base, the more knowledge structures you create when you acquire new information.
Then, when you learn niche facts, given everything you already know, they contribute to furthering your fundamental understanding of the world by combining them with the other pieces of information acquired before.
Think of each piece of information as an atom. In an atomic knowledge base, these atoms are independent of each other. The base tends to be homogenous and there are no emergent structures.
Instead, in a molecular knowledge base the atoms combine. They all depend on each other. This creates emergent structures of all sorts. The sticky information nodes in molecular networks are constantly readjusted and reconnected in the face of new information.
Having a vast model of the world exhibiting molecular structures can be deployed to find network gaps. This is the key behind innovation.
When your model is a complex information network, you can link nodes that are not yet linked. You can find network gaps and build network links. I’ve termed this activity knowledge network engineering. When you create new structures in your model of the world you can then translate that into technological innovation, creating new structures in the material world.
In fact, human progress can be thought of as a result of an exponential information network, which increases in size and complexity as more knowledge is amassed and combined in novel ways.
Innovation springs from the combination of knowledge in unprecedented ways, and the more knowledge there is, the more innovation can happen. The easy accessibility to information that technology, such as the Internet, has enabled, significantly increased the rate of innovation and human progress, as many more pieces of knowledge can be combined across the globe.
As we, conjointly, acquire new knowledge, we enable the development of new technologies that can solve human problems and lead to human progress. This is a fruitful and positive way to view innovation: it is a collective activity, not only an individual one.
Nonetheless, the power compound knowledge has to transform your life on an individual level cannot be emphasized enough.
If you learn how to hone in the potential of this technique, you will supercharge your career by tackling tricky challenges, anticipating the future, and sparking innovation. By compounding a diverse skill-set, you’ll be better equipped to (1) solve problems with unique and effective solutions, (2) foresee potential opportunities and obstacles ahead, and (3) innovate by connecting ideas from different fields.
Start building compound knowledge today and experience firsthand how this simple yet powerful approach can propel you towards success, making you an indispensable force in your personal and professional life.
Interdisciplinary Innovation Always Leads
Building on the power of compound knowledge at an individual level, let’s explore how interdisciplinary innovation always leads in every field.
Countless trailblazers have harnessed the potential of compound knowledge to supercharge their careers, using their diverse expertise to create groundbreaking ideas and solutions.
In this section, I’ll present the lessons of these Expert Compounders, shedding light on how they’ve combined knowledge from different fields, paving the way for unprecedented achievements.
There are many best practices in scientific research that determine its value, such as rigor, reproducibility, and significance. However, what provides the most value-add in scientific research is often how innovative the idea presented is. By pushing the boundaries of current knowledge and exploring new and uncharted territory, scientists can make breakthroughs that have a transformative impact. The most groundbreaking ideas are usually those which combine knowledge from different fields in insightful ways.
There’s abundant research on how a multidisciplinary background correlates with winning a Nobel prize. It turns out most of these prizes go to expert compounders of knowledge.
For instance, 69% of Nobel laureates in medicine have an undergraduate education in a field different to medicine.
The trend is the same amongst other Nobel prize winners. A study shows that laureates in science are 9 times more likely to have training in crafts such as wood or metalworking or fine arts than the typical scientist. Equipped with the conceptual tools to make wild analogies, these creative polymaths usually acquire a perspectival approach to problem solving, making them true intellectual leaders.
Similar studies show that interdisciplinary innovation is an indicator of success or accomplishment in entrepreneurship, music, arts more generally, and even sports.
In fact, for most creative domains, consistently replicable behaviors are detrimental to success. Variation in one’s path, dabbling from one thing to another, is the key trait of successful creative people.
Few individuals have exemplified the powerful combination of insightful vision and innovation like Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger. While Buffett is renowned for his mastery in the realm of investments, his true genius lies in his ability to capitalize on the power of compounding knowledge. Buffett’s success can largely be attributed to his constant pursuit of learning and accumulation of wisdom over time.
As I expressed in a previous article, this analogy implies that ‘the more you read, the more you benefit from the knowledge you have previously consumed.’ This is because you have a broader fountain of knowledge to connect your acquired knowledge to. Charlie Munger also famously advocated for amassing abundant knowledge from various fields. Bill Gates refers to Munger as an Expert Generalist, highlighting he has studied in depth not only economics and investment theory, but also psychology, law, mathematics, biology, and engineering.
Elon Musk is probably the most popular contemporary example of an expert compounder. Musk has read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica as a child. An expert autodidact, he taught himself physics, mathematics, computer science, programming and engineering. He not only recommends reading lots of books of different subjects, but talking to people from different walks of life. Experience can teach as much as a textbook. Having expert knowledge in business, and sufficient knowledge in many other fields, fueled Elon’s impressive entrepreneurship skills, building companies in innovative technologies, while collaborating with experts in various fields.
Another expert compounder is Steve Jobs. As an article on Forbes describes, Jobs had two seemingly opposite qualities which allow obtaining general yet profound knowledge: insatiable curiosity and maniacal focus. An interesting reason behind Jobs’ compounding skills was his ability to remain in an open network of people (i.e., be in constant communication with a broad range of people who didn’t know each other). Jobs saw that the more knowledge and experience stories you acquire, the larger your capacity to connect dots.
Herbert Simon won the Nobel prize in economics for his research into the decision-making process within economic organizations. He also made major contributions to computer science, artificial intelligence, psychology and philosophy. He had multiple hobbies, including piano playing, music composition, painting, drawing and playing chess, which he integrated into his research.
Christiane Nusslein-Volhard was an illustrator, musician, polyglot, scientist, puzzle designer, and author of a best-selling cookbook. She won the nobel prize in physiology in 1995 for her discoveries concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development. She recommends avoiding mainstream areas and instead designing one’s own independent profile, and working in an original, self-selected topic.
Leonardo Da Vinci is the prime example of expert compounding of diverse skills. Leonardo da Vinci’s genius can be attributed to his wide-ranging interests and curiosity about the world around him. He explored different fields, from painting and sculpture to engineering, architecture, mathematics, anatomy, and more. This allowed him to draw connections between seemingly disparate fields. His study of human anatomy informed his paintings of the human form, while his knowledge of optics and light helped him to create realistic effects in his artwork. His interest in mechanics and engineering also led him to design numerous machines and devices, many of which were far ahead of their time.
We can see a very clear pattern here. The world’s most famous entrepreneurs, investors and scientists throughout history consciously or intuitively used the magic of compound knowledge as the foundation of their success.
In the following, I will present 4 key practices to compound knowledge so you can leverage your mental power to create innovative ideas.
4 Key Practices To Innovate
1. Learn fundamentals
While detailed knowledge becomes outdated, foundational knowledge does not. Thus, learning fundamentals will have a much more long-lasting impact, as 20 years ahead that knowledge will still be useful.
Fundamentals are the core principles behind any discipline. For example, if you want to learn about how a building is built, learning fundamentals would imply learning the principles of engineering and architecture, rather than learning a detailed week-to-week account of how a specific building was developed. Both will be helpful, but the first one will apply to many more cases, and will be useful in understanding a much broader range of phenomena.
As mentioned above, you can think about fundamental facts as sticky. They bind everything together so that your knowledge base becomes molecular. When you learn about fine-grained details, those knowledge pieces are hard to embed in the existing network in an obviously coherent way, and so network engineering is a lot harder.
2. Don’t just learn
The process of amassing knowledge is definitely entertaining. In order to innovate with the knowledge acquired, however, periods of rest are required. This is for various reasons.
First, it is often in moments of relaxation and inactivity that the best ideas hit you. The paradigm example is Archimides in the bathtub realizing the principle of natural buoyancy, who, in a fit of jubilation, ran naked down the road screaming “Eureka! — I’ve found it!”.
Keith Holyoak, a professor of psychology at UCLA, recommends forcing the associations by asking these two questions when acquiring new knowledge: “What does this remind me of?”, and “Why does it remind me of it?”. This way, you build the muscles that help you make connections across traditional boundaries.
Second, innovation is active. You can have an idea for an incredible business solution to a problem you recently read about, but if you don’t do anything about that, the innovative idea becomes futile. It is important to be proactive with ideas and have the courage to enact them.
Third, surpass the creator’s block. We are often afraid of following up with novel ideas we have. Innovating has its risks, as treading uncharted territory entails a lot of uncertainty and a probability of failing. But failing is a friend, rather than a foe of innovation. Trial and error is the central process in creation.
3. Don’t be afraid of the ‘farfetched’
As mentioned, enacting an innovative idea takes courage. A key reminder that trespassing traditional boundaries is worth your efforts is that often sounding far-fetched is an indicator of genius, and you should follow through with it.
“The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” (Steve Jobs)
When you connect two nodes on opposite sides of the information networks, it is normal that the connection may seem crazy. This is because it is unconventional to link those two notions. There is no field which directly studies, or business developing a solution along the lines of the connection you just made. That means you just hit gold!
4. Pay attention to what you don’t yet know
A key trait all expert compounders have is their insatiable curiosity. They focus more on what they want to learn but haven’t, than on what they have already learned. It doesn’t come a time when they feel they have finished their education, learned enough, so that they can finally enact their knowledge and start to innovate. Expert compounders are constantly learning.
“Knowing what you don’t know is more useful than being brilliant.” (Charlie Munger)
It is important to remain open to new knowledge, and new interactions with people who might provide you with insights from their expertise. You must keep an eye on what you don’t yet know. See yourself as ignorant, rather than knowledgeable. That way you will stay hungry for knowledge and humble, remembering there’s always someone who knows more than you in a specific field. This is why it’s also important keeping a tight circle of competence, i.e., experts in their field who can guide you in your inquiries.
“You should take the approach that you’re wrong. Your goal is to be less wrong.” (Elon Musk)
Realizing that knowledge compounds is the innovation gamechanger. This is because exponential knowledge leads to an increasingly complex information network. Armed with that, you can connect two nodes previously unconnected. This is exactly where innovation / true genius happens.
The more knowledge you obtain (and the stickier the knowledge you obtain is), the more relevant becomes any new piece of knowledge you acquire, as it merges with your existing network, restructuring it and creating new connections.
There’s no sleight of hand when it comes to having a great idea, there’s no secret ace in the hole all successful people have. It is just their insatiable drive to understand, their capacity to build complex ideas from the knowledge they acquire, the ability to innovate this capacity enables, and importantly, their efficiency and proactiveness when it comes to enacting their innovative ideas.