If you place in a bottle half a dozen bees and the same number of flies, and lay the bottle down horizontally, with its base to the window, you will find that the bees will persist, until they die of exhaustion or hunger, in their endeavor to discover an issue through the glass; while the flies, in less than two minutes, will all have sallied forth through the neck on the opposite side.
Scientists believe that it is the bees’ knowledge of light; it is their very intelligence that is their undoing in this experiment. They evidently imagine that the escape from every prison must be there when the light shines clearest; and they act in accordance, and persist in what seems to be a logical action. To them glass is a supernatural mystery they never have met in nature; they have had no experience of this suddenly impenetrable atmosphere; and the greater their intelligence, the more inadmissible, more incomprehensible, will the strange obstacle appear and the greater will be their persistence to penetrate the bottom of the bottle.
Whereas the feather-brained flies, careless of logic, disregarding the call of the light, flutter wildly, hither and thither, hitting the bottom and walls of the glass through trial and error until they find the opening to freedom. It is by pursuing every imaginable alternative do the flies escape while the bees perish because they believe the light is the only way out because, after all, generations of bees were successful following the light. Here the good fortune that often waits on the simple, who find salvation where the wiser will perish because they feel there is only the one way they know.
The bees in the experiment remind me of the paradox of expertise. It seems that the more expert one becomes in an area of specialization, the less creative and innovative that person becomes. The paradox is that people who know more, see less; and the people who know less, see more. Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs attempted without success to get Atari and Hewlett-Packard interested in his and Steve Wozniak’s personal computer. As Steve recounts, “So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary; we’ll come work for you.’ And their experts laughed and said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.”
What is it that freezes the expert’s thought and makes it difficult to consider new things that deviate from their theories? Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., thought the idea of a personal computer absurd, as he said, “there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocketry, was ridiculed by every scientist for his revolutionary liquid-fueled rockets. Even the New York Times chimed in with an editorial in 1921 by scientists who claimed that Goddard lacked even the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high school science classes. Pierrre Pachet a renowned physiology professor and expert declared, “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.”
It seems that if an expert experiences any strain in imagining a possibility, they quickly conclude it’s impossible. This principle also helps explain why evolutionary change often goes unnoticed by the expert. The greater the commitment of the expert to their established view, the more difficult it is for the expert to do anything more than to continue repeating their established view. It also explains the phenomenon of a beginner who comes up with the breakthrough insight or idea that was overlooked by the experts who worked on the same problem for years. Think, for a moment, about Philo Farnsworth who invented television when he was twelve years old while he was working on his father’s farm.
We are educated to think reproductively like the bees in the experiment. Whenever we are confronted with a problem, we fixate on something in our past that has worked before and we apply it to the problem. If it does not work, we conclude it’s not possible to solve. The flies resemble productive thinkers as they fly hither and thither exploring every possibility and through trial and error find the way to safety. The lesson to us is to always approach a problem on its own terms and to consider all alternatives including the least obvious ones.
Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. http://creativethinking.net/WP01_Home.htm