“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.” — E. O. Wilson, biologist, theorist, naturalist and author
What enables combinatorial creativity?
Popova suggests it’s the power of the synthesizing mind:
Celebrated creators – artists, writers, scientists, inventors – have always known the power of the synthesizing mind and have advocated for embracing the building blocks of combinatorial creativity.¹
Defining Synthesizing & Intellectual Needs
Here are the best definitions and descriptions I came across for synthesis and synthesizing (emphasis added in bold):
- “Synthesizing is the process whereby a student merges new information with prior knowledge to form a new idea, perspective, or opinion to generate insight.”²
- “Synthesising involves combining ideas from a range of sources in order to group and present common ideas or arguments.”³
- “Synthesis is the most complex of the reading strategies. Synthesizing lies on a continuum of evolving thinking. Synthesizing runs the gamut from taking stock of meaning while reading to achieving new insight.”4
What drives synthesis?
It can often be triggered by intellectual need:
- “A specific form of intrinsic motivation; it is a desire to learn something. It has been recognized as critical in effective education and learning. Intellectual need arises when someone poses a question to themselves or others, either out of curiosity or to solve a specific problem.”5
- “Intellectual need is often greatest when there is a hole in an otherwise well-connected web of knowledge. Merely understanding a question and being unable to answer it is not sufficient to create intellectual need—intellectual need arises when a person believes the question to be interesting or important, and usually this involves fitting the question into a framework of well-understood ideas.”5
The synthesizing process has been happening since the beginning of humanity—in each individual human as well as humanity as a whole—and there’s a lot we should learn from it.
Learning from Humanity’s Collective Knowledge & Wisdom
Maria Popova poses a key question for our modern era:
While this is certainly worth questioning, Popova isn’t alone in celebrating the power of the synthesizing mind. Many of the greatest intellectuals and thinkers of the past and present believe in learning from humanity’s collective history.
Some estimate that 108 billion humans have lived on Earth. There are 7.7 billion alive today. That means:
The dead outnumber the living 14 to 1, and we ignore the accumulated experience of such a huge majority of mankind at our peril. — Niall Ferguson
There’s so much we can (and should) learn from those who came before us:
Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive. For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs. All the years that have passed before them are added to their own. Unless we are very ungrateful, all those distinguished founders of holy creeds were born for us and prepared for us a way of life. By the toil of others we are led into the presence of things which have been brought from darkness into light. — Seneca
He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth. — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Here are some familiar modern names who appreciate learning from humanity’s history:
It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done, and then try to bring those things in to what you’re doing. — Steve Jobs
I don’t have any new lessons. But I often think that it’s not the new lessons as much as it is, really, learning the old ones again and again. — Oprah
Socrates supposedly said that we should employ our time improving ourselves by other men’s writings, and that in doing so we can ‘come by easily what others have labored hard for.’ Yes. That’s the point of literature — it is the accumulation of the painful lessons humans have learned by trial and error. For 5,000 years we’ve been recording this knowledge in books. The more hard knocks we can avoid by reading them, the better…Over those centuries, there has been an incredible filtering mechanism working for us, finding and highlighting the books that contain the most wisdom…that’s what we’re trying to do here — we’re trying to help others learn from the wisdom of other’s experiences. We’re trying to filter the good stuff to the top — to upvote it — to make it even more readily available than it was in our own lives. — Ryan Holiday6
Just look at it as “borrowing”:
Learn to use the knowledge of the past and you will look like a genius, even when you are really just a clever borrower. — Robert Greene
The great driver of scientific and technological innovation (in the last 600 years has been) the increase in our ability to reach out and exchange ideas with other people, and to borrow other people’s hunches and combine them with our hunches and turn them into something new. — Steven Johnson
It’s critical because we each only have an indefinite yet finite amount of time here:
There’s always been a longing to gather the important things in one place. Some of the appeal of a Bible or the collected works of a big name author is the sense that amidst all the chaos and disparate sources of knowledge, someone has taken the trouble to distill, to compress, to say what is essential. In a world overflowing with information, what we most need is curation…Ultimately, life is only 700,000 hours long so we have to make sure the ideas we need don’t get lost – or take too long to find. — The School of Life7
The power is in sharing:
One of the greatest gifts we can give to another generation is our experience, our wisdom. — Desmond Tutu
Knowledge, when shared, becomes like a grand, collective, inter-generational collaboration. — Tim Urban
The best thing a human being can do is to help another human being know more. — Charlie Munger
Take good ideas and make them available to a wide public. — Alain de Botton
The best ideas are common property. — Seneca
The Future Belongs—and has Always Belonged—to the Synthesizers
“In this time of divisive tendencies within and between the nations, races, religions, sciences and humanities, synthesis must become the great magnet which orients us all.” — Oliver Reiser via Gregg Henriques8
At first glance, you may assume that quote was written yesterday. It’s actually from over 60 years ago; possibly more relevant today than ever before.
We should all be primarily interested in “unchanging bodies of knowledge” and timeless wisdom that can be used to navigate the modern world:
The only thing for certain is that everything changes. The rate of change increases. If you want to hang on you better speed up. That is the message of today. It could however be useful to remind everyone that our basic needs never change. — Guttorm Fløistad
By being a student of life, you can harness the power of a synthesizing mind and help usher in humanity’s future.
Author Matt Ridley has one of the best TED Talks I’ve seen about the power of synthesis and combinatorial creativity throughout human history. He believes:
We’ve gone beyond the capacity of the human mind to an extraordinary degree. And by the way, that’s one of the reasons that I’m not interested in the debate about I.Q., about whether some groups have higher I.Q.s than other groups. It’s completely irrelevant. What’s relevant to a society is how well people are communicating their ideas, and how well they’re cooperating, not how clever the individuals are. So we’ve created something called the collective brain. We’re just the nodes in the network. We’re the neurons in this brain. It’s the interchange of ideas, the meeting and mating of ideas between them, that is causing technological progress, incrementally, bit by bit. — Matt Ridley
Here’s to the synthesizers!
- Harvey, Stephanie and Anne Goudvis. Strategies That Work. Chapter 10, p. 144