For true happiness in work or life, we need to feel that we are contributing towards a worthy goal; that our work matters. From this perspective, the challenges become part of the process, rather than a source of frustration. We feel a sense of contribution when we see a positive impact from our work; when we find new solutions to existing problems; when we create changes that will benefit future generations.
These new ideas and actions are a form of discovery, which takes place at the interface of the known and the unknown. To give ourselves the best chance of peering into that realm of the new and bringing something of value back, we must get as close to that edge as possible. That involves developing technical competence in our chosen area.
We don’t have to be the best. Not all new discoveries are made by the “greatest” scientists, and not all innovations are created by the “best” entrepreneurs. New ideas and solutions may come from combining our unique perspectives and experiences with existing knowledge.
We can maximise our chances by seeking expertise in multiple areas, and then finding ways to combine them. In his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport describes ‘the adjacent possible’:
“The next big ideas in any field are found right beyond the current cutting edge, in the adjacent space that contains the possible new combinations of existing ideas.”
He goes on to say “if you want to identify a mission for your working life, therefore, you must first get to the cutting edge - the only place where these missions become visible.” This is particularly the case in novel fields, such as technology, where new advancements are creating new possibilities every day.
This pursuit has influenced my own career choices. After qualifying to be a doctor, I decided to pursue a deep understanding of machine learning and artificial intelligence. I am convinced that there is a huge amount of ‘adjacent possible’ at the interface of these two areas, and thus a huge amount of value that can be added. We are already seeing AI support the diagnosis and treatment of disease, but there is still so much further potential.
After two years of rigorous self-study, alongside working full-time as a doctor, I am now undertaking a Master’s Degree in Machine Learning. My passion for the area extends to educating others, so I am creating educational videos and running educational courses in London.
While this combination is particularly suited to my personal inclinations, there are limitless areas that can be combined in new and exciting ways. A friend of mine is studying to be a doctor and has a passion for rap music. He has combined this by writing raps exploring the human side of healthcare and is regularly invited to perform by different medical and arts societies. He is also conducting research into the therapeutic effects of the arts on our mental health.
Developing expertise in multiple areas will also boost our employment prospects. By learning rare combinations of skills, we will stand out to potential employers. While the exact ways in which we may combine our skills may not be obvious, the potential will be clear.
What area are you working towards becoming an expert in? What are your other interests, and how might you combine them? Discovering how you can do so often involves a long process of exploration.
Peter Sims encourages using ‘little bets’: If you have an inclination to work on something, go with it for a period of time and see what the end result is. If it doesn’t work out, you will have learnt something, had fun and can move onto the next 'little bet'. If it does work out, you can’t underestimate the potential impact it may have on your life.
Reading widely can be insightful and a source of inspiration, and there are myriad sources on the internet. Activia run a competition to encourage students to write about the value of learning, which was the inspiration for this post. Great previous posts that I would recommend reading include James Simpson's Learning Strategy, Yosh Francis' educational perspective shift and Charlotte Watson's argument for being a jack-of-all-trades.
There are a few other sources of useful careers advice and perspectives. Cal Newport’s books are fantastic as well as the '80,000 hours' careers guide. For those specifically interested in machine learning in medicine, the Machine Learning Medics website has some fantastic resources and recommendations.
Striving towards the goal of contributing to our chosen fields can fill us with energy and inspiration. Achieving these goals can be immensely satisfying, and benefit both ourselves and our societies. I hope this post had inspired you to do so.
“Go forth and create” – Brian Gardner
Entry as part of Activia Training UK Scholarship - see https://www.activia.co.uk/scholarship-uk for more details.