I watched The Man Who Knew Infinity the other day, in which the fabulous Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) didn’t play the usual fortunate dimwit, but rather the great Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, who not only knew infinity, but could perceive complex mathematical theories, and the properties of numbers almost instantly as if he were simply looking out over a landscape and seeing objects that were just there.
There’s a moment in the film when his sponsor, the mathematician G H Hardy (played rather splendidly by Jeremy Irons) asks him where his ideas come from. Ramanujan looks puzzled. It’s a question he cannot answer. He simply ‘sees’ theories, or solutions, or patterns in mathematical or logical space. Where he has trouble is in developing painstaking proofs of his theorems so that others can be persuaded of their truth, others who lack his capacity instantly and ‘simply’ to see the correctness of a theorem.
Mozart, it is said, could simply ‘see’ a whole symphony, in all its complexity, all at once.
In fact the question ‘where do your ideas come from?’ is a misleading one. We tend to ask it when someone’s gift of solving something, or creating something, is so extreme as to seem unimaginable to us more ordinary mortals. But we’re all performing the trick of seeing solutions and ideas every minute of every day.
I was thinking about this when I was designing a system for a client in Peterborough two weeks ago. My job was to work out how time@work, our software for Professional Services Management, could meet the requirements of an engineering firm that designs control systems for factory floors. The challenge was that they already had a very sophisticated system which, for one reason or another, they needed to replace. I spent the first two days trying to understand their current methods and procedures, thinking all the time, ‘How on earth are we going to do all that?’
But time@work is a flexible system, a set of tools that you can put together in many millions of different ways, almost in the way that you might construct a tune, or a symphony, from notes. And suddenly I ‘saw’ how to fit our components together to do what they needed.
‘Where did the idea come from?’
Well, that’s a pointless question. It didn’t come from anywhere. There is no ‘process’, no algorithm you can apply to derive a solution from the facts, the requirements, from the bare bones of a problem. True, you can sometimes attempt a ‘brute force’ approach to problem solving, trying every permutation of components until, hey presto, the pieces snap together, but the ability to recognise a ‘good snap’ when you see it just moves the mystery to another place.
Finding solutions to problems in business procedures and systems isn’t easy, though it doesn’t rank with ‘knowing infinity’, but it shares the same characteristics. Imagination of any kind isn’t a ‘process’, or a method. All of us, all the time, simply do things and never think to ask ‘where the idea came from.’ We think up sentences, and put our ideas into words. We don’t ask ourselves ‘Where did that sentence just come from?’ Where does what we want to say ever come from? Where would we look for the process that generates sentences? And, come to that, where do recipes come from, or bicycle routes?
The great gifts that geniuses such as Ramanujan and Mozart possessed are the gifts that we all possess, with the volume turned up very high indeed. Perhaps if we could all do what they could, the supper would never get cooked, and man might soon become extinct.
I am with the great philosopher Wittgenstein on the issue of so-called ‘philosophical problems.’ We invent them, and keep our philosophers in (ill-paid) work, by asking illegitimate questions. ‘Where do ideas come from?’ Nowhere. Somewhere. Everywhere. They just happen. We simply ‘see’ solutions. Most of us.