Original Ideas Can Come from Unexpected and Sometimes Bizarre Places
Written by Leah Georges, PhD
I love my job. I interact with good, kind, and inspired faculty and students every day. I teach in a graduate program that asks students to explore their real-world and professional environments, identify complex problems worthy of investigation, and then work to inform and improve those problems. My students are doing exciting work. However, when they initially reach out to discuss their potential research problems, they share trepidations like, “I can’t think of anything important to study,” or “I don’t have any original ideas.”
I get it. I’ve been there. I occasionally still visit “there.”
Let me tell you a secret. I have never had a wholly original idea in my life. I am sure of it. In fact, when I talk to other academics, they share similar sentiments. Each of my research endeavors has been inspired by something. They have come from predictable places—research articles, well-recognized real-world problems, and talking with like and not-like minded colleagues. However, much of the work that has excited me the most has been inspired by off-hand comments from a yoga instructor, eavesdropping on others’ coffeeshop conversations, and the 2001 summer movie hit, Legally Blonde.
Yes, Legally Blonde.
In the film, Holland Taylor’s character Professor Stromwell points to a quote written on a law school classroom blackboard, “The law is reason free from passion.” She then asks the class of anxious first year law students whether anybody knows who spoke these famous words. One of the students accurately answers, Aristotle. For the non-lawyers in the room, the quote generally implies that legal decisions should be made based on facts and law alone and not on the feelings, emotions, politics, or personal opinions of legal actors. An idealized perspective on the law, to be sure.
I had seen the film no less than a dozen times over the years, but on this particular afternoon as I sat down to relax between class and dinner, I saw this scene differently. I had been studying the intersection of psychology and the law for some time in my graduate program. That week, I had also read several articles about how people’s emotions often drive their decisions and not necessarily in a rational way. As I heard Professor Stromwell utter Aristotle’s famous quote, I immediately and out loud to no one in particular said, “nope, that’s not true.” Is it possible for jurors, tasked with making decisions about guilt or innocence, to check their emotions at the courthouse gate? Is it reasonable that a judge consider “just the facts” in making sentencing decisions for defendants convicted of crimes? Is it even possible for the law to be free from passion and emotion? I was skeptical and I was curious. In fact, I was so curious I wrote a whole dissertation about this idea.
Yes, my dissertation was inspired by the movie Legally Blonde.
Nilofer Merchant, a thought leader in the world of innovation, speaks of the idea of ‘onlyness,’ or that unique place in the world where only you stand, as a function of your distinct history, hopes, and expertise. Because of your onlyness, you see things differently than the person standing next to you, and from the person standing next to her. She encourages innovators and professionals to use this onlyness to explore and create new ideas and innovations.
Ask yourself, what are you uniquely situated to explore? What real-world dilemma has not been approached by your unique expertise or experience? How can you use your onlyness? The key, I think, is to remain curious. Ask questions about seemingly unrelated interests (like the law and a popular comedy film), and be open to inspiration in some unexpected and sometimes bizarre places.
And, when that idea hits—like a predictable event or like a hailstorm on a sunny day—feel confident that you needn’t leave yourself at the door to explore that idea. Bring your whole self to the classroom and to the research. In fact, we do ourselves a great injustice by compartmentalizing our personal and professional interests. Let them collide. Feel inspired by your outside-of-work-self. After all, if the law isn’t reason free from passion, your work shouldn’t be either.
Leah Georges, PhD, MLS
Assistant Professor, EdD