• October 1, 2023

Recently, as I scrolled through LinkedIn, I saw a post by Prof. Victor M Zavala from the University of Wisconsin. He advised young researchers to focus on fundamentals instead of a single research application. This post made me realize an import factor that I missed in my methods of research and problem solving.

When I did research, I used a three-step process – understand a field, determine a problem, and document the problem’s solution. It worked. But the research using this method turns out to be good, not great.

During the 17th century, Isaac Newton had a nemesis. This nemesis, Mr. X, observed apples falling off a tree.

It was some rural countryside in England. It was vast and green, and the weather was just right. This gentleman decided to go for a stroll. And he wore a wig. The thing people wore back then.

As he walked, he saw an apple tree. He observed that the apples always fell to the ground. It never went flying into space. So, he decided to put a net and let the apples fall. Then he would pick the apples and sell it.

This nemesis was a nobody. He did not produce knowledge that lasted centuries. Had he tried to think hard, understand the fundamental idea, and apply it to other applications, he could have been Newton. But he turned out to be one of the million people who wanted to be like Newton but were stuck in a single application. They did not try to find the fundamentals from an application and produce knowledge of centuries.

All research needs to start somewhere. Autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, going to Mars, these problems could be where research starts. Solving some aspects of such problems do produce value. Mr. X did produce value by putting a net to catch apples.

But these applications last at most a few decades. However, the fundamental ideas live for centuries. These ideas allow us to solve problems in a breadth of applications, not just the one it was derived from.

Gravity might have started from an apple, but it helps us look at the universe. Therefore, I realized that my three steps of research could be extended to five – read literature, identify a problem, identify a solution, reduce the solution to fundamentals, and test it across applications.

I have observed that senior leaders also used a similar process in their careers. They started by mastering their trades – be it law, engineering, or medicine. Then they recognized the fundamental ideas of their fields which they use to lead across verticals. But those who did not recognize the fundamentals and tried to retain mastery of their fields struggled when the field disappeared.