Thinking Anew – I

Polly Matzinger had this statement under the prophecy section of her high school yearbook:  Most Likely Not to Succeed.  For a number of years, Polly seemed to be fulfilling that prophecy.  Her mother and father were immigrants to the U.S.  Her father was a holocaust survivor, and her mother was a former nun.  As immigrants to the U.S., Polly and her parents relocated often.  Polly started college but quit because she was bored.

Over the next several years, Polly had a number of low wage jobs.  Her best paying job was being a Playboy bunny.  She decided to work as a cocktail waitress because it gave her time to pursue her creative interests.  When Polly was 25, she overheard two customers (biology professors) discussing their research.  She was intrigued.  And she started asking them questions they couldn’t answer.  The professors took an interest in Polly and encouraged her to resume her education.

Nine years after she started college, Polly graduated.  She completed a PhD when she was 32.  For the next 10 years, Polly conducted research on immunology in Europe.  She returned to America to become the section head at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

Polly created a stir in the field of immunology when she proposed a model of how our immune system works.  Her model was significantly different from the existing model first developed by two Nobel Prize winners.  The problem with the existing model was that it didn’t explain the behavior of cancer cells or other cellular based medical conditions.  Polly’s model was a plausible explanation for the growth of cancer cells.  The old guard in immunology research were aghast.  But today, Polly’s model is accepted science.  There is still no model that explains our immune system completely, but Polly is recognized today as one of the top 100 scientists of the past century.

There is a value in thinking through problems with fresh eyes.  Polly took an unconventional approach to her career.  Perhaps that gave her the ability to think anew.  She was willing to challenge the old guard.  She was not afraid to put forth her ideas which she knew would upset the research establishment.

Thinking anew requires discipline.  You need to:

  • Strip away past work and start again.
  • Think of possibilities rather than extensions of what has been done before.
  • Be brave enough to put forth your ideas.
  • Don’t take rejection personally. Think of it as opportunities to advance your ideas.

Those who have mastered the art of thinking anew often have tumultuous careers.  The status quo protectors will resist their ideas.  But eventually, if the new ideas prove valid, those who think anew will be hailed as geniuses.

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“I decided to start anew, to strip away what I had been taught.” – Georgia O’Keefe (artist)

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