In 1950, a biologist named Joseph Connell traveled to Australia to study biological diversity – nature’s ability sustain creative, innovative, and new growth. He had realized that some stretches of ocean or swathes of forest were home to hundreds of plants and animal species, and then just a few steps away those same ecological systems dwindled to one or two dominant plants that covered the area. He wanted to know why.
After much research and experimentation, he discovered that a natural disturbance was the catalyst for diversification. In the forest, he realized that a fallen, decayed tree was usually present in the areas where vibrant and varied growth was occurring. In the ocean, the stretches of water that most frequently were hit with storms or strong wave patterns produced the biggest variety of sea life.
Those ‘gaps’ – whether by falling tree or crashing waves – gave space for other species to take root where dominant species might have taken over. The beams of sunlight that could shine through the hole in the forest canopy brought seeds and organisms to life that heretofore lay dormant. Swirling undercurrents stirred the sands and mixed the sea to promote a wide range of coral, seaweed, and other ocean life.
Nature relies on disturbances to fuel creative growth.
It has to be the right kind of disturbance, though. A clear cut, burned forest traumatizes the ecosystem and nothing grows. A violent hurricane destroys the delicate balance of life under the water’s surface. The disturbances couldn’t be too big or small, but just right to shake up the biological status quo and allow for new things to literally take root.
This summary comes from Charles Duhigg’s new book Smarter Faster Better and when I read it I simultaneously cringed and gasped. I love routine. I swoon at the sight of a well executed plan. Checklists make me smile. However, there’s something to be said for the value of the new thing. No matter how much I fight it, I see that new ideas, new ways, new concepts, new strategies shake things up enough to move us forward.
“When strong ideas take root, they can sometimes crowd out competitors so thoroughly that alternatives can’t prosper. So sometimes the best way to spark creativity is by disturbing things just enough to let some light through.”
When things seem to be crashing down around me, or the current sweeps me under, I don’t need to panic or try to escape. It may not be the end of the world. It might just be the beginning of something great.
Thanks to Charles Duhigg for the quality writing and inspiration for this post.