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Maxed out

On the shoulders of giants

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Virtually all great breakthroughs happen at the margins. I had an economics prof who used to say that over and over again though, if pressed, he'd probably admit he lifted the idea from Einstein who, in turn, borrowed it from Sir Isaac Newton who might have thought of it when the apple hit him on the head and reminded him of early man's discovery of fire and the wheel.

It was, after all, Isaac who said, "If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants." And while there On the shoulders of giants

don't seem to be as many giants around as there used to be, great discoveries still tend to happen when the void between disciplines is bridged by some smart cookie who looks up long enough to see past his or her nose.

Researchers who single-mindedly pursue their own narrow field tend to make incremental discoveries. Some are groundbreaking but most are merely refinements of accepted knowledge. There is, however, a magical combination of serendipity and an ability to see outside of their immediate pursuit that leads to things like Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin, or Philo Farnsworth's invention - perhaps an overstatement given what so many others were doing simultaneously - of television transmission. This is the terrain of great discovery.

A more immediate and approachable example of that is the "aha" moment that takes place some days when people are up skiing and riding on the mountains. There's nothing quite like sliding down a snowy slope to fix one's attention to the immediate challenges ahead. Whether that challenge is a steep, tricky line, a murderous mogul field or simply a well-groomed blue run, when you're operating at the edge of your own envelope, your world collapses into the space immediately ahead of you.

But when you stop to let your muscles catch up to the demands of the turns you haven't made yet, when you strain to catch your breath and give yourself a moment to look up, your soul expands to embrace the achingly beautiful scene around you - snow-capped peaks expanding to the arc of the Earth at your horizon or, maybe if you're lucky, snowy islands in a murky sea of roiling cloud you're about to plunge into. It's not a discovery that'll change the world but it is a sight that'll change your perception of your place in it if you're open to that change. Suddenly your accomplishments seem both bold and insignificant, a duality sure to keep your ego in check if you reflect on it.

Another "discovery" that was only mildly earthshaking - but leads quite nicely to wherever I'm heading with this - occurred in 1972. From 1940 to 1955, McDonald's was a tiny hamburger chain that did for burgers what Henry Ford did for cars, revolutionized how they were made and marketed. In 1955, Ray Kroc set the model for franchising fast food and suddenly billions were served... lunch, dinner and late-night snacks.

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