In his TEDx talk, “Forget What You Know,” Jacob Barnett says we should at times stop learning and start thinking. Barnett is the world’s youngest astrophysics researcher. His thesis and stories form a compelling picture despite the talk’s organization and delivery being a bit rough around the edges. Through recounting the history of his field, he shows how figures like Newton and Einstein developed some of their most seminal theorems when they were prevented from participating in academia—in the case of Newton he was avoiding the plague and Einstein could only find work as a patent clerk due to antisemitism in Europe. Innovation happens when we are free to think freely.
I found Barnett’s thesis challenging since my instinct is to do more research. When I write, I rarely feel confident that I have an adequate grasp of my subject. There are always more books and articles to read. I worry I am missing some important bit of information that will either make my point stronger, or disprove it altogether, which will make me look like a fool. Deadlines save me from endless inquiry because they force me to think and write.
I wonder how I can incorporate Barnett’s exhortation better into my life. I love learning and I don’t want to give up on it. I have to fight the temptation to learn just for the sake of learning. Learning must have a goal beyond the accumulation of more information. The challenge is not only to use what we have learned, but also think of new possibilities. Barnett reminds me that space for thinking doesn’t magically materialize. We must intentionally make space. Put the book down. Close the web browser. Silence the voices of discouragement. And think.