Garrison Linn, a grad student in physics, recently delivered a talk at TEDxBirmingham about the importance of an explorer mindset and embracing exploration in the pursuit of goals. Garrison used the analogy of soccer to illustrate that the best path to a desired outcome isn’t always the fastest or most direct.
In this week’s show, I asked Garrison to elaborate on the philosophy of embracing an explorer mindset.
We also talked about Garrison’s insight that it’s better to embrace authenticity and be true to oneself than to craft a persona to fit in with what is a perceived “cool” crowd. His insights:
- There is no one “cool” crowd.
- You must love yourself first so you can then love others.
- If you don’t love yourself, you’ll be critical of others because you’re always in comparison mode.
We end the show, of course, with the question of what makes someone shine.
Just because you haven’t heard of Garrison Linn today, don’t skip this episode!
Details from this Episode
Garrison is from a family with five boys. His mom was the 5th child in a family of 6 girls. Garrison said his dad always inspired him to be curious—to ask questions—and not believe everything anyone told him.
As a graduate student at UAB, Garrison is studying experimental physics, focusing on condensed matter physics. His first career choice was medicine, but shadowing various MDs convinced him that was not the right choice. An interest in science and math led him next to engineering, but that also didn’t seem to fit.
A desire to better understand how things work, especially an interest in gaining a fundamental understanding of the nature of the universe, led Garrison into physics.
As he approached the end of his undergraduate studies at Birmingham Southern College, Garrison reached out to Dr. David Hilton, a UAB physics professor studying ultra-fast phase transitions, specifically optically transparent to opaque phase materials that might be used as a bit for optically-based computing. This technology could, Garrison says, “make computers orders of magnitude faster.”
How Garrison Came to Be a TEDxBirmingham Speaker
Garrison attended TEDxBirmingham in 2015, which meant he was on the email list for the coming year.
In the summer of 2016, around the time he’d seen an email asking for speaker nominations, Garrison read an article in the popular press about research on black holes and fuzzy balls and a physicist’s new model for string theory and black holes.
The first comment to the article acknowledged that black holes might be interesting to explore as a theoretical matter, but that real problems right now on earth make it impractical to be spending millions researching black holes while people on earth are starving.
Garrison said that comment made him realize there’s a lack of public understanding about how basic scientific research actually does lead to practical technology to solve real problem we face right now.
He decided to nominate himself to speak at TEDxBirmingham 2016, to talk about the value of basic scientific research and exploration for the sake exploration.
Dr. Sarah Parcak, the co-organizer of TEDxBirmingham and 2016 recipient of the TED prize, contacted Garrison about his nomination. They met and, ultimately, Garrison was selected to be on of the speakers for TEDxBirmingham 2016. That’s how I came to hear Garrison’s talk and then contacted him to be on the Discover Grow Shinecast.
People don’t see the potential value in things.”
Overview of TEDxBirmingham Talk
Here’s the premise of Garrison’s talk:
A very specific and narrowly-focused goal in mind leads to tunnel vision and the belief that ‘anything that doesn’t lead me in the immediate direction of my goal is not worth my time.’
The goal-oriented mindset says: If it’s not something that directly advances me toward the goal, it’s an idea or path I shouldn’t explore.
The explorer-mindset is more open to opportunities that emerge along the path.
Getting off the path to explore can actually lead you—in interesting and weird ways—either to that goal or something wonderful and spectacular.
Garrison believes if you focus less on the goal and more on exploring new ideas or new directions you may not know what you’ll end up with, but you’ll more than likely find the most interesting opportunities.
To set up his talk, Garrison described the robotics experiment developed by Kenneth Stanley and Joel Lehman, where one robot was programmed to seek the fastest path to a defined goal and the other was programmed to be the “explorer robot.”
Read more about Stanley and Lehman’s research in Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective. [Amazon affiliate link]
Need for Safety and the Explorer Mindset
I asked Garrison how we, as a culture, might do more to encourage and reward curiosity and the willingness to explore without a specific outcome in mind.
Garrison said he believes the reason most people don’t explore their curiosity is due to the need for safety and comfort vs. an openness to taking risk. He used his own initial career choices of medicine, then engineering as examples of the “safe” path and desire for comfort that comes with a well-established career path. He acknowledged that a career as a research physicist is relatively safe, but it’s less specific and defined than the others.
It takes a mindset shift to become an explorer, Garrison said.
Once you are willing to let go of the need for certainty (even when certainty is uncertain), you start to live in the moment, Garrison said.
If you embrace the explorer mindset then you really embrace the reality that you’re not concerned about where you’re going, you’re not concerned about whether or not it’s going to get you necessarily to a very employable position or make a lot of money.
Measurable Outcomes as the Driver of Goal-Orientation
Our society places great value on measurable, quantifiable outcomes.
This is, in large part, Garrison says, due to need for simple explanations. Specific goals make it easier to explain to research funding organizations and for funding organizations to justify an award.
As Garrison points out, a soccer player may have multiple individual reasons for playing soccer and various goals during a match. Perhaps a male player wants to look good to impress a girl watching on the sideline, to impress a coach who’s watching to possibly award a scholarship, to score goals to win the match so the team moves into a championship.
To win a match, the team needs to control the pace of the game and that can be an objective, as much as scoring goals and preventing the other team from scoring.
If a soccer player explains the game to someone who’s never seen a soccer match, the short-hand answer is to simply score goals to win the match. Knowing this to be the goal, the uninformed observer might question why the team passes the ball around so much or pass it backwards, away from the goal, rather forward toward the goal.
At this point in our conversation, I referenced the challenge posed in our current economic environment due to investors who insist on short-term profits, while longer term horizons might be better for the overall value of a company (or the larger economy).
Garrison said he found something he loves to do.
Genuine and complete engagement with what you’re doing will be more likely to lead to success.Genuine engagement with what you're doing will more likely lead you to success. #ShinecastClick To Tweet
The key is to be true to yourself and to live authentically.
Different is not the same as weird. We need differences.
I asked Garrison if it’s fear that drives the desire to play it safe and live in conformity with whatever the social norm is for your group.
Garrison said he thinks it’s more about insecurity and a lack of confidence in self.
When you act confidently, people sense that and respect it.
When your passion comes through it energizes everyone.
That made me think of John Lennon’s song, All Shine On. I think I’ll write a separate blog post connecting those dots.