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In the 1860’s more times than not, any surgical procedure resulted in death. Why? At the time not many knew, they just assumed it was the risk of such an intrusive procedure. Doctors tried improving mortality by working on technique; some experimented with ways to speed up operations. However, with all of the shaved seconds and enhanced techniques, death rates were virtually unaffected. That was until a British Surgeon by the name of Joseph Lister developed a solution that changed the practice of medicine forever. Like most surgeons of his time, Lister also experienced a high rate of death post surgery. But he started to look for answers beyond the practice of medicine.
Lister discovered a research paper by Louis Pasteur in which Pasteur wrote the causation of fermentation were microorganisms. Pasteur developed three ways in which you could remove these microorganisms: 1) Filtration 2) Application of heat 3) Exposure to certain chemicals. Lister knew 1 and 2 wouldn’t work on humans, so he began to experiment with 3. During this discovery, Lister was also learning about a town that used a chemical to remove the smell of sewage. He reasoned that the smell must also be the same microorganisms causing post-surgery infections. So he started dousing his equipment and patients with Carbolic Acid. The result? Strikingly lower rates of sepsis and death.
I’ve always been motivated by this story because it promotes unfamiliarity. Some of the most impactful events throughout history, whether it was a technological breakthrough or a huge advancement in the quality of life, usually started with an ideation process that also promoted novel curiosity. Being able to look in unique places for solutions to the biggest problems we all face is the real innovation.
Lister taught us the only way to generate something unique is to remove yourself from your iconoclastic environment. Find inspiration outside of what feels familiar. It’s easier to look at the massive wave of startups that found success with new behaviors or models, then stretch those improvements to other similar industries or verticals. But the next big solution won’t be an extension of those companies; it will be something that affects an entirely new part of our life, maybe through a whole different medium.