Business Strategy | Leadership / Management

Newton’s biggest breakthrough? The power of thinking big

Think you’ve got some big ideas?

Think again.

I’m binge-watching “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself that favor. It’s on Netflix now.

Anyway, the third episode spends a big chunk of time examining the extraordinary life and times of Sir Isaac Newton. In 1687, with no guiding knowledge on which to build and the world’s leading “scientists” attacking his ideas as dangerous at best and heretical at worst, Newton’s groundbreaking book Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica was published. Simply put, the book changed everything. It included his mathematical formulas that govern the movements of the planets, the comings and goings of comets, and the precursors to modern-day calculus. The book even hinted that space travel was possible. Newton theorized that a cannonball shot with ever-increasing force could eventually escape the force of gravity and enter an orbit around the earth. That idea predated Sputnik and the space race by almost 300 years.

Those, my friends, are some big ideas.

Here’s the uncomfortable bottom line for the rest of us: We’re selling ourselves short on our dreams for the future.

Just ask Daniel Burrus.

“However ‘big’ you’re thinking right now, it’s probably too small,” Burrus wrote recently. “… It’s important to have big dreams for your future. After all, failing to plan is planning to fail. So if you can’t think big about your future, you’re not going to have a very big future. Big, of course, means a dream that takes you farther than where you are today. Success can be defined in many ways, and I’m not telling you how to define it. I’m simply saying to take your definition of success and raise the bar on it.

“If you can’t imagine it,” he concludes, “you will never achieve it.”

I’m amazed by the foresight of thought leaders like Sir Isaac Newton. With few helpful resources and a world full of detractors praying for his failure, Newton changed the world. Why? Because he refused to put boundaries around his ideas.

Can you imagine what a guy like that could accomplish today?

We have unlimited resources and a world that thirsts for groundbreaking ideas, and most of us can’t think beyond what we’re going to have for lunch.

What’s the worst that could happen? That we’d be wrong? It wouldn’t be the first time. As Megan McArdle wrote in The Up Side of Down, “Often, failure is the result of doing something very right: trying something that you’ve never done before, maybe something that no one’s ever done before.”

Think big. Then think bigger. Imagine what will happen if you’re right.


Bill Sheridan