Digging for new ideas

I introduced the quotes below from Dr. Edward DeBono’s book, The Use of Lateral Thinking,  at a 1988 conference exploring the role of university faculty in dealing with the new concept (at that time) of sustainability.  Universities that ridiculed the idea of sustainability have now accepted sustainability as a primary objective, at best, or perhaps an advertising tactic, at worse.   In 1988, sustainability was a “new idea” and like many new ideas it was rejected by most university faculty.

While it has been asserted that the function of the public university is the creation of new knowledge (through research) and dissemination of knowledge (through teaching and outreach), my own experience suggests that “newness” is generally treated with suspicion within a university culture that is fundamentally conservative.  The metaphor of “digging holes for new knowledge” introduced by Dr. DeBono seems to provide a somewhat lighthearted but mostly accurate view of the situation.

The following excerpts are taken from an essay that questions the desire for… and appreciation of new ideas within the university culture.

DeBono writes….

“It is not possible to dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hold deeper.”   

He continues….

“Logic is the tool that is used to dig holes deeper and bigger, to make them altogether better holes.  But if the hole is in the wrong place, then no amount of improvement is going to put it in the right place.  No matter how obvious this may seem to every digger, it is still easier to go on digging in the same hole than to start all over again in a new place.”

“The disinclination to abandon a half-dug hole is partly a reluctance to abandon the investment of effort that has gone into the hole without seeing some return.  It is also easier to go on doing the same thing rather than wonder what else to do.”


It is not possible to look in a different direction by looking harder in the same direction.  No sooner are two thoughts strung together than there is a direction, and it becomes easier to string further thoughts along in the same direction than to ignore it.  Ignoring something can be hard work, especially if there is not yet an alternative.”

“By far the greatest amount of scientific effort is directed towards the logical enlargement of some accepted hole.  Many are the minds scratching feebly away or gouging out great chunks according to their capacity.  Yet great new ideas have often come about through people ignoring the hole that is in progress and starting a new one.  The reason for starting a new one could be dissatisfaction with the old one, sheer ignorance of the old one, a temperamental need to be different, or pure whim.  Hole hopping is rare, because the process of education is usually effective and education is designed to make people appreciate the holes that have been dug for them by their betters.”

“An expert is an expert because he understands the present hole better than anyone else.  An expert may even have contributed toward the shape of the hole.  For such reasons experts are not usually the first to leap out of the hole that accords them their expert status, to start digging elsewhere.  It would be even more unthinkable for an expert to climb out of the hole only to sit around and consider where to start another hole.  Nor are experts eager to express their dissatisfaction with the hole.  So experts are usually to be found happily at the bottom of the deepest holes, often so deep that it hardly seems worth getting out of them to look around.”

DeBono concludes with the following thoughts about “new ideas”….

  1. “To look for a new idea through the framework of the old is a waste of time.  To compare the new way with the old is useless and inhibiting.”
  2. “It is useless to try to develop a new idea by considering only the information that was relevant to the old one. “
  3. “In tackling a problem it is common to assume a set o f limits within which the solution must lie.  Very often however, the boundaries are imaginary and the solution may lie outside them.”
  4. “In general there is an enthusiasm for the idea of having new ideas, but not for the new ideas themselves.”

Edward DeBono is a writer, a thinker and a teacher.  He has a PhD from Cambridge and has held faculty appointments at Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard.  He has written 25 books on cognitive research which have been translated into 20 languages.  In his book, The Use of Lateral Thinking, he wrote about lateral vs. vertical (or perhaps holistic vs. logical, linear) thinking.  The excerpts above are taken from this book.


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