Domain Dependence – When Your Subconscious Rolls its Eyes

To be truly creative, one of the central problems to overcome is domain dependence. We become so dependent on the surrounding context of an idea, that we fail to apply that idea in other areas or domains. We fail to make useful connections.

A clear example of this happening is the luggage industry. We as a species spent decades stacking luggage on top of carts with wheels so they would be easier to lug around in airports. It took decades for someone to try putting some wheels on the luggage itself*.

They were blind to the usefulness of the wheel in other domains. The most creative people are usually those who are less prone to this. It’s also why cross-discipline learning is so important, and why over-specialization is a potential killer of true creativity.

Recently, this happened to me. In trying to come up with fun ways my daughter can learn skip counting (eventually her multiplication tables), I came across some skip counting mazes. My daughter loved them. But we can’t just do the same ones over and over again. That’s of limited utility.

For over a month, I kept thinking I would need to set aside some time to manually create some more of these mazes. But I was dreading the time involved. I kept thinking about it and searching for resources that would make it easier to create them.

Finally, it dawned on me that I’m a computer programmer. It’s something I do literally every day. And it’s a skill that could obviously help me in solving this problem. I could create something that makes randomized math mazes. But it took that long for me to realize it. The domain of my daily work was not being allowed to cross into the domain of my daughter’s education.

The solution popped into my head at some random time, like my subconscious got fed up with my meandering and finally rolled its eyes and yelled “Here!”

I think I was brushing my teeth at the time.

Overcoming domain dependence requires at least one thing that we modern humans are bad at: paying close attention to our surroundings. Having regular moments where we are focused and present. Other than that, I’m not sure what the solution is, but I’d be happy for any ideas thrown my way. This post was just my way of pointing at the train wreck.

Though it does help to learn how to scratch your own itch first.

*Antifragile uses this example, among many others, and domain dependence is a major recurring theme of the first half of the book.

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