Lessons for success from Darwin’s life

For nerds, scientists and Charles Darwin fans, the year 2009 is a bumper year. It is both the 200th year of his birth, and the 150th year of the publication of The Origin of Species. Through the summer, I spent many a fascinating afternoon in Down House, where Darwin lived with his family after returning from his five year voyage on HMS Beagle.

Spending time poring over the artefacts and manuscripts, and indeed re-reading The Voyage of The Beagle, I find that Darwin’s life has much to teach entrepreneurs, business people and other human beings.

Disciplinary walls constrain thinking; an open mind plus a multidisciplinary approach may catalyse serendipity and insight.

During his time at university, Darwin had read medicine, natural history, geology, natural philosophy, logic and reasoning. As part of his preparation to becoming an Anglican parson, he had also studied William Paley’s Natural Theology which argued for divine design. He also had developed several skills – collecting, classifying, dissecting and above all, critical thinking.

What others saw as fruitless pursuits and digressions during Darwin’s time at university, including hobbies such as beetle-collecting, were his first steps to becoming a naturalist. The interest in collecting and classifying was crucial in his time on the Beagle where he kept copious notes and collected specimens that led to one of the most influential works of our time.

Ample examples exist in business, and in life, of how breakthroughs come from non-traditional thinking about problems. From 3M’s innovations such as Post-It(R) to Pfizer’s Viagra. Are you being walled in by linear thinking or the NIH syndrome?

It’s not only what you know, but whom you know that can shape your success.

The Origin of Species was published to a stormy reception. Defending Darwin and arguing for him were his friends: lawyer and geologist Charles Lyell, botanist and explorer Joseph Hooker, botanist Asa Gray and zoologist and comparative anatomist Thomas Henry Huxley. Huxley called himself “Darwin’s bulldog”. His 1860 debate with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce is seen as a turning point in the acceptance of evolutionary theory. Wilberforce reportedly asked Huxley if it was through his grandmother or his grandfather that Huxley considered himself descended from a monkey. Huxley responded that he was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth.

For a business, its best advocates are happy customers. Do you know who they are, how to find them and how to engage with them meaningfully?

In any success, luck is under-rated.

Darwin was born with good fortune. His father was wealthy and his paternal grandfather was a slavery abolitionist, champion of women’s education and inventor. On his mother’s side, he was related to the Wedgewood family and his maternal grandfather was not only a creative genius and entrepreneur, but also an abolitionist and a pioneer of many marketing tricks that endure today.

Darwin’s father tolerated his inability to focus on the structured work at University and yet bank-rolled his voyage on the Beagle. Upon his return, Darwin was able to buy Down House with its (then) 21 varieties of orchids and a kitchen garden big enough to feed his family with 10 children and several domestic staff all year round. His wife was a devout Christian but remained his faithful companion despite their differences.

Do you recognise what your sources of fortune are? It is wise not to over-attribute the successes  in business and life to individual decisions; it is wiser rather to be aware of the multitude and complexity of factors that make that success happen.

Related reading:

Janet Browne’s excellent piece on Darwin’s friends who defended him.

Lost in Translation

Beyond Privilege: Managing Information Asymmetries

Learning to Love – And Solve – Multivariate Problems

John Kay’s Sept 30th column on why Evolution is the real hidden hand in business (FT may require registration)

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