What Bill Gates and Isaac Newton can teach us about social distancing​

It seems like a distant memory when businesses were still weighing in on remote working, many happy to keep it in the too hard basket. But, almost overnight, someone kicked the basket over and millions of Australians are suddenly not only working from home, we’re also whiling away our free time there. 

The routines we’ve developed (or fallen into), the social gatherings we frequent, and the places we took for granted are now off limits. Difficult as these circumstances are, they also present us with opportunities to reflect, reprioritise, and reinvent things we might otherwise continue to neglect.

"I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room."

Blaise Pascal

Given that the most severe punishment in many prisons is solitary confinement, there may be some truth to Pascal’s utterance. But however fulfilling it is to be with others, we know that deep, original and creative thought is nurtured by solitude. It is when our minds are quiet and free from distraction that we can fully immerse in the problem before us and arrive at innovative solutions. It’s no wonder so many of our aha moments come to us during a relaxing shower, or a solo jog or stroll.

Bill Gates takes solo retreats in a secret cabin in the woods.

For decades, Bill Gates has been taking week-long secluded retreats in a cabin in the woods. Gates cuts contact with family and friends, disconnects from technology, and uses his time to read, ponder and create the mental space needed to be flooded with ideas. It’s during these “think weeks” that Gates has come up with many of Microsoft’s innovations, and they even led to his prescient “Internet Tidal Wave” memo which course-corrected Microsoft’s trajectory in the face of the internet revolution.

Isaac Newton did his best work from home while evading a pandemic.

Isaac Newton practiced social distancing during the Great Plague of 1665-66. Only in his early 20s, Newton took extended trips to Woolsthorpe to escape the plague-ridden Cambridge where he was attending university. While others also self-isolated in the countryside, one factor that set Newton apart was how he set his mind to work (good thing he didn’t have Netflix). Often referred to as Newton’s “Year of Wonders”, Newton made pioneering inventions and discoveries which lay the foundations for our modern understanding in fields such as optics, calculus, motion and gravitation. Upon reflection, Newton emphasised how the enforced isolation was critical for his revolutionary work and thinking:

“...for in those days I was in the prime of my age for invention & minded Mathematics & Philosophy more than at any time since.”

Isaac Newton

While we might not have access to a secret cabin in the woods, most of us are not as busy as Gates was at the helm of Microsoft. With our regular venues, events and gatherings on ice, we also have an unexpected amount of free time on our hands. For some of us, this may be an unprecedented time to cut through the noise and hone in on that which deserves our attention.

Indeed, after we began providing remote intellectual property consultations, we’ve noticed an uptick in enquiries about projects people had previously put on hold. As we continue supporting the IP needs of Australian businesses, we’re sure to witness the launch of innovative inventions, companies and brands during and because of the current period of quiet.

“All disruption starts with introspection.”

Jay Samit

For many, this mandated downtime may turn out to be a much-needed timeout, a chance to catch our breaths and examine our surroundings. While Australia and much of the world goes into hibernation, this could be the liveliest time for our minds. So go zone out, jot down ideas and let your mind play.