Go Back To Your Roots

One “Christmas Eve” Eve, my wife and I watched Coco (highly recommend, by the way). If you haven’t seen it, the basic idea is that Miguel, a young boy, is forced to choose between his family—a long line of shoemakers—and his exiled great-great grandpa—a musician. Among other things, the film reminded me that it wasn’t so long as that a son inherited the family business from his father, who inherited it from his father, and so on. And, in fact, that is probably still the expectation in many places today.

coco movie

For better or worse, I have little connection to my biological ancestors. My grandparents rarely talk about their parents or where our family came from. I do, on the other hand, feel a deep connection to my intellectual ancestors—those, living and dead, who have shaped my own intellectual development.

In “Climbing your own family tree,” Austin Kleon writes:

“One of the most important points of Steal Like An Artist is that you don’t get to pick your actual genealogy, but you can, and must, establish your own artistic genealogy.”

In academia, every published paper must include a section called the “literature review” where the authors cite and summarize previous work from which their new findings derive. I try to institute that practice in my blog posts as well. It’s why I often quote and link to other writers—to trace the path back to those who have inspired my thinking on the week’s topic.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn writes about “normal science,” a period in a discipline where researchers agree on a set of first principles from which they can make progress:

“Normal science consists in the actualization of that promise, an actualization achieved by extending the knowledge of those facts that the paradigm displays as particularly revealing, by increasing the extent of the match between those facts and the paradigm’s predictions, and by further articulation of the paradigm itself.”

In other words, he is arguing that if everyone had to start their work from square one, we’d never get anywhere. It would be impossible to send a man to the moon if we did not first take gravity and physics and ballistics for granted. It is only by acknowledging and building on what came before that we can make forward progress.

In some families (like Miguel’s), genealogy is important because it helps you understand where you came from and who you are supposed to become. You do not need to invent yourself from scratch when you follow in your forebears’ footsteps. Going back to your roots in art and science does the same. You do not need to be a singular genius. Rather, you can trace your intellectual genealogy backwards, gain a deeper understanding of your area of interest, and grow your branch out a bit further.


Each Monday, I share strategies to help you pursue your passions. Try it. You’ll like it.

Header photo by Takashi Watanabe on Unsplash


Leave a Reply