I try to remember to do basic research every once in a while, where I figure out how the world works without a goal in mind. This contrasts with applied research, which is about solving particular problems or taking advantage of specific opportunities.
The distinction can be pretty clear in science. For example, in physics (my undergrad degree), basic research looks into the nature of fundamental particles. Applied research would try to answer functional questions, like “how do I use my knowledge of fundamental particles to build a nano-sized robot?”
In my field, basic research could mean watching a bunch of different YouTube videos, including some ads; it’s not the content that matters as much as the format, the storytelling approach, etc. Or I might skim a bunch of blog posts about what’s working for online communications. Or I might poke around some new whizbang social media site to see what it’s all about.
I might never use what I learn, or it might rattle around for quite some time, then pop out in unexpected ways. For example, several years ago Google launched Gmail by inviting people to submit short video clips showing the logo moving across the screen. They then compiled the clips into a single video set to music. A couple of years later, we were trying to inspire people to take ownership of the environment. That Google concept popped into my head, and we ended up with It’s My Environment, with more than 100 people and groups submitting clips showing themselves doing something good for the planet. Our first compilation was then seen more than 9000 times.
I’m not saying applied research isn’t important. We all need to solve problems most of the time. But we also need to find the time to do basic research. Otherwise, we’ll never hit that inspiration that makes the world tilt a couple of degrees.