On Ideas, Inspiration, & Innovation

21 05 2008

Innovation = putting things together in a way that no one ever thought of before

I just finished one of the most inspiring articles I’ve ever read.

(I will connect it to capoeira at the end, but the main point of this post is mainly to tell you about the article, which is amazing.)

It’s called “In the Air”, by Malcom Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point and Blink), and in it he writes about how famous, revolutionary, groundbreaking ideas…are out there for anyone to come up with.

DiscoveriesYou know the ones: evolution, the telephone, calculus, colour photography…and at least 144 other “major scientific discoveries” were all “discovered”/”invented” by more than one person, in different periods of time as well as within days of each other, without the other(s) even knowing.

The conclusion from this is that it doesn’t take our traditional idea of a “genius” to come up with such ideas—that is, Darwin and Alexander Graham Bell and many of the rest weren’t geniuses in the sense that they and only they could have been the ones to come up with their respective theories/discoveries/inventions. If any of them had met an untimely death, someone else could and would have eventually discovered/realized the same thing, perhaps taking a different or longer path (or not even), but ultimately reaching the same destination.

Rather, Darwin et al. were geniuses because they had the capacity to spend the time, put in the effort, and think in the lateral, creative, out-of-the-box ways required to come up with their ideas. So, it’s reasoned that if you got many slightly less remarkable people together and had them brainstorm crazily for long periods of time, something would come out of that. Lo and behold:

“So Edward took his people out, plus me,” Wood said. “And the eight of us sat down at a table and the attorney said, ‘Do you mind if I record the evening?’ And we all said no, of course not. We sat there. It was a long dinner. I thought we were lightly chewing the rag. But the next day the attorney comes up with eight single-spaced pages flagging thirty-six different inventions from dinner. Dinner.”

I should note here that those eight people at dinner included a law degree-holding electrical engineer, and a biologist who once walked across Texas with nothing but a sleeping bag, flashlight, and rifle. (I really meant it when I said only “slightly” less remarkable.) Still, these men have come up with real ways to do things like filtering cancer cells out of someone’s blood, or literally harnessing the power of ocean waves to stop hurricanes.

GeniusAccording to the article, someone is a genius not just because they thought of a particular idea that would never have been discovered otherwise, but because they were able to do it all on their own. The important thing to note from that is: the idea is out there. It’s not locked up within any one particular person, never to make an entrance into history if that person suddenly disappears. Maybe it takes a team of eight almost-geniuses to discover what one genius could discover on their own, but the discovery is still able to be made. All it takes is enough looking and thinking.

One reason the team above, Intellectual Ventures, is so successful is because of the crazily varied backgrounds, experience, and expertise of each member. You look at a problem in enough number of different ways, and eventually a spectacular solution will be found. For instance, the cancer cell filter came out of introducing a doctor to a physicist; one had the problem, the other had the solution, but they never would’ve known it without criscrossing the two fields together.

So theoretically…any one of us could do this. Just using capoeira as an example, what if you could get a group of eight novice to advanced capoeiristas together, who all had completely different specialities (e.g. photographer, academic, tradesperson, stay-at-home mom, financial expert, advertising director, journalist, musician), and just discussed capoeira for a few hours, keeping innovation in mind the whole time? What kind of new ideas, creative strategies, philosophical twists, interesting moves might come out of that?

I got so excited after reading this article, I opened my browser and started writing up this post right away. I hope it got you thinking too, about ideas, and solutions, and innovation, and where it all comes from, and the idea that it can come from one of us. Just imagine the possibilities!

Picture source: http://www.salsaspirit.co.za/images/capoeira.jpg