If you’re going to vary the recipe…

I love cooking. The way that we can transform ‘simple’ ingredients into something deliciously complex is a wonder to behold, and a delight to experience.

If you don’t know how to cook, you can follow a recipe. With a little bit of discipline, focus, and the right ingredients, you can find yourself producing great quality food quite easily.

After a while, you can start to figure out how the recipe works. You find that a little bit extra of one ingredient will vary the taste, texture or appearance. You might even start to experiment.

Some people can start to create. Not just to follow the recipe, but to come up with entirely new concoctions, based upon the test kitchen in your mind.

Yet I would be reluctant to rely upon the skills of someone who hadn’t yet mastered a single recipe. Maybe they would create something delicious and creative and new. Maybe you would get food poisoning.

Individuality and self expression are great things, and it is good to note that most great innovators didn’t come from “the establishment” in their domain. Whether they be Rodin or 50 Cent, Einstein or Gershwin, Branson or Brin, innovators learn enough to speak the language of their chosen domain, though not so much as they lose their accent.

Before we start changing the rules, let’s find out what they are.

Originality: Sir Ken Robinson, W.B. Yeats and Sir Elton John

Sir Ken Robinson and I share many things in common, particularly with respect to viewing the crisis of education. There is a great need for our society to be filled with more people who love what they do and less people who just go through the motions, a shift that may be facilitated by moving away from thinking of education as being like an industrial process – that Ken likens to the “fast food approach” – and more like an organic, bespoke, Zagat or Michelin context for an individual to experience the conditions for them to flourish.

He ends his presentation at TED earlier this year with these words from W.B. Yeats:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

As I watched Ken reading, I couldn’t help but think of Elton John’s Your Song, a song that the late John Lennon described as “the first new thing that’s happened since we happened”. Just in case you don’t remember the lyrics, here are the first two verses:

It’s a little bit funny this feeling inside
I’m not one of those who can easily hide
I don’t have much money but boy if I did
I’d buy a big house where we both could live

If I was a sculptor, but then again, no
Or a man who makes potions in a travelling show
I know it’s not much but it’s the best I can do
My gift is my song and this one’s for you

So was Your Song original? Or did Elton read a little Yeats to Bernie one night before bed after a few bottles of wine, and have Bernie wake up the next morning with a flash of “inspiration”?

Perhaps Elton and Bernie have acknowledged the inspiration of Yeats in the past or perhaps the connection is only tenuous. Or maybe they came to this idea independently. Even if the ‘idea’ was from Yeats or even someone else, it was Sir Elton John that brought such a sentiment to the world in a form that we could embrace, love and enjoy today.

Creativity is sometimes strikingly divergent from the status quo. Sometimes it is a refinement. Other times, creativity might be more like a renaissance – a rebirth of older ideas so that they can find new life for another generation. This leaves the challenge for us to cultivate those conditions and contexts where those around us can find a way to express their uniqueness. And where we can express our own uniqueness.

Here is Sir Ken Robinson’s presentation at TED from earlier this year. I hope you enjoy it.

Who says the Earth revolves around the Sun?

If you were like me, you were probably taught that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and that it takes one year – a bit over 365 days – for the Earth to complete one such cycle.

And you probably also learned that we didn’t always believe that.

You might have learned about Ptolemy, who believed that the celestial bodies revolved around the Earth. It seems impossible to believe now, but that was the established wisdom for thousands of years. People were executed for disputing this scientific “fact”.

When Copernicus came up with his idea of the Earth revolving around the Sun, it didn’t make sense. The scientists of the day disputed his claims and showed through “science” that he was ‘wrong’, by demonstrating that his theories couldn’t explain what was happening any better than the established wisdom. In fact, Copernicus’ model offered worse predictions than Ptolemy’s model.

But with contributions from Galileo and Kepler united under Newton, our world experienced a paradigm shift (in the original/ Thomas Kuhn sense of the term). And suddenly our textbooks were rewritten. And so “The Sun revolves around the Earth. The Sun has always revolved around the Earth.” became, “The Earth revolves around the Sun. The Earth has always revolved around the Sun.”

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we of course know that we know the truth.

And yet, do we? Perhaps one abusing ‘Relativity’ might posit that it all depends upon where you are stationed – that from the perspective of the Earth, the Sun does revolve around it and vice versa. And maybe they are both wrong.

Such is the nature of “science”: The perpetual quest to prove oneself wrong.

The special challenge falls on those individuals who lead periods of revolution. Scientific, cultural, social, linguistic. Whether they are the revolutionary leaders of climate change or economics or politics or even intelligence.

You see it in someone like Howard Gardner in positing Multiple Intelligences back in 1983. Or Edward de Bono’s “Lateral Thinking”. Or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow. From ‘ridiculous’ to ’self-evident’ in but a short few years.

If we are going to support and facilitate the development of more of these game-changing Great Minds – people with “capital C” Creativity – what sort of systems, policies, procedures, experiences and opportunities might we want to create?

In the past two weeks, I watched my four-month-old son learn to blow raspberries. Inspired by reading that this would be good for his language development (seriously!), and knowing that his mother can’t blow raspberries, I made the sacrifice and regularly blew raspberries at him. He was surprised at the start, then he started laughing. Then he started trying it out for himself. It took a while, and he ‘fell over’ a bunch of times. Even now, his raspberries are particularly sloppy. But he watched me and he did it – today, he can reliably exit a room and blow me a raspberry!

Interesting skills are usually the most difficult to transfer. We can learn Newton’s Laws, but it’s another story entirely to learn to think as Newton thought. Those tacit and almost invisible skills that sometimes leave behind traces of brilliance are the ones where we lack the language to teach the skills. Often we lack the explicit knowledge as to what is being done at all. Yet an infant can learn without language. They just look out at the world with eyes wide open and a willingness to explore, experiment and experience.

Ultimately, most of what we learn is false. It’s our best guess, but at best it’s almost certainly wrong or flawed. We want to get to those moments of joy and pure experience when we can create genius.

I wonder what would happen if  we would just choose to put our desire to control to the side, and accept the ambiguity, the obstacles and the knowledge that even our best work will probably be wrong. And just keep blowing raspberries.

(originally from TheGeniusProject.com)

Looking forward to more EVs

Shai Agassi is a pretty inspiring kinda guy. Having been a jet at SAP, he’s shot into space proclaiming the benefits of replacing internal combustion engines with batteries and motors. It’s a pretty cool thought really.

You might ask, “But what about when you run out of power?” And Shai is glad that you did.

In a few years – if Shai has his way of course – it’ll be a simple matter of dropping through the convenient Better Place to swap your old battery for a new one… and with that, cars get an ‘unlimited range’. Well, at least as much as cars do.

Pretty brilliant piece of business design too. Not only does the company answer a really big problem (how to give electric vehicles the range they need) but it could create a massive disruption to the existing oil-based infrastructure network. Things could get messy I guess.

Australia is coming (supposedly)… I wonder when we’ll see it in China. More on this announcement at Wired.

Create an awesome idea. Change the world.

Bureaucratic micro-enterprize

I designed a sales brochure for a client. They wanted a Chinese version, so we had the text of the brochure translated into Chinese.

But the translation wasn’t very good. My girlfriend said that while it was better than Google Translator, it looked like a foreigner had done it – certainly not to the professional standards of a company selling business communication training.

So I told them.

Weeks passed. There was talk of hiring a professional translator. There were other people in the office who could have done it. But finally the company asked me to identify the areas of the translation that needed to be improved.

But in case you missed it: I don’t read Chinese.

You might expect that a small company – with at most five desks in the office – would have a dynamic, engaging and entrepreneurial spirit. But not here.
They have a culture of putting responsibility for solutions into the hands of the one who identify that the problem exists.

It’s one of the best ways of shutting down innovation around – and indeed productivity of any sort.

A lit warning light is a good sign that the light is working. Be careful of just turning it off.