Are you a Rifle or a Shotgun?
Can You Teach Creativity?
If you want to be a doctor, lawyer, or have a specific occupation in mind, the paths are clear and well-mapped. I’m not saying they’re easy, but they are straight-forward.
But what if your mind or perhaps, your child’s mind is wired a bit differently? What if your daughter’s passion is to heal manatees or your son’s is to invent a new musical instrument? What if they want to write or sculpt or paint or dance? What if they have some original ideas that nobody’s thought of? What then? Do we squish it out of them? Press them into some acceptable mold until they fit?
The answer to that depends on how you were raised and how you were taught. Creative thinking can be cultivated or stamped-out and replaced by something more acceptable…more professional. It’s a valid question, don’t you think? At what point is it acceptable to discourage childhood dreams and curiosity? Or should we?
A small sidebar: In the conversations I’ve had with professional friends and associates, the question has come up: Are you casting aspersions upon the professional community? No. Of course not, though I hardly think that the professional community has suffered from lack of good P.R. The point I’m making is there are many times when the solution to a problem, may be helped or even solved via a cross-reference to another field or a different mindset. Example: At the core of Quantum Mechanics, lies a seed that was planted via philosophy, Zeno’s Paradoxes, which predate Socrates.
I’m here to suggest that we’re money-ahead in every way and wise to nourish creativity no matter how it eventually manifests itself. Being creative and being able to think outside the box are desirable qualities which don’t impede progress. They can, in fact, greatly enhance it.
Historically, inventions and discoveries have been accomplished in one of two ways: They were either targeted and pursued, like a hunter with a high powered rifle…in laboratories and with a single purpose in mind, OR…using a different kind of intelligence, and I’m going to call it shotgun intelligence, the ability to quickly cross-reference and triangulate from sources that are sometimes unbelievably disparate. Here are just a few examples of great discoveries that were accidentally discovered, by quickly cross-referencing and in some cases shotgun blasting.
The Microwave Oven: In 1945, Percy Spencer was experimenting with a new kind of vacuum tube called a magnetron. He was intrigued when as he was experimenting (I didn’t make this up) the candy bar in his pocket began to melt. A more disciplined mind might have concluded: Experiment was a dismal failure. Note to self: Don’t carry candy bars when working on magnetrons. Fortunately, Percy hesitated for a moment then thought something on the order of, “Hey… Wait a minute. I’ve got this really weird idea…” Raytheon was extremely happy.
Plastic was accidentally discovered by Leo Bakekland while he was attempting to make a cheaper form of shellac…one that didn’t involve expensive beetle wings. The gloppy stuff in the flask made for truly lousy shellac but Leo didn’t consider the experiment a failure quite yet. He decided to play with it a bit before he flushed it and guess what: He’d made plastic or Bakelite, as he appropriately named it after himself.
Viagra: You know where we’re going with this, don’t you? When they discovered Viagra’s most endearing quality, they weren’t looking for a new way to give you a stiffy. They were looking for a blood pressure medication. They knew that something was up when none of the test subjects would give back their stash of little blue pills. No, they weren’t looking for Viagra per se, but someone had the presence of mind to look outside the box. Try to imagine the conversation of that scientist trying to sell his idea to the division head. Here are a few more:
Saccharin, completely accidental. A miner returning from the coal mines failed to wash his hands before dinner. Those dusty black fingers on the biscuits made everything sweet. He wondered why… Teflon: Another accident while searching for something else.
The Pacemaker was accidentally invented because Wilson Greatbatch, who was building an oscillator, reached in a drawer and pulled out the wrong resistor.
Vulcanized rubber, LSD, Silly Putty, potato chips… Smart Dust. All accidents and the result of cross-referencing.
Heard about Graphene? If you haven’t, you will. Graphene is to this century what plastic was to the last century. The punch line? The way it was created was something your fourth grader might have come up with. Take Scotch tape. Stick it on a hunk of graphite, then stick it on a sheet of paper. Repeat. Lucrative? Highly. But the searching question is: What if your child came to the dinner table with a black sheet of paper that they’d made with Scotch tape? Seriously…how would you have handled it?
The pivotal question, of course is: How can we teach someone to be creative? How can you teach someone to think about helicopters, when helicopters haven’t been invented yet?
Right now, our education system is approximately the same as it was a hundred years ago… reading, writing, arithmetic and rudimentary science. How much time is spent teaching your children to question? Explore? You already know the answer.
Truth is: Little kids are born artists, born sculptors, born inventors, writers, dancers, musicians. As grown-ups, our mission in life seems to be…to drain that out of them. On every level, happiness, money, success, accomplishment, it’s short-sighted.
I should pause for a second and explain why I specifically am here, talking on this subject. What are the qualifications to talk about thinking outside the box? Well… I’m an inventor a writer, and a sculptor. Before that: Accepted at Columbia Law, where I went on to……fly jets in the Air Force. That’s a long story and the punch line is: Draft Lottery #17. On the sculpting side, I’ve created and sold over 27,000 sculptures. I’ve also written 24 books, published 17. Schiffer Publishing published two books on my life as a sculptor and I have a number of US patents. A HUGE source of pride: My wife, Pamela, and I have been together since the sixties. Guess what. We’re still happy and in love with an entire life spent thinking outside the box. Now let’s take a look at some folks, whom you might actually know, people who could wield a shotgun with impressive results.
Richard Branson: As a child, he started out trying to sell Christmas trees. That didn’t work out so he tried selling budgies which are a kind of a bird. That didn’t work out either. By the way, Mr. Branson didn’t actually go to college, and he’s dyslexic. Instead, he started selling music. The song, “Tubular Bells” from The Exorcist which he pitched is what put him on the map and soon he was a mega music distributor. Yet that didn’t do it for Richard. At the extreme non-urging of his business partners, he bought up some dilapidated 747s, fixed them up, and with a little P.T. Barnum, provided superb service. He called it Virgin Airlines. I believe he’s done some other things since…300+ companies.
Steve Jobs: A stellar as well as non-standard example of the route to greatness. And one of the fundamental conclusions he came up with? Cross-referencing at its most fundamental level. Like minds love to group together, speak the same language, secret handshake. But that’s not conducive to making quantum leaps of creativity. Steve Jobs designed Pixar studios with one peculiar exception to otherwise common sense. Two bathrooms for the whole studio. Annoying? You bet. But scientists, met with P.R. met with model makers, met with photographers and so on and so on…while taking a wizz. Genius? Yup. Thinking outside the box? Oh yeah…
Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Buckminster Fuller. They all shotgun blasted, all over the dartboard. Everything and anything was game.
Leonardo Da Vinci was another one adept with a shotgun…metaphorically speaking. They hadn’t invented shotguns yet. But, in addition to being an artist and sculptor, he found time to make blueprints and diagrams for…helicopters, among other things. The images you see now of Da Vinci are of a tired, bearded old man. But can you imagine having a young Leonardo running around the house? “Leo, get off the sofa and stop flapping your arms. You’re not a bird and you look like an idiot.”
So… What’s the Solution?
Modifying our school systems is a grand and noble idea. Unfortunately it’s also Utopian because of the politics, money, and bureaucracy involved. Back to square one: What can we do with our sons and daughters to provide them with an environment that doesn’t squash that little voice, that creativity?
Point One: Mistakes and Failures: These two terms are dirty words in the corporate and collegiate world. Mistakes and failures are touted as something to be avoided at all costs. That’s wrong. They are in fact necessary and incremental steps on the road to success.
Example: Thomas Edison did NOT fail 437 times attempting to create a filament for his light bulb. Instead he declared: Creating the light bulb was a process involving 437 steps.
If you judge Viagra from the rifle perspective of a blood pressure pill, it’s a failure. As a stiffy enhancer however, it’s a HUGE success as were all of the accidental discoveries I mentioned before.
Babe Ruth: For decades Babe Ruth was in the Guinness Book as the home run king. He was also the strike-out king. Do you think there might be a connection?
A Little Background
I will try to keep this as short and sweet as I can, but it’s part of the puzzle. My dad was a best-selling novelist. Mom was a concert pianist, always practicing or playing a concert.
I was on my own, the proverbial weed in the crannied wall. I had not one, but two chemistry sets and my own laboratory. At age eight, I’d excuse myself and say, “I’m going down to the laboratory.” There I made: stink bombs, three-stage rockets, more powerful stink bombs, and things I can’t really repeat here. I created a really powerful motor scooter that easily pulled my dad’s truck, up hills, through streams. I created a submarine out of 55 gallon drums. That didn’t work out very well. I think it’s still somewhere down on the bottom of our old pond.
Time passed. My grandmother died and left me her ’51 Chevy. Not old enough for a license I drove it around the back fields though as it turned out, I was not too young to learn how to fly. I mowed lawns to pay for lessons and on the second lesson I noticed that the Cessna 150 I was flying didn’t have windshield wipers. I asked my instructor, why and he told me to observe and learn. At the speeds we were going, 75 to 150 mph, the air moving across the windshield was so fast that it blew away any droplets before they could be a problem. When I went home, I went out to the garage and looked at my Chevy and I thought, “How can I rig up something to blow (vector) air across the windshield so cars wouldn’t need wipers either.” Long story short, I purchased an air pump that I powered off the car’s fan belt, routed it to the windshield with some copper tubing and….BINGO. It worked. It was just very noisy. BMW has played with the idea, but you still can’t buy a car with vectored airflow…
Along the same line, a bit later…I was just soloing out, I got the idea of using the elevator concept of an airplane…on a car. Keep in mind this was about 1960. I rigged up a movable plywood wing to the back of the Chevy and actuated it with a cable that went up to the driver’s side door. I sent a letter with sketches to John DeLorean who was head of PMD…Pontiac Motor Division at the time. I got a quick personal letter from Mr. DeLorean thanking me, but pointing out that since the speed limits were 55 mph, it wouldn’t do a whole lot Four years later, the engineers at the Ferrari works in Modena came out with a new concept, a moveable wing or spoiler on the back of their F-1 racers. I guess it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
In high school I built the first home made laser in New Jersey, using a 2-inch ruby rod I borrowed from Bell Labs. My theory was that laser light, introduced to an optical Moebius Strip, might act like a light amplifier. Bell Labs was interested, but 50 years later they still don’t have the answer to that.
What is going on here? What’s happening?
Point Two: Though I wasn’t given a huge amount of support, I also wasn’t given any reason not to keep experimenting, growing, trying new things. I really didn’t care about failure. I was just intensely curious.
Point Three: Because I had NOT channeled into just one narrow field of interest, everything was game and everything could be cross referenced. Imagine there’s a Martian in your kitchen with a hundred different spices, vegetables, meats and fish, eggs, ice cream, and asking the Martian to come up with a meal. Obviously there are now no rules or preconceived notions, just lots of weird recipes. Some of them might be pretty good.
The lessons we learn flying, skiing, studying Zen, playing chess, making sculptures, writing, baking a cake, fishing… they all swirl around and collide. There are tens of thousands of people whose claim to fame is being able to cross-reference seemingly disparate concepts, with great success.
Point Four: This may be the hardest part for all of us, because we all want our children to be first in line, the chosen, the special ones. It’s hard-wired into our genetic code, and more often than not…it backfires. Give your children a chance to be their own little person first. There’s great value in dreaming, playing, realizing that ANYTHING really is possible. This small early realization will power them beautifully through adulthood.
P.S. Here’s a little cheat sheet you might try on your kid before the creativity begins to wilt. And you’ll come up with better ones very quickly.
Twelve Projects That Let Kids Exercise Their Own Minds
1. Come up with a new kind of ice cream. It can be savory, sweet, complicated, look different. No holds barred. i.e. Frozen pepperoni pizza ice cream packaged just like a pizza.
2. Make a musical instrument using cardboard, duct tape, rubber bands, and a coffee can.
3. Make a paper airplane that does something different or is powered by rubber bands. Extra points if it can do a stunt.
4. Write a song or a poem…or both about what mood you’re in or how you feel about something.
5. Write a “book” of ten things that you’ve learned in life…so far.
6. Make a scale model house…using anything natural you might find outside. Mud, dirt, twigs, bark, leaves, grass, etc.
7. Find something that nobody likes to do or wants to do and come up with a way to make it more fun.
8. Find a toy, utensil, tool, item of clothing…anything and find a way to make it BETTER.
9. Make a sculpture using materials you find in a kitchen. Extra points if you can eat it.
10. How would you make your bed more fun or more comfortable?
11. Make your very own personal dance. Anything goes!
12. Invent your own way to show someone you like them…without saying a word or writing anything down.