Don’t Just Use the Brains You Have

In the previous post on creativity, you read how Toyota used conflict to fuel innovation. Instead of restricting them, this conflict enabled Toyota to come out with a Lexus that beat its rivals at Mercedes and BMW in all areas, including price.

Today, let’s look at another story. Here, innovation was not planned. It occurred by accident. Rather, it was ‘stolen’. Yet, the original creator of idea, and the organization, were happy with the outcome. That idea led to the invention of a product which we cannot live without.

3M provides centers and forums for scientists and other employees to share knowledge and discuss ideas. These ideas, if practical, are then nurtured into opportunities and eventually converted into products. The Technical Council and Technical Forum – both of which are for 3M’s scientists – are two examples of 3M’s most fruitful forums.

Arthur (Art) Fry attended one such Technical Council. There, he heard Spencer Silver talk about trying to develop a super-strong adhesive. The intent was to use this adhesive to buil planes. Instead, Silver created a weak adhesive that was a ‘solution without a problem’. Art Fry sang in a church choir, and kept losing the bookmark in his hymnbook. He noticed two significant features about the adhesive – it left no residue on the surface, and it was reusable. So he applied for, and received funding, to develop Silver’s accidental discovery. Thus, the Post-It note was born.

But things weren’t as simple as they sound. It took years to develop and perfect the Post-It prototype, and for manufacturing to begin. All this time, Art Fry feverishly distributed product samples. His technical director made sure that the secretaries of 3M’s senior executives got them. Before long, their bosses were borrowing the yellow little pads. Everyone who got one wanted more.

Scientists at 3M invented many products which were solutions without problems. Some of them were modified by others, while many became extinct. This story has an important lesson for us: your first idea is (almost) never your best.

Apple started with the customer experience and worked backwards to the technology, as Steve Jobs explained in this video. But most of us are not as obscenely gifted as Steve Jobs was. Not even close. In fact, a lot of designs at Apple lie unnoticed for years before they become part of product features. Hence, most of what you create or experiment with will not be relevant. Out of ten, one idea might stick. Maybe even one won’t. But your duty is not to keep refining one idea until it becomes feasible. Nobody can do that. Your duty is to create a hundred ideas, out of which ten will work.

Now comes the obvious question. How am I going to create a hundred ideas? The answer – you don’t. You steal. Like an artist. You let things (and people) around influence you, and draw inspiration from them to create something. And you keep doing this until you hit the jackpot; until you put something out there which people cannot have enough of. You must keep moving.

“We’ve made a lot of mistakes. And we’ve been very lucky at times. Some of our products are things you might say, we’ve stumbled on. But, you can’t stumble if you’re not in motion.” – Richard Carlton, 3M.

Originality is a myth, as Austin Kloen states. We cannot always innovate on our own. When we chase the mythical concept of ‘originality’, we come up with substandard work, and experience roadblocks. Why? Because we refuse to look outside our minds. As a result, everything become predictable and creativity is restricted. Writer’s block, designer’s block, and every other mental block is a result of the pointless pursuit of originality.

The creative ones? They don’t just use all the brains and heart that they have. They also use all the brains and heart that they can borrow too. What does that mean?

Exposing ourselves to different experiences enables our mind to form synapses. It helps us to connect unrelated dots. Meeting new people helps us get constructive feedback on our ideas. Apple continued innovating under Jobs because of his ability to make associations with seemingly unrelated products. The first computers were designed horizontally. Then, Jobs placed a Yellow Pages directory in front of his designers. “That’s how much space a computer should occupy,” he said. People didn’t want something bulky, but a device that sat neatly on their tables, he reasoned. As a result, they started making computers vertically. They occupied much lesser space. And Apple’s competitors followed suit. Think about it. Your computer sits vertically today because of a Yellow Pages directory. Crazy, right?

steve jobs connect the dots quote

Another association, the Magsafe, is the AC adapter that plugs an Apple laptop into a wall socket. It’s aim is to prevent the horrifying scenario of someone’s foot getting caught in the power cord, and helplessly watching the beautiful laptop crash to the floor. The Magsafe is designed so that the laptop detaches itself safely from the cord if someone trips over it.

However, this wasn’t an ‘Apple-original’ idea either. It was Japanese, as Carmine Gallo explains. For years, Japanese cookers used magnetic latches to avoid spilling. If a laptop crashes to the floor, it might sustain damage. But if a boiling rice cooker falls to the floor, especially if a child is responsible, the results could be catastrophic. Thus, Apple made an association between Japanese rice cookers and laptop chargers, two unrelated devices. Who would have thought?

Again, this doesn’t mean that what works for someone will work for you too. My senior in a previous organization would slow down while driving past a Mercedes showroom? When I asked him why he did so always, he said, “I see a little bit of myself in Steve Jobs.”

Gosh! I’m so tempted to tag his LinkedIn profile here. But that would be mean, right? Then again, I digress.

Have multiple influences. Learn from your heroes. Copy them. There is no shame in that. But don’t just copy what they do. Figure out why they do it. This will get you thinking like them to an extent. Of course, you won’t be carbon copies of them. And after one point, you will fail. But that failure will help you discover your originality. That’s where you will find your voice, your uniqueness. And the world will crave to see what you will show them.

“A wonderful flaw about human beings is that we are incapable of making perfect copies. Our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover our own thing lives. That is how we evolve.” – Austin Kleon

If you have two or three passions, don’t throw them away. Don’t choose between them. Playwright Steve Tomlinson suggests that if you love different things, keep spending time with them. “Let them talk to each other. Something will begin to happen.”

Explore the beauty in the world. Keep an open mind. Observe everything. Then decide what you want to absorb and reject. These unrelated events and experiences don’t have to make you money. Eventually though, they will. And when they do, you happiness and fulfillment will fill your life. You won’t feel like you are working. That life is not a myth. It can be a reality. In fact, it’s already walked half way to meet you. And it’s calling out to you. So go out there and meet it half way.

Right-o. I’m off to play my guitar.


  1. Nandana Pattabi May 26, 2016
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  3. Beloo Mehra May 29, 2016
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  4. Suzy May 29, 2016
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  5. Mithila Menezes May 31, 2016
  6. Ramya Abhinand June 1, 2016

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