I work (probably not for long!) for a company synonymous with high-tech creativity. Nolan Bushnell's spellbinding book corroborated my suspicions about what's wrong with their corporate culture, and why they are successful instead of being hyper-successful. I was mystified by why they love what I call my little ideas but not my big ones that could change the world and make them more valuable than Apple, Microsoft, and Google combined. The answer? Fear of being wrong. If my company nixed Henry Ford's big idea as they did one of mine, we'd still be riding horses and bicycles.
They claim to embrace big ideas but instead reject them. A salient characteristic of big ideas is that they initially sound brash if not nutty. Imagine if a young Thomas Edison told them, "I have an idea for putting a carbonized bamboo filament in a bulb that will create a demand for a distribution system to bring electricity into every home and business. Yes, electricity is dangerous, but it will make the world a better place. Really."
My employer asks me to think of solutions to all sorts of problems. One request initially seemed so mundane that I decided to let it percolate in my brain by building a shed (readers of this book will know why that's important). Somewhere between the first nail and the last coat of paint, an idea popped into my head that met their request but also solved one of the biggest problems in the world today: a problem that seems unsolvable. My first prototype worked and subsequent ones were even better. Not only did it work marvelously, but it was easy to PROVE that it worked. It could be quickly produced for a low cost and there is nothing else like it, thus permitting substantial profits without plundering customers.
The upshot of this story is that even companies who say they want big ideas are more comfortable digesting smaller incremental ones that temporarily give them a competitive advantage instead of introducing game-changing technology.
This meshes with research indicating that very innovative ideas often elicit strongly negative reactions. People claim they like truly creative ideas until they actually meet one. New ideas can evoke feelings of uncertainty that makes them uncomfortable. To mitigate that fear, they retreat for the comfort of old ideas or minor tweaks of them. However, rejecting the idea often isn't enough. As I discussed in a blog article ("Ridiculing good new ideas"), innovative people and ideas are often hammered for years or even decades until others belatedly realize the innovation's merit.
Buttressing that close-mindedness is an unfortunately prevalent psychological process called "system justification" that motivates people to defend the status quo even when the status quo is screwing them. System justification is basically the secret sauce of sheeple that turns men into mice. If the cheese ain't yellow-orange, they ain't biting. If the cheese clogs their arteries, clogged arteries are good. Ya dig?
Readers who read between the lines will realize that Bushnell's book could help them discover not only creative talent but also leaders innovative enough to conceive of solutions to the myriad problems that plague us. However, system justification prevents them from embracing anyone who truly thinks differently or is less than perfect, notwithstanding the observations of Abraham Lincoln ("It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.") and Friedrich Nietzsche ("In heaven all the interesting people are missing.").
H. L. Mencken echoed a similar comment: "The great artists of the world are never Puritans, and seldom even ordinarily respectable. No virtuous man--that is, virtuous in the YMCA sense--has ever painted a picture worth looking at, or written a symphony worth hearing, or a book worth reading."
Or invented something truly remarkable, I might add. There's a reason for this. Researchers found that prenatal exposure to higher levels of testosterone makes people more likely to be eminently gifted with extreme creativity but it can also make men more likely to act like men, not angels. If Ben Franklin and Albert Einstein were judged by today's "one strike and you're out" standards, they would be massacred.
Bushnell made so many great points that I could write a book about them. Here's one: In discussing clones, he mentioned how diversity is reflexively equated with superficial things such as gender or ethnicity, not creative diversity. Thanks to the Internet, I've made friends around the world: every continent and nations from Haiti to ones even smaller. Our common denominator is that we like ideas. We're thinkers. Skin color is utterly irrelevant. Why on Earth should human resources departments care about race or other differences Bushnell mentioned? To meet some quota? Because it requires less mental horsepower to process?
Readers should heed Bushnell's advice to "debate both sides of any proposition." I've done that for years on my blog, with some readers concluding I'm über-liberal and others thinking I am further Right than Attila the Hun, sometimes on the same issue. Neither, but long ago I realized the mental exercise I could obtain by taking extreme but disparate opinions. Incidentally, that tactic led to personal attacks on me that, while ludicrous, triggered a burning "I'll show you!" passion that finally got me into high gear. I had the potential all along, as many of you do, but I was frittering away my talent and hence my life. Sometimes we need a kick in the pants to get us going. I certainly did.
Bushnell also wisely advised readers to be more tolerant of what they perceive as arrogance. Some people who are dripping with arrogance have good reason for their lofty self-assessments. Arrogance has a positive side effect: it incentivizes those with it to go the extra mile to maintain justification for it. In my years working as an ER doctor, I saw that the most humble physicians had good reason to be humble. They put people in graves who should have been saved. I began my medical career being very humble, and I too had good reason for it. Then, finally, something clicked in my brain and I became very good at saving lives but not in tolerating the BS that American physicians are subjected to that makes many of them long for a way out of medicine. I had an exit strategy focused on creativity, which is virtually immiscible in the medical profession that values conformity above all else.
Nolan Bushnell is more than an accomplished genius. He is a genuinely great human being who can look past the superficial and inspire people with more than a paycheck, unlike other tech entrepreneurs who often seem coldly robotic and oddly Machiavellian. I'm sure some of them will bristle while reading Bushnell's book - IF they read it, which is unlikely, given their unjustified arrogance in thinking they have all of the great ideas and know all they need to know about finding and nurturing creative talent.
I am intrigued by Bushnell's current focus ("improving the educational process by integrating the latest developments in brain science") because that is the ultimate innovation that will catalyze endless additional ones, and because of my experience in transforming myself from dunce to doctor and beyond. My sixth-grade teacher called me "slow," which triggered a burning desire to prove him wrong. But how? It took years and some serendipity to discover the solutions that crystallized during the summer vacation between my 10th and 11th grades. I'd struggled so much until then my grand plan was to drop out and work on an auto assembly line. When I returned, I could easily keep up with the smartest kids in class. I aced the rest of high school, college, the MCAT exam, and medical school, graduating in the top 1% of my class even though my ADD made the regimentation of med school pure torture. I crave intellectual diversity and want to do 100 things at the same time, not just sit and passively absorb information. I love learning, but the traditional way is so misguided and counterproductive the educators who perpetuate it should embrace superior alternatives. I found methods that worked wonders for me and others, such as thousands of people I've helped around the world, including a couple of my friends who were trapped in boring, dead-end jobs and are now physicians and medical school professors.
While intelligence can be improved, creativity is even more responsive. Bushnell's masterpiece presented valuable ways to spur corporate creativity, while I found ways to supercharge individual creativity. Collectively, this information could kickstart our economy and engender an unprecedented intellectual renaissance, but people so wedded to doing things the old way fight change even if it could clearly benefit them.
A case in point: Years ago during a long conversation with the CEO of a lawn equipment manufacturer, he mentioned his desire to produce tractors but he couldn't figure out how to offer a clearly better product so he wouldn't need to compete on price in a market that is already saturated with low-cost manufacturers. I have inventions (prototyped and proven, not vague ideas) that would give him a huge innovative edge in tractors and snowblowers -- another subject we discussed. At that time, I was so eager to get my foot in the door I offered to sell him the ideas for $1 each. He considered my offer for several weeks but said no, as I revealed in a blog article ("Meet a pigheaded CEO who is fettering our economy").
A few American corporations are open to accepting ideas from outsiders, but most persist in thinking they can generate all the ideas they need. A pervasive myth is that engineers can invent. Some can, but many cannot, and when they do, what results is usually incremental improvements, not transformative ones that revolutionize the process or supersede it.
That's why the American economy is stagnating. The USA left other nations in the dust by introducing one invention after another that made a night-and-day difference in how something was done. The last great invention to do that was the Internet, conceived decades ago. Where are the big breakthroughs now?
I suspect that many inventors get so frustrated dealing with hidebound companies that they just give up. To prosper, we need to become more receptive to new ideas and those who generate them, instead of resisting and mocking them, as is all-too-common human nature. Nolan Bushnell is not afflicted by that, but he is truly unique. To harmonize with others, Americans quickly learn to feign modesty and hide their gifts if they have them to lessen predictable retribution from folks with a crab mentality (Google it) or the tall poppy syndrome (ditto).
In addition to stimulating intelligence and creativity, my brainpower boosting methods also kindled my empathy so dramatically it reshaped how I feel about other people and even animals. Genuine empathy (not the fake veneer of it we're taught) can be easily instilled and otherwise fostered, but our hidebound system that supposedly champions innovation instead exhausts more energy resisting it. What a pity, considering what it could prevent: school shootings, innumerable other crimes, fragile marriages, and Americans HATING and backstabbing others with dissimilar political opinions.
Interestingly, I also stumbled upon a way to make time seem to pass more slowly. The answer to that eternal mystery could also synergistically fuel a global recovery. We're not wedded to the past, so let's not cling to it. Encourage everyone you know to tune out frivolous time drains and tune into Bushnell's book so we find more Steve Jobses. They're out there.
Billionaire philanthropist John Paul DeJoria said, "Most people tiptoe through life to make it safely to death." Few people are brave enough to think outside the box, but that's where the great ideas are. If we want a vibrant economy and problems solved, not perpetuated, we should heed what Apple said in their "Think Different" commercials:
"Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. But the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do."