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Stony Brook Innovation Center Blog

My NEXT Once in A LIFETIME Opportunity

Aug 23 2014

The most helpful topic for an Innovation Center blog would seem to be examining whether innovativeness can be instilled in people the way installing computer programs enables us to do different things, and if so, how is it downloaded, or learned?  Is there a single Skill Set underpinning all the other attributes that are identifiable in the majority of innovators, short of the few savants floating around, and even there?  Do innovations like the light bulb and Internet arise out of nowhere, or evolve as species do: putting similar things together again and again, and how is that done? 


                          “To see a world in a grain of sand …”

                                                from “Auguries of Innocence,” by William Blake

You’re only young once, they say, but safe bet that Do-Overs are as universal as Hopscotch and Spin the Bottle, or variations of such fun games played with bamboo or bells, instead of whatever is at hand in the USA.  The average age of Stony Brook’s students when I got my Masters degree here was 27, not 20 or 22, as one might expect: people taking a Do-Over of their life.  Another old saying: it’s never too late to learn, but I was also told after speaking at Dale Carnegie’s annual conference—my third Once in A Lifetime Opportunity—that it’s easier to teach a Third Grader and Fifth Grader new tricks than a thirty-year old or fifty-year old.  As the great Gershwin brothers put it, “It ain’t necessarily so.”  

Let us examine scientifically (dare I add, innovatively) what Robert Waterman, who skyrocketed to fame and fortune co-authoring In Search of Excellence with Tom Peters in 1987, called The Renewal Factor in a subsequent solo book. 
In the first of several excerpts from The Renewal Factor at, Robert Waterman quotes a professor at Stanford named Albert Bandura, who is surprisingly to me the fourth most cited psychologist of all time, behind only Freud, Skinner, and Piaget; ahead of Maslow, Fromm, and even Jung. 

“The capacity to learn by observation enables people to acquire large, integrated patterns of behavior without having to form them gradually by tedious trial and error.”

Nowhere in the book, to the best of my recollection, does Mr. Waterman offer so much as a clue about how someone acquires “the capacity to learn by observation,” or comprehend “large, integrated patterns of behavior,” much less conceive solutions based on them, create courses of action, or communicate those solutions.  Like every get your head, act, or business together book or article, a constant stream of anecdotes and analogies illustrate each point, which every such authority fails to recognize as the active ingredient, from whence all their brilliant ideas are derived, lacking which readers and listeners are as helpless to use their good advice as they would be to even discern it. 

I often attribute much of my knowledge and ability to make my way through life to the multitude of theoretical and practical lessons gleaned from learning to excel in athletics and competing with other people, who did likewise. 
It occurs to me now, on the other hand, from the process of reflecting on events while writing, that much of my athletic prowess was due to my father and older sister playing classical piano music incessantly in my house since I was born.  Hear Mozart’s Fantasia in C Minor, K. 475, any of Beethoven’s sonatas or Chopin’s preludes, ballades, or etudes, for starters, and what jumps out at you, first and foremost, is the overwhelming recurrence of the melodies and seemingly every possible variation of them streaming forth with almost unimaginable inevitability, not unlike the way a skilled basketball player shoots a ball after moving in different directions at full speed and jumping high off the ground, which then drops through the hoop.  I practiced the game with the same singular systematicness that the masters composed and my father and sister practiced the skills to acquire the same speed, strength, stamina, flexibility, timing, and touch with musical instruments that I did, to acquire those attributes on athletic fields, in order to perform anything well, and improvise interpretations of every phrase (or movement) that suited it … perfectly. 
Of course, not everyone’s parent or sibling were accomplished musicians, but you don’t have to be a film or poetry buff to realize that life is a chess game; it is also a garden, a dance, a meal, and everything in life is subject to laws, even debits and credits of all kinds.  All of the Above—not to mention the sun, moon, and stars—are every bit as replete with recurrences as classical music, and so-called popular music is equally so; one might say is classic to the very degree its recurrences are innovative and inevitable.  
Barring catastrophes like war, famine, or poverty induced disease, the great overriding lesson of the arts is that we all live very much the same life: Some Laughter, Some Tears, as Sholom Aleichem put it, which enables us to relate to the arts of every time and place.  That also means we have similar enough backgrounds that provide a foundation we can build upon if we but attune our minds to recognizing it and learn how to utilize that to meet the challenges that lay before us. 

We have addressed only the positive side of why Sinatra was able to wail with complete authenticity, “Each time I find myself falling flat on my face, I just pick myself up and get back in the race.  I said 'That's Life,'” in the song of that title, while all too many others falter, instead.  Impedance is every bit as much a factor in our mind’s receptiveness as our electronics gizmos’.  Failure is not only not not an option; it is as inevitable as the successful variations, which composers and artists of all kinds, as well as athletes, and yes, even the best accountants turn failures into, every time they are at their wonderful work.  Waste, failure’s flip side, is an essential ingredient in every facet of nature.  Salmon carcasses nourish the lush forests of the Northwest.  One critter’s waste is another’s delight.  What the trees exhale, the animals breathe.  Nothing goes to waste in creation’s hands.  Nor should it in yours.            Being one’s own worst enemy is often thought of as a psychological matter, indicating low self-esteem.  True though it may be that even the best still get nervous before performing—Jeff Bridges tells the story of very adult, experienced Robert Ryan’s hand leaving a pool of sweat after a scene with him at seventeen in The Iceman Cometh, who told him, “When you stop sweating, it’s time to really worry”—it is unquestionably a lot easier to strut onto a stage, athletic field, or into a room of any kind, with sufficient command of your faculties to have crossed that gauntlet successfully before.   Children who won’t allow Do-Overs lack the ability to win despite a handicap, or accept a loss even knowing they chose one, and often wind up stingy with them to themselves as adults.  Errors are only the portals of discovery if someone possesses the knowledge and skills to thread their way through any maze, and seize the treasures hidden there. 

As our very own Chair of Family Medicine, Dr. Jeffrey Trilling, found when we met, who had been telling students for decades about the importance of using anecdotes to elicit information from patients and intervene on their lifestyles: merely telling them to
do that without showing them how was like telling people who worry too much not to worry about it.  There is as much more to that than meets the eye as the rest of medicine he was teaching.  There may be no ordinary moments, as Dr. J likes to remind us, but we notice and experience them more fully, deeply, vividly, and clearly, the more readily we bring them to mind to reflect upon.  I ask you, dear reader, does not every great work of music utilize the same elements of composition—call them tactics or devices—just somewhat differently, to suit the implications of the melody at hand; likewise every great painting or sculpture?  Would not putting thoughts and feelings together with words work no differently?  Learning to utilize the recurrent components of what I've been calling The Uniform Structure of Information, which are discussed throughout these posts, turns out to be the key to innovating renewals whenever they are called for.

Stony Brook University Innovation Center, Stony Brook, NY 11794-3775

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