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Stony Brook Innovation Center Blog

Putting 2 and 2 Together to the Nth Power

Sep 08 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? 

Famous last words: Trust Me.  It’s no problem being an idiot, so long as you know you’re one.  A fool is one, who won’t admit it.  From all I can tell—and I’ve been around pretty much every block more than a time or two—we’re all idiots under the sun.  Indeed, think about it: Plato, Dante, and Shakespeare probably admitted it more than anyone, along with Dostoevsky and Proust.  Not bad company.
That doesn’t mean we have to shoot ourselves in the foot, any more than life will.  The Question at hand is, why do some people get in over their heads, and how can we learn to avoid ending up in a ditch with our wheels spinning from life’s inevitable bumps in the road?  Might the same skills you have been learning here, to become more innovative, also spare you from unnecessary grief?

On the way to teach a First Grade class several years ago, I heard on NPR that the last person present at the Armistice Treaty signing for WW I had died that night, who’d written a piece called Silence about English and German soldiers playing soccer and exchanging gifts on Christmas Day instead of killing each other.  One of the students couldn’t help asking, “What were they fighting about?”  “They didn’t know,” I matter of factly replied.  They looked around at each other with puzzled expressions, not realizing yet that grownups are indeed that crazy.  The math lesson was teaching multiplying by 2.  In the spirit of the moment, I couldn’t resist showing them what happened when you add 0’s to the 2’s, and how quickly a note from each of them to someone, to stop the madness, who followed suit, would reach everyone in the world.  They looked around each other again with the same puzzled expression, unsure whether I were even crazier than those soldiers.  Then in the magical way the Unexpected occurs if you continually Expect it, one of them started applauding hesitantly until the rest chimed in.
Wait: it gets better!  Not two minutes later the school principal shows up, as you may have guessed, and asks in a surly voice, “What’s going on here?”  We come full circle: who can forget Tony Curtis standing up when a Roman soldier asks his motley band of brother defiant slaves, “Which one of you is Spartacus?” in the movie of that name, and claiming that he is, then all of the others following in kind?  So now I’ve got a class of First Graders covering for me, with every imaginable excuse for applauding in class.

Is it metaphysics, or plain ole common sense to suggest that the sturdier and larger your outlook of events is, the farther you can see, the same as climbing up a tree.  Humor me one branch further: wouldn’t Boyle’s 2nd Law of Thermodynamics apply every bit as much to how we experience events as the way Pressure X Volume / Temperature remain constant when you freeze water or blow up a balloon?  Using anecdotes and analogies to illustrate the exposition in every piece of information, expands the Volume of the matter at hand, enabling us to literally remain Cool under Pressure, and therefore think more clearly. 
If you can’t put 2 and 2 together, nothing much else adds up, or holds up for long.

An administrative assistant, who worked for the V.P. of Facilities at the university, was lauded by then President Kenny at the end of a tour she arranged of all the facilities for the various building managers, who had—would you believe?—never thought of seeing what the others were doing.  At the hub of all facility trouble, she saw that some building managers had problems that others didn’t, and some likewise persistently did things to solve problems—call them innovations—that others didn’t do.  She also took it upon herself to (finally) set up a campus-wide Lost & Found.  Who remembers where they left a glove or umbrella?  
Why weren’t these issues resolved at weekly meetings?  Old saying: seeing is believing.  Why did this far less well-educated or experienced person in a subordinate position see an innovation that her superiors at the helms didn’t?  She had extraordinary skill at capturing the musicality of words in her speech, which enabled her to process information exceptionally well because her emotions were engaged; lived most of her life in another country, which gave her a more distant—and perceptive--perspective on events and behaviors here; and oversaw the administrative assistants of a large company there, which made her skilled at adapting uniform procedures to different situations.  In short, she put 2 and 2 together better than people thinking solely architecturally. 

A psychiatrist of all things, who brought his seemingly inert adolescent son to me with difficulty processing information, as he put it, anticipating a year of tutoring, not a ten-minute awakening from emulating how I read a random passage of a book he held, evoking the words’ Emotional Significance inherent in their musicality.  When he giggled at first, his father looked at me the way someone having their car jump-started turns from the ignition key to the person with the jumper cables.  Gathering himself, the teen then Sinatra’d the passage.  “The engine wasn’t stalling,” I told the father; “the transmission was slipping.”
He referred me to a colleague of his, who’d worked on The Nuns Diary Study correlating the use of anecdotes and analogies as the sole safeguard against Alzheimer’s, and told me she can tell from someone’s journal (perhaps emails) at 20 what their brain will look like at 70 better than a brain scan then.  Surprise, surprise: what enables people to learn better prevents them from forgetting what they know.  Alas, none of the many neuroscientists involved in the study could figure out how to teach these composition skills to Everyday People, as Sly put it.  They were teaching medical school while I was teaching The Uniform Structure of Information in 2000 elementary school classes.  If someone’s very brain deteriorates from their absence, one has to wonder how the rest of their life was affected by it.  I think, therefore not only I am.  Our emotions are filtered through our mind, as well. 

Now every teacher (and professor) has a lesson for the whole family.  What’s better than bringing lessons home—be it to parents, supporting a youth’s efforts, or children doing without  parents when they are in class—and teaching elders how to avoid that dread ill insofar as they may, or children how to learn easier, faster, and surer. 

Last week I addressed Common Core Standards, amongst other topics.  Every position has some such thing.  I quoted an industrial psychologist named Chris Argyris.  He also wrote a book called Integrating the Individual and the Organization, essentially about that very dichotomy between entities trying to make individuals conform and individuals trying to make entities conform, each seeking to get the most out of the other, attain their own goals, and retain their integrity.  How can you turn negatives into positives, much less transform (innovate) yourselves, if you can’t relate one thing to another, to begin with?

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

Phone: 631.632.7171
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