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Stony Brook Innovation Center Blog

Innovation Recipes

Oct 29 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? 

The first real book I ever read was a biography of John Paul Jones, oft called the father of our Navy, in Third Grade.  All I remember of it was tears gushing to my eyes over his famous reply on the already torn to shreds Bon Homme Richard, to the captain of a larger, better equipped British battleship, asking if he surrenders, “I have just begun to fight!” 
Who knows how much that experience alone molded my character?  Of course, I was already familiar with other examples of courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.  What eight-year old hasn’t heard of David and Goliath?  Or heard, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”?  No ordinary person thinks that way, much less thoroughly, deeply, vividly, clearly, and often enough to comprise a whole book in the Bible; nor has the symbol of a religion named after him, like The Star of David.  John Paul Jones, on the other hand, presented the crushing idea that anyone can do extraordinary things.  Why crushing?  Because it meant that some degree of glory of some kind was mine for the taking.  To hop from the Bible to the Beatles: “Boy, you’re going to carry that weight, carry that weight a long time.”  My father had a wonderful saying along those lines: “Anyone can do anything they want; very few can do everything they want.”  Sacrifice gave secular activities a religious significance.  Even if you don’t get to do everything you want, doing anything well enough to do anything you want at it, someone feels blessed.  Normally.  It can also be a curse if it gives someone a false sense that being able to do anything in one realm where they have acquired exceptional knowledge and skill affords them the privilege of doing anything at all that they please.  One can carry anything too far, as the legends of Faust and Frankenstein indicate.  Pride goeth before a fall.  Legends also abound of kings like Fergus giving up their throne to live amongst the Common People they ruled.  The Wikipedia list of kings, who actually have abdicated, looks like something around 100, so it is far more commonplace than one would think.

I taught nine people what I’ve been calling The Uniform Structure of Information, who work at a non-profit, last Friday.  I prepared my Introductory Comments for a month beforehand, then revised them the week before, already knowing how to explain the actual process of piecing reality together with it well enough to wing that once we were in full stride, but woke up in a panic the morning of the session, concerned that the appetizers passed around in the Introductory Comments were fulfilling enough to keep their brains from grumbling before the main meal, then as usual The Program guided me to recall reading about legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, starting the first practice every season, with some of the greatest players who ever lived—not with the intricate system he designed to direct their movements on a basketball court, much less how rigorously they would go about practicing it to win 11 of 13 championships—but showing them how to tie their sneaker laces!
Instead of the usual one-minute biographical sketch that people are often asked to do at such times, I asked their chief concern about being assigned to different positions or outside the organization with vendors or suppliers, and used their responses not only to give them a taste of what was to come and demonstrate how powerful it is, but also to indicate that it is applicable to every situation.  I explained at the outset that I could spill the beans, but pointing out to have Reasonable Expectations and giving them a sense of the process, with the analogy to learning to play the violin or golf in four hours, pointing out the way Beethoven keeps doing the same thing a little differently in the famous Fifth Symphony, and explaining to listen with one ear to what I was saying; with the other ear, to how I was saying it, was more of a priority.  The first habit of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is “First Things First.”  Information slips through people’s hands like staplers, scissors, and paper clips, or water when they don’t grasp it’s structure, which is why people carry a water bottle and have a utensil holder on their desk, so they can find the stapler, scissors, and paper clips, or drink water when they need them. 
Part of ALL the athletics greats’ lore is snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, as it’s known.  The Oakland Coliseum in the Raiders’ heyday under Ken Stabler was called The House of Thrills, he pulled it off so often.  THE most famous defensive play in baseball history is Derek Jeter’s perfect backhand toss over the first base line (coming from shortstop) in perfect position for the catcher to swipe a runner out at home plate.  Stabler threw plenty of interceptions; Jeter struck out plenty of times and made his share of errors.  The toss and walk-off hit his last at bat are what folks will remember.
So some of the trainees were lost in the first half-hour.  The Divine Comedy begins with Dante lost in mid-life in the woods, for a reason.  Vergil guides him to enlightenment, which also takes some doing and confuses the heck out of Dante at first, I might add.  The Odyssey begins with Odysseus’ son setting out to find his lost father.  His teacher’s name was Mentor, from whom comes the term we use.  Being lost can be a healthy state if someone recognizes rather than resists or resents it.  e.e. cummings began a poem with, “he does not have to think because he knows…” 

Before the training began, the organization director showed her staff a gift she had made for one of the participants, whose husband was recuperating from major surgery.  One of them seated near me muttered that “Some people are creative,” which I jumped on, pointing out that people seem to have brilliant ideas because they’re brilliant, when it’s the opposite: brilliant ideas come to them because their narrative structure facilitates them, just as holiday ornaments and gifts stay stuck in the closet until a tree or something of the kind is put out to hang them on.  Most people's gifts are stuck in their closet, so to speak, their whole lives, only because they never learned how to use The Uniform Structure of Information to hang them on.
The leaves are changing colors.  Recurrence is the most significant aspect of nature.  The arts—and verbal communication is one of them—evolved from rituals attempting to emulate nature’s powers of renewal from the recurring cycles.
Everyone is familiar with the expression, “Expect the unexpected.”  Accepting the unexpected is a whole other ballgame, as they say.  Accessing it is a whole other league.  The laws of nature create orderly environmental systems from randomly occurring events.  The laws of composition are every bit as present every moment, and just as invisible until we learn about them, so we can use them to accomplish goals, rather than have them work against us, the same way that ignoring the laws of nature comes back to bite us, through massive hurricanes and droughts.
The many nuances of practicing The Uniform Structure of Information recurred again and again throughout the training.  The four-hour training session wasn’t supposed to have ended when two o’clock struck; it was supposed to have only then just begun.  So are your classes when the semester ends, and your educations when you graduate.

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

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