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Stony Brook Innovation Center Blog

Beware the Ides of March

Mar 14 2015

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? 


Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

         from The Tragedy of Macbeth, Act V, scene v


Hard words.  Yes, sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can break your heart and chill your soul, my friends; sometimes permanently.  They also have the power to mend or warm them—just as permanently! 
Probably the most famous essay about Macbeth, and perhaps all of Shakespeare, is “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth,” by Thomas De Quincey.  In an essay called “Kocking at the Gate,” His Honor E. Stanley Weil, Judge Recorder of Montreal, likens De Quicey’s “final magical apostrophe, ‘O mighty poet! thy works are not as those of other men,’” to the profound effect of the knocking at the gate that De Quicey describes.  “Of such absorbing human interest is the human problem thus presented by De Quincey that almost breathlessly we follow the ingeniously woven argument, and … we recall ourselves as from a day-dream with a pleasing shock not unlike the very experience which De Quincey has been analyzing for us.”  So apparently, someone of “nice judgment,” as Casper Gutman puts it in The Maltese Falcon, considers De Quincy to have been so moved by Macbeth, and so skilled as to have been raised to the heights of Shakespeare, himself. 
In an action packed hotel room scene when Gutman and the esteemed private eye, Sam Spade, first meet in that classic detective novel, he tells him, "I distrust a closemouthed man.  He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking's something you can't do judiciously unless you keep in practice." 
Very little of what most students learn at any college, preparing for a career, teaches them that.  The papers you write, on specific topics in specific fields, don’t prepare you to discuss the many peripheral aspects of any situation in that field at any time, much less how it interacts with the many peripheral aspects in others, both of which by the way are apt to be very different than the ones at play today.  Hark!  Most people, I dare say, aren't doing what they do for other people like them, but businesses unlike theirs.  Law, design, and engineering firms do things for firms doing other things, by and large.  By the same token, it’s often said that the more things change, the more they remain the same.  You have to be able to move back and forth from what has and what hasn’t, fluidly.
You’ve seen TV blooper shows about mistakes that people made when the regular show was being filmed, like being unable to help cracking up laughing when they were supposed to have not noticed something, or they can’t get their lines out of their mouth.  In live theatre, part of the art is covering up for other actors’ mistakes, so the audience never notices, just as in sports players are doubly cheered when they fix a bad pass and make a great play out of it, anyway.  Derek Jeter’s fabled World Series game-winning, back-hand toss was all the more remarkable because the throw he received to home plate was twenty feet off target.  If an industrial psychologist trailed 20 million paper clips to prove that 80% of them are used to procrastinate, not fasten papers, presumably someone has proven that every department of every business makes at least one mistake every hour.  Here’s a good one for you budding MBA’s: how many go unnoticed?  If you haven’t wondered how much that costs businesses, you can rest assured that someone will notice how much yours do before long.  How on earth will you survive … forty years in this wilderness?       

I examined the interplay between realities and abstractions in the October 19th post, “It’s All in the Game.”  After an introductory paragraph about harkening back to the peculiar effect, which that knocking at the gate has always had on him, De Quincey disquisitions upon the folly of trusting our faculty of understanding, and gives as an example the difficulty that people have, drawing two walls at right angles or houses on opposite sides of a street, which they have seen thousands of times, plain as day, as they say.
The Gutman comments, you may have noticed, are yet more examples of abstractions about realities.
I referenced one in Balzac’s novel, Lost Illusions in that October 19th post.  In chapter 38, a high official tells the stupefied poet turned journalist, anticipating to be made a count, “You have made enemies, so much more to be feared because they were favourably disposed to you.  What may seem natural coming from an enemy is appalling when it comes from an ally.” 
We learn the Scientific Method before we start doing experiments in school, with more specific details about biology, chemistry, and physics in a single high school year, to do those experiments, than twelve about language use.  All we’re taught about the Composition Method that every writer and speaker uses, is that there’s a beginning, middle, and end, and providing supportive information to sweeping statements, not how to fill in all the details.  The director of Lean Process at a Fortune 25 company division attributed the senior executives’ superlative presentation skills to … their DNA, yikes!  Human Resource people teach the rank and file Presentation Skills, without a word about any of the underlying skills that make those executives’ performances so powerful.  Even more ironically (mororonically, if I may), lacking those skills, the rank and file, to whom the executives’ presentations are directed, can no more use what the executives say than the executives would have thought of their presentation without those skills: the blind leading the blind—literally!  

A soothsayer forewarns the very superstitious Caesar to beware the Ides of March.  “Despite numerous and improbable portents—the soothsayer's warning, some fearsome thundering, his wife's dreams of his murder, and so on—Caesar ventures forth on the ides to meet his doom.” ( Shakespeare borrowed the story from Plutarch, but as they say in Hollywood, the words were changed to incense the innocent.
I know that you know all about primary and secondary sources, BUT …can you speak for an hour the way they are written?  A day?  You whole life?  Two minutes? 
hen I took my twin sons to meet athletic coaches at colleges, one and all said that they could fill their entire enrollment with 4.0 students with 2400 SAT’s, but turn most of them away, in favor of those who demonstrate an ability to consistently examine information from different angles and put them together cohesively.  They also said unanimously that the biggest misconception people have when considering colleges is evaluating the facilities and professors, whereas it is the students, themselves, who make most of the difference between one college and another. 
There are three pillars of wisdom: the knowledge of the past, your own insights, and the counsel of your contemporaries.  Those who neglect to nurture and assay any of the above, do so to their everlasting peril.

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