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Stony Brook Innovation Center Blog

Expose Yourself to Innovation

Aug 01 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? 



The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
William Wordsworth
          

My beach reading (no pun intended; this is brew of a different color, as they say) for the nonce is Lady Chatterly’s Lover, which I picked up again in part because it was regarded as one of D.H. Lawrence’s less interesting or satisfying novels in something I read, and I was curious to see what it looked like when one of the masters slipped here and there, perhaps even as a whole, contrary to my recollection of it from my green youth. 
“Mistakes are the portals of discovery,” James Joyce said.  A Brigham Young University campus in Idaho website http://www.byui.edu/get-more/tip-2, which the search for the quote’s origin turned up, also mentions that “Surprisingly, research has shown that learning improves if people occasionally make errors.  We remember things better and longer if we are challenged.”  Who’d’ve thunk it. 
Funny thing: as I recall, nobody—I repeat, NOBODY—learns to play a sport or instrument without making oodles of them, and they are in fact what enable you to get the hang of the sport or instrument.  As Piaget put it: “Play is the work of children,” or something to that effect.  Why stop when we grow up?  Not so funny is how mistakes are frowned upon throughout our education. 

I was eating a peach on a bench, trousers rolled daringly up a la Prufrock (if ya gotta look him up, you should get around more) in the middle of a giant manufaturers outlet upstate, accompanying a darling with a flair with a shawl, who drove clients there, and noticed a triad of eagles circling in formation waaay overhead, like a three-man weave in basketball vernacular.  A young boy was sitting with his mum on the bench next to mine at an octagonal angle, eyeing my peach, perhaps wond’rin’ how I had the foresight to bring it, in lieu of the fast food in a paper wrap that everyone else was scoffing, so I pointed up to the eagles, and when his eyes followed my lead, he started giggling, looking around and noticing that no one—but NO ONE—else noticed them.  “What’s the matter?” mumsy asked.  He shook his head so emphatically that nothing—I repeat, NOTHING—was the matter, his whole torso and legs shook in opposite directions, each wag of his head.  As Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Haden Planetarium put it to Charlie Rose when asked if he always looks up when leaving a building, “Looking up all the time is not a bad idea for anyone anywhere,” again, or something to that effect. 
We covered much of this ground, more specifically with regard to recycling failures and waste, in “My NEXT Once in A Lifetime Opportunity,” but the context is different, and mistakes are a different matter than failure and waste, albeit closely related.  The subject at hand, as always, is innovativeness as a function of composition skill.  Getting a handle on mistakes, failures, and waste byproducts are also a matter of composition skill.  Not to draw any comparisons, but Beethoven, Chopin, Dickens, and Shakespeare were also doing much the same thing over and over again, differently: Continual Improvement, in the business vernacular. 

Lawrence wrote numerous critical examinations of literature—most of them about the innovativeness (I ain’t kidding; that’s the slant) of certain American authors—in addition to much fiction.  I forget exactly where he lambasted Tolstoy for copping out over Anna Karenina’s love affair and having her commit suicide in the end, rather than exult over it, as Lady Chatterly does.  Might’ve been someone else mentioned it, who didn’t bother saying where he got wind of Lawrence’s derision.  Every revolution has its zealots—and reactionaries—but I didn’t read Anna’s plunge in front of a train the way Lawrence did, as caving in to social mores, so much as deriding those social mores altogether for leading a darned good person to such an extreme measure.  Even amongst zealots there are differences of opinion. Without having the source, so as to examine the comment in its context, I would guess that, somewhat like Jerry Seinfeld taking offense to his dentist converting to Judaism for the jokes, not as a Jew, but as a comedian, Lawrence took exception to Tolstoy’s decision more as a man than a writer, and understood full well what Tolstoy was really driving at.
Madame Bovary also commits suicide, but for altogether different reasons, insofar as anything she does or thinks can be called reasoned out.  She simply sees no place for herself in this world, again insofar as it can be said that she sees anything at all, which is more to the point.  That is why she makes one mistake after another, not grasping why.  It is a complete, intense, painfully clear portrait of a mind that doesn’t work, that can’t connect to anything or anyone.
Coinciding with Lady Chatterly’s liberated morality is a seering, profound sense of The Good Life’s emptiness, which presages Existentialism by a generation.  One of the titles in a massive study of the phenomenon by Jean Paul Sartre, Existentialism’s presumed founder and foremost spokesperson, exemplifies her ennui: Being and Nothingness. 

 “Clifford was really clever at that slightly humorous analysis of people and motives which leaves everything in bits in the end…  It was weird and it was nothing.  This was the feeling that echoed and re-echoed at the bottom of Connie’s soul: it was all nothing, a wonderful display of nothingness.  At the same time a display.  A display! a display! a display!”

             The descriptions of everyday events throughout the novel are as pointedly bland as Dianne Keaton’s singing in Annie Hall is deliciously incompetent.  Whoever thought that this novel is weak in any way read it wrong in a different way than Lawrence chastised Tolstoy.  He wasn’t bickering about ideologies; he was mistaking dead-pan slapstick for slapdash.  We are in the hands of someone with complete command of his faculties and everything going on around and inside everyone. 
So it turns out, or would seem, that you first have to forsake the norm—whatever that happens to be wherever you are—to reveal, much less open, the portals of discovery.  Old sayings, like You have to lose yourself to find yourself, are old for a reason: they reverberate throughout the ages, speaking to people of every time and place.  Lady Chatterly first relinquishes her ladylikeness, which had laden her down in a mold that didn’t suit her, then by stages her true self, without the trappings of her position, is revealed to her.  Perhaps no mold suits anyone, and everyone has to innovate—and navigate--The Road Not Taken for themselves.  We’ve crossed it before.  Perhaps everyone crosses it many times before hopping on.
Elaine balks from marrying well in The Graduate, and runs off instead with Ben, who has zilch to offer her.  Lawrence’s wife, Frieda, also fled The Good Life and lived a life of deprivation with him, delighted as a bird.  As Einstein put it, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”



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