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Stony Brook Innovation Center Blog

Innovation Big Points

Nov 12 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? 

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power …

 Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
from "Ash Wednesday," by T.S. Eliot

Soon after posting “Innovation Fine Points” last month, I had a lengthy discussion with one of my sons, who is around the average age of students here and suddenly finds himself low man on the totem pole for the first time in his life, surrounded by Cal Poly and MIT people on his team at work.  Friends, this could happen to you!  Many an All American sat pine their whole professional career; the Happy Few adapt and make a name for themselves from the wings.  Vinnie Johnson of the Detroit Pistons came to be known as The Microwave.  Put him, and watch him pop.  My son’s Smithtown soccer team played for the state championship, he was All Conference in college, ran decathalons on the side, and is having difficulty coordinating the Fine Points and Big Points in his very own, one and only life, what can I tell ya.

Time was, he was enough of a virtuoso with The Uniform Structure of Information that he and his twin brother toasted me, our last supper before heading to a tip-top college, for never once browbeating them to study this or practice that to get there on full scholarships.  Everything’s not only better, but easier, when you know how to use everything you ever learned or experienced to figure out everything else comin’ atcha all day.  But you know how it is: you get to college, you’re on your own, and you think you can figure out everything for yourself and forget everything your parents taught you.  Before long, you’ve forgotten much of it.  You’ll find your own way, you tell yourself.  Five years later, things start coming apart, and you’re at a loss to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.  Everything isn’t as simple as riding a bicycle.  Some things that you learn to do well once, come back to you readily.  The road of life is a tricky business.
Funny thing, though: he still plays soccer regularly.  Still a super-duper stopper.  Lives in San Diego.  The Mexican teams in the league call him El Martillo: The Hammer.  He learned, practiced, and refined all kinds of Fine Points and Big Points both for soccer and every decathalon event.  They both occur simultaneously in every athletic contest.  Likewise in every business meeting, whether between twenty people or two.  Go you one better: every moment has Fine Points and Big Points going on. 
“So how come I have a distinct presence of mind about the Fine Points of what I’m doing and the Big Points going on around me on a soccer field, but am having trouble doing that at work and the rest of my life?” my son wisely asks. 
“Turn it around the other way,” I suggested.  “Picture how ridiculous it would be for a coach to put someone in a game, much less at a crucial time in an important one, who can neither dribble, pass, shoot, or defend?  Why can’t he?  He never has, for real.  Maybe he horsed around with a ball here and there, but he never really focused on any of the Fine Points or Big Points of the game on a regular, let alone daily basis the way you and your teammates did.
“You weren’t really living a life all those years in college, as you are now.  You were assigned an apartment and roommates, and the classes you took only counted for a grade and what you learned, not all the twists and turns of arranging housing and plotting a career and life.  You had girlfriends, but even when you thought it might be for keeps, you weren’t beset with any of the challenges that people making a life together have.  You have trouble keeping the Fine Points and Big Points in focus simultaneously all the time because you stopped applying your soccer skills and how you acquired them to your work and life, the way you did in college when you were still largely in the same familiar framework as when you were in high school: taking classes and being on athletics teams, where you had teachers and coaches guiding your efforts.
“The Point of learning, practicing, and refining the Fine Points and Big Points and becoming able to focus on both simultaneously, both in the way you played and worked in college was obvious.  You’re at a loss now because you haven’t been doing that in your job and social life since then, but you still remember doing that once, as vividly as though all those yesterdays were today, how you did it, and can begin doing that now.  Pat yourself on the back for recognizing that you are at a loss, and speaking to me about it, the way you would go to a teacher or coach in the past for instruction.”

Most of us have either learned to play music or athletics, or know someone well who has.  A musician has to focus on both the instrument and the music simultaneously, and every instrument also either requires the use of two hands or one’s mouth with one hand merely holding the instrument.  I mentioned in “The World As Metaphor” that “Part of the magic of art is that, unlike our eyes, a flower in the foreground, deer in the middle ground, and waterfall in the background can be in focus simultaneously. The Craft of Fiction by Percy Lubbock is an incisive examination of the challenge in writing of moving back and forth from panoramic overviews of events to scenic descriptions as they occur, without narrators’ losing dramatic authenticity by intruding on a story from the shifts of focus for the reader.” 
You can train your eyes to focus on the foreground and background of events simultaneously, the same way that athletes and musicians do: learning and practice.  You can train your mind to do likewise.  The better you get at that, the better you do academic work, real work, and personal work, just as athletes and musicians perform better, the better they keep Fine Points and Big Points in focus simultaneously.  All the way up to the very best of both, there is a differential between how well they do, and how readily they grasp The Fine Points and Big Points is the main determinant.  They continually work on improving the underlying skills, which provide that.

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

Phone: 631.632.7171
Fax: 631.632.8181