Working Hypothesis That Changed My Life:

Every Problem Has a Solution

By Shlomo Maital

   I have written another book on creativity: Dismantle! How to Deconstruct Your Mind and Build a Personal Creativity Machine. It will be published by Harper Collins (India) in October. Why India? I’ve discovered Indian publishers are superb at editing and printing books and the market price is a fraction of that in the US. Besides, Indian people still do read books.

   Here is the opening prologue of my book. It makes a point that I learned from a former student and co-author Arie Ruttenberg: Creativity is widening the range of choice. You always have a choice. Every problem does have a creative solution. But only if you first believe that – and begin your search. This principle has changed my life. Perhaps it can change yours?

     If you are like me, you tend to skip through non-fiction books rather quickly, searching for the essence and picking the ripe ‘cherries’ from the tree, when most of the ‘fruit’ in the book is not yet ripe or relevant or interesting or non-obvious.

   Here, then, is a quick overview of this book. As you read on, please feel free to cherry-pick.

     But before we begin our journey to re-energized creativity, I’d like to emphasize a key point—literally, the key to unlocking your creative skills.

     Scientific research begins with a hypothesis—a supposition about what the research may reveal. For example, a scientist sought to find the number of neurons (brain cells) in the human brain, starting off with the assumption that the number was 100 billion; that was the commonly believed number. The assumption was false. It turned out that there are 86 billion neurons in the brain.  

     We all make assumptions. Most of the time they are hidden, ill-defined and below the threshold of our awareness.   When we tackle hard problems we often harbour a hidden assumption, such as, ‘there is no solution to this’, and come to the conclusion: Live with it, as is.    

       Humans are wonderfully resilient and are skilled at adapting and adjusting to difficulties and unmet needs. This resilience, or acceptance, is a highly positive quality. But it also can be harmful.

         I urge every reader to embrace a very different hypothesis. I would like my readers to assume that for every challenge, every problem, every unmet need and unsatisfied want, there is a solution—at least one. Every problem has a solution.   It is simply a matter of finding it and implementing it. By assuming there is a solution rather than that there is not one, we have taken a major first step towards effective creativity.

Try it. Tackle hard problems. Think creatively. Dive deep into the essence of the problem. Try wild ideas. You may fail. But the effort is glorious and praiseworthy. And you might just succeed.

p.s. the quote is by Donna Karan, who launched a wonderful creative fashion company. Louis Vuitton recently sold the DKNY brand for $650 million.

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Why We Do What We Do – Putting it All Together

By Shlomo Maital

Sometimes things just seem to come together, naturally.

  1. I recently taught a Workshop for a wonderful group of high school science teachers. They all told me, their key problem is – motivating their students. Motvating them to learn.
  2. I recently received a research paper from McKinsey, titled “How to improve student educational outcomes: New insights from data analytics”. In this study McKinsey researchers used machine learning (an offshoot of artificial intelligence) to analyze a massive data set — the PISA surveys of 15 year old high school students and their understanding of science and math. The key finding: Student mindsets are twice as predictive of students’ PISA scores than even their home environments. Mindset means “a student’s sense of belonging, motivation and expectations”. This result is robust across the entire world.

The graph shows the % of predictive power of students’ performance. The top two rectangles (orange and purple) represent “mindset” (motivation), for the five different geographical areas.

  1. My wife’s copy of the American Psychological Association magazine Monitor just arrived. In it, 33 leading psychologists were asked, “What is the next big question psychology needs to answer?” The first person quoted was Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck, whose work on growth mindsets (the idea that talent and talent can grow in a nurturing education environment) was seminal. She said we need “an integrative theory of motivation” and “a framework for …effective intervention [to boost motivation].

   These three circles converge. They teach us that how well we motivate ourselves, and those we work with, are THE crucial variables. Because motivated people can do anything (did you watch the Croatia soccer team at the World Cup?). And those without motivation can do nothing.

     Let’s look inward and ask, what lights our spark?   And then look outward and ask, how can we light the sparks of others who work with us?

 

Baby Bust – Why?

By Shlomo Maital

 Why are married couples in the West having fewer children? What is the underlying cause of the “baby bust”?  I was born in 1942, at nearly the bottom of the fertility decline driven by the Depression and World War. Good thing for me my mother and father believed in the future, however bleak it looked at the time. (The graph shows babies per 1000 persons, in the US, from around 1910 to 2010.)

       A study of 1,858 men and women aged 20-45, in the U.S., was published in the New York Times, July 7-8 (international edition).   For those who said they “expected to have fewer children than they thought ‘ideal’ “   here are the main reasons:

     Child care is too expensive (64%), want more time for the children I have (54%), worried about the economy (49%), can’t afford more children (44%), worried because of financial instability (42%), not enough paid family leave (39%).

     (Of course, the numbers add up to more than 100% — most respondents cited more than one reason).

     The conclusion is, as the heading of the article states, “Baby bust rooted in economics”. Somehow, couples in the US (and probably, in Europe and Japan, and China as well) feel that children are too costly.

     Demographers know that the ‘demographic transition’ (sharp fall in fertility as countries grow wealthier) happens everywhere. But the ‘baby bust’ has followed a huge baby boom, that brought economic growth to the US.   Baby busts do the opposite.

     I would not be on this earth, if my mother and father had said, times are tough, we just came out of a Depression, we can’t afford another child, and besides, there is terrible war, how can you bring babies into such a world?   Instead, they looked to the future with hope and optimism.

      My own country Israel defies the trend. We are having a baby boom. Fertility rates have risen, for nearly all segments of society. Israel has 180,000 babies yearly. They bring us happiness and hope for the future. Why? Our young people believe babies are ‘cool’.

   How is it, that today, when people are relatively affluent, they feel too poor to have babies, when in the past, when people were relatively poor, they felt affluent enough to have children, whatever the state of the world?

   I am puzzled.

        

 

 

 

An American’s Vision Healed – in India
            By Shlomo Maital

Kristos Stavropoulos
Kristos Stavropoulos is Chief Information & Technology Officer at Maguire Investments.  The only reason I mention this, is that I assume he has the resources to get top-flight medical care anywhere in the US. 
   Instead he went to … India.
   India?
   Stavropoulos recounts that he had a corneal scar – a scar on the thin transparent layer that covers the iris and pupil of the eye and refracts light.   A scar on the cornea can be a major problem.  Caused by an eye infection, the scar affected his vision – rather crucial in his line of work.  So he travelled all the way to Hyderabad, in southern India, to the L V Prasad Eye Institute.    (I have visited LVPEI several times, and recently met with its amazing founder, Dr. G. N. Rao,  in Israel).  
    At LVPEI   Stavropoulos consulted Dr. Sayan Basu.  She is an expert in a highly complex and revolutionary treatment, that uses stem cells to regrow and repair corneas.  Stem cells are human cells that have the ability to become whatever is needed – include corneal tissue – depending where they are.  But they are notoriously difficult to work with.   Here is what Stavropoulos said, after successful treatment:
     “My experience at LVPEI has been exceptional.  When you think of surgery, it’s scary, especially with eyes.  But the great thing about this institute is the positivity and expertise  that the doctors and the team have.  Most importantly, I trusted Dr. Basu and was assured about the success of the treatment that I was provided.”
    So far, over 1,600 innovative stem cell procedures have been performed at LVPEI, Patients from India, and from all over the world, have benefited from these innovative procedures.  At LVPEI,  wealthy patients pay for patients who have no money.  But everybody, EVERYbody, gets the same quality of medical care.  And the enormous scale of the medical care means that even experimental high-tech procedures can be tried, improved, studied – and made standard.
      At LVPEI I learned about an even more amazing technology under development – use of stem cells to regrow RETINAL cells (the retina is the kind of mirror, or light receptor, at the back of the eye, subject to retinal detachment, or macular degeneration [e.g. holes in the retina] ). 
    So, if you have eye disease, and if your doctors tell you they can’t treat it – check out LVPEI.   Because Indian people have so many eye diseases and problems,  LVPEI experts have vast experience – and creativity plus experience leads to innovative medical care that pushes frontiers to amazing places.  In the past 31 years, LVPEI has treated 28 million people, many of them from very poor villages. 
     By the way, Dr. Rao is now working to establish an LVPEI-type clinic in Monrovia, Liberia.  This,  despite Liberia’s strong links with the United States (it was founded by former American slaves).  It is hard for even top American doctors to understand how to establish medical care centers in very poor countries – but LVPEI knows how.  Liberia’s legendary former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,  who heard of LVPEI and whose close relative was successfully treated there, visited LVPEI, made the request – and LVPEI responded.
      

Rescue Dogs – Rescue Children
By Shlomo Maital 

Seven years ago, our daughter in law came upon a puppy in Tel Aviv. A mixed-breed Yorkshire,  the four-month-old puppy jumped on her, on a Tel Aviv Street.  Dafna could find no owner, and brought her home, bathed her, cleaned her up (she was full of fleas and ticks), took her to the vet for shots…and asked us if we could help find her a home, as a rescue dog.   I met Pixie (the name we gave her) when I came home from a working trip to Europe.  As I came in the door, she jumped into my arms and licked my face… instant love, after 3 microseconds.  At that instant, my wife and I decided we would keep her.  Since then Pixie has made us laugh every single morning and with her antics, made the awful news in the New York Times and Ha’aretz bearable.   
     Pixie IS a rescue dog.  She rescued us, in a sense.  She takes us for walks and offers unconditional love, rain or shine – and an incredible greeting every time we come home, as if we were long-lost siblings.
    Several of our friends have rescue dogs, too.   One has a beautiful placid huge golden retriever, female,  she (the dog) carries herself with dignity worthy of Pope Francis.    Taking home a rescue dog is truly worthwhile and meaningful —  often, it keeps the dog from being put down, in rescue kennels that are vastly overcrowded, because so many unworthy people bring home puppies for children and then suddenly discover dogs need care, feeding and walking ..and abandon them. 
     So yes – great that we love rescue dogs.
     But what about rescue kids?  Writing in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof points out that America is neglecting kids – and not just those of immigrants. 
“It’s not just the kids at the border.  America systematically shortchanges tens of millions of children, including homegrown kids. The upshot is that American kids are more likely to be poor, to drop out of high school and even to die young than in other advanced countries.”
    So —  What about a program for rescue kids?   Resources for education, food. (Republicans now seek to cut a food stamp program that has fed millions – including one child in five who lives in poverty in America,  a Third World statistic).   Even, perhaps, adoption, when justified. 
   Kids are as lovable as dogs. And they deserve just as much love.

p.s. this is blog # 1,500.  Thanks to all my readers. 

How Teddy Bear Got Its Name

By Shlomo Maital

Did you ever wonder how the teddy bear got its name?   The answer: President Theodore Roosevelt.

   Here’s the story.

     In 1902, President Roosevelt was invited by Mississippi Governor Andrew H. Longino to go on a bear hunt. After a long day, Roosevelt saw no bears and retired to sleep. But a group of Roosevelt’s assistants cornered, clubbed, and tied an American black bear to a tree after a long exhausting chase with dogs.

     They called Roosevelt to the site and said that he should shoot it.  He refused to shoot the bear himself, saying it was unsportsmanlike, but said that the bear be killed to put it out of its misery (the bear was way underweight and scraggly).

     Clifford Berryman did a cartoon on the incident in The Washington Post on November 16, 1902.     Later issues of that and other Berryman cartoons made the bear smaller and cuter than it really was. Today, we would say that cartoon went ‘viral’.

     Morris Michtom saw the drawing of Roosevelt and created a tiny soft bear cub and put it in the shop window with a sign “Teddy’s bear,” after Teddy Roosevelt gave his permission to use his name.   The toys were a huge success.   As a result Michtom founded the Ideal Novelty and Toy Co. and became wealthy.

   A BBC program called “Witness” told this story recently.

 

 

 

Blue Collars Lose Ground – Don’t Blame Trade

By Shlomo Maital

 

     Led by the Trump Administration in the US, worldwide there is a counter-revolution against globalization. Right wing governments are being elected in Hungary, Italy, Austria, partly in Germany, and elsewhere, reacting against the ravages of globalization – particularly, the claim that blue collar workers are being scalped by it – by migrants (free flow of labor) and by trade (free flow of goods).

     America, which invented this amazing system that made many emerging economies wealthy (East Asia, primarily) now leads the charge against it.

     And this whole counter-revolution is based on a falsehood. Don’t blame trade. Blue collar woes have another primary cause, according to Harvard University Professor Elhanan Helpman, in his new book Globalization and Inequality. It was not primarily free trade (globalization) that caused the large gap between blue collar and white collar wages.

     Earlier, in 2016, Helpman published an NBER working paper * showing this (typically understated, as academic researchers are wont to do):

       Trade played an appreciable role in increasing wage inequality, but its cumulative effect has      

       been modest, …globalization does not explain the preponderance of the rise in wage inequality

            within countries.

   What, then, does explain it? Technology and productivity.

     Studies show that the premium for a college education (i.e. skilled workers) was 63%.   The blue collar/white collar wage gap results from basic supply and demand factors, “…the dominant cause was an increase in the relative demand for skilled workers”.

   OK – so who is to blame?   American political leadership, for failing to find ways to upgrade the skills of blue-collar workers, especially in America’s failing and failed educational system.   And, as New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks has noted – the educated elite simply ignored the plight of the non-educated elite – and the price they pay is the election of Donald Trump.

* Elhanan Helpman. “Globalization and wage inequality”.   NBER working paper 22944, Dec. 2016.

CRISPR Will Change Our Lives

By Shlomo Maital

   Some time ago, I wrote about a technology known as Blockchain that will undoubtedly change our lives – and has already. Blockchain is simply a way to record transactions, that is secure, unhackable and ‘disintermediated’ (no need for banks or other financial middlemen). It is now widely used to create digital money.

   Now comes CRISPR. It stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.     What is it? Simply, a way of editing genes – like we edit blogs or emails. Erase this group of words. Replace it with another, better one.   In the case of DNA: “Erase” (snip away) this (bad) piece of DNA, a gene that causes problems – and replace with a ‘good’ gene, that will not cause disease or problems.

   A palindrome is a word that reads the same forward and backward.   E.g. “civic”. So pieces of DNA are inserted into longer pieces, such that the inserted pieces read the same forward or backward, so it doesn’t matter which way they are inserted. The method originated with studying how viruses ‘snip’ DNA – and using viruses to do the same in constructive way.

     We now know the genetic causes of many diseases. But until now we have not had the ability to repair bad genes. Now CRISPR makes it possible. This will create an entirely new branch of medicine, immunotherapy, in which gene therapy is used to both treat illness, when identified, and mainly, to prevent it — an individual can now have his or her genome analyzed, and potential ‘bad’ genes identified. No point in doing this, so far, because there was no real way to ‘edit’ bad genes. Now, with CRISPR, there is.

     I would like to mention one of the scientists responsible for CRISPR, the young MIT scientist Feng Zhang. He was born in China and is only 36; he does research at the famous Broad (pronounced Brode) institute in Cambridge, MA. Increasingly bright foreign students are encountering US visa problems and are going elsewhere, e.g. Canada. It is America’s loss.

The Happiness Tree
By Shlomo Maital 

                                          
   In the Bible,  Adam and Eve taste the forbidden fruit (the ‘apple’,  which represents knowledge, by some interpretations) and are banished forever from Eden.
    In the October 2017 issue of American Psychologist *,  Michelle Shiota and colleagues summarize what we know currently about the sources of happiness and  discrete positive emotions, based on neuroscience.  They ask, and in part answer:  What REALLY makes us happy?  They summarize the answer in the form  a tree – not the Tree of Knowledge but the Tree of Happiness.
     The tree trunk is “enthusiasm”.  That means —  When we lack purpose in life, when our energy levels are depleted, when we sink into apathy,  we cannot reach the tree branches where happiness resides.  Enthusiasm is the core.
       The five thick branches are neurotransmitters:  Serotonin, testosterone, oxytocin, cannabinoids, and opioids.  Alas, the last 3 have become drugs driven underground, with opioids killing thousands yearly in the US, and testosterone is a drug banned for use in performance-enhancement in sports.   But the leafy branches show that happiness is not a single simple dimension but has several key components:  Pride, sexual desire, nurturant love, contentment, awe, amusement, attachment love, gratitude, and liking/pleasure.  
     Apparently, when we are happy, there is a complex interaction of the neurotransmitters and related systems, throughout the brain.
     I think this simple tree has a message.  Want to be happy?  First – stay positive.  Find sources for enthusiasm, and motivation – based on meaning – make meaning in your life.  Then – Do things you are proud of.  Leverage them for contentment.  Find someone to love, nurture their love and build your attachment.   It can bring pleasure in itself and through sexual desire.  Maintain a sense of awe and wonder.  Be grateful for what you have, however little (or much).   Find sources of amusement.
    It is an immense tragedy that so many find “dopaminergic reward” by taking drugs, rather than by living well.  Why do we not try to teach our children about true happiness,  no less important than spelling and geography?  
     Many fortunate people have found that the ‘high’ you get from being up in the Happiness Tree is more deeply satisfying than the artificial kind that can kill you. 
    *  Shiota, Michelle N., et al. “Beyond happiness: Building a science of discrete positive emotions.” American Psychologist 72.7 (2017): 617. 
  

Snow Capped Idea Volcanoes:

Creativity of the Elderly

Shlomo Maital

 

     A mind is a terrible thing to waste.   Are we wasting the creative minds of our seniors?   Is the wrong-headed assumption that creativity is entirely the domain of young minds depriving the world of revolutionary ideas? As countries in the West and East alike age, will we marginalize all those senior minds — and waste a precious resource?  

     Consider my own example.   I requested, and received, early retirement from my university employer, in 2001. I was then able to help lead a management institute that worked with many global high-tech companies and startups. I learned how to help them diagnose their core problems and make their organizations consistently innovative. I then wrote down what I learned in a dozen books, that I wrote, co-authored and edited, almost one a year.   I became a snow-capped idea volcano – and completed the Boston Marathon when I was 63.   And today, at 75.5 (the decimal was supplied by an Asian nation, when I applied for a visa) I am working on a collection of short stories titled “What If? The Willing Suspension of Disbelief”.

       And best of all, I got to meet and study a very large number of creative individuals, snow-capped like me, whose ideas were validated and activated and created enormous value. I could have opted for a rocking chair, which is what society often prescribes for seniors. Luckily I chose the ‘volcano’ alternative.

       We know a lot about the aging brain. It works a bit slower. It doesn’t remember things that well. But it does have an ephemeral quality called wisdom – the quality of having the magical mixture of knowledge, experience and judgment. I cannot count the number of startup ideas I’ve seen, that embody magical technology, to satisfy a non-existent need. Senior brains avoid that trap.

         Here is just one example, that I wrote about in my innovation blog a year ago:

     John Goodenough and his team at University of Texas (Austin) “has just set the tech industry abuzz with his blazing creativity”, writes Pagan Kennedy, in the New York Times.   “He and his team filed a patent application on a new kind of battery that, if it works, as promised, would be so cheap, lightweight and safe that it would revolutionize electric cars and kill off petroleum-fueled vehicles.    

     This is not Goodenough’s first invention. At age 57 he coinvented the lithium-ion battery that shrank power into a tiny package; such batteries now exist in nearly all devices at home and at work.  OK – another genius. Nice. But what is unusual about Goodenough?   His age.   He is 94 years old.

   The thing is, we have known for many centuries that senior brains are highly productive and creative. Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps history’s single most creative individual, was making breakthrough discoveries in hydraulics and anatomy when he was 57, in 1509 (in those days, old age!) and when he was 62, a year before his death, he was making plans to drain the Pontine Marshes in Italy.

     Often, the first step toward breakthrough ideas is smashing an iconic sacred-cow assumption. Let’s discard forever the assumption that only fresh young brains are creative. Let’s tell our seniors, we need your ideas, built on your wisdom and your experience. And then, let’s harvest the crop of world-changing ideas erupting from all those snow-capped idea volcanoes.

 

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

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