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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.

 

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Why Ideas Resemble Pearls

By Shlomo Maital

       Pearls are one of nature’s many wonders. It occurred to me that ideas are born in ways similar to pearls. How come?

       Pearls form when a microscopic ‘intruder’ or parasite invades an oyster.   (Rarely, a grain of sand…mainly parasites). This irritates the oyster. In defense, it starts to coat the intruder with a form of calcium carbonate. Layer upon layer of calcium carbonate coat the intruder, until it is harmless. Then, perhaps, a pearl fisher is lucky enough to find the resulting pearl. Millions of years of evolution have given oysters a vital tool for survival.

       The process in oysters is not unlike the human immune response – a germ invades our body, and our antibodies (usually T cells) grab the invading antigen and capture and neutralize it.

       So why are ideas like pearls?   Ideas can form when creative people are irritated by something we see or hear. For instance — on the street, I see an elderly person struggling with a cell phone, trying to see and punch numbers on a cell phone meant for fingers fifty years younger.   I am irritated. Why should this happen? Why are the elderly humiliated and ignored?  

       That irritation is like the invader of an oyster. Immediately, the creative brain goes to work, often subconsciously, working on ‘neutralizing’ the irritation by finding a solution… coating it with many ideas that solve the problem. And if you listen carefully, some of those ideas pop into your conscious mind, like lovely pearls waiting to bring happiness to the world…but only if you crack open that oyster, find the ‘pearl’ and ACTIVATE – do something with it.

     This is how memory sticks were invented. The inventor Dov Moran forgot to plug in his laptop and lost his presentation, in 1986. He swore at that moment, through irritation, that never again would this happen. The result: his startup M Systems invented the memory stick. The memory stick was the pearl that Moran formed, around that initial sharp irritation.

     The lesson here? Be passionate. Be empathetic. Care about what goes on around you, and care about people who struggle, suffer, are in pain, or who simply have unmet needs. Feel the injustice! Then let your creative brain eliminate the irritation by finding a solution or solutions.

       Natural pearls are rare and expensive, and adorn women with means. But natural ideas cost nothing and change the world. All that is needed is that initial tiny irritation – a feeling caring person whose irritation at injustice and pain goes away only when a creative solution emerges from it.

 

How to Build Great Ideas On Key Facts

By Shlomo   Maital

Facts

 How do you develop great ideas for startups (whether social or business-oriented), that truly meet unsatisfied wants and change the world?

   I got an idea about ideas, from the current issue of TIME Magazine, of all places (Sept. 8 and 15 double issue).    This issue has an incredible number of interesting facts, presented creatively, visually. 

   You get great ideas from one key fact.  That fact at one fell swoop demonstrates vividly the need, and sets the stage for thinking big,  for tackling huge problems with huge impact, if successful.

    Examples?

  •    At present,  2.4 billion people are connected to the Internet; 44.8 percent of them are in Asia.  That means that 4.6 billion people have NO Internet connection.  How can this pressing need best be met?   Challenge:  Find a way to bring the Internet to 4.5 billion people who currently lack it. 
  •    At present, 2.8 billion people in the world cook over open fires; 4.3 million people die each year due to indoor air pollution, caused by open fires used for cooking. Most of the deaths are women and children. Challenge?  Find a way to save millions of lives, lost through inhalation of smoke from indoor cooking fires; 
  • Half the world’s children go to schools without electricity. Challenge: Find a way to bring electricity to the 1.3 billion people in the world who have no access to it.
  • Between 1998 and 2010,    463 children have died of overheating or hyperthermia in cars in the United States, the majority of whom were accidently left behind by caregivers.   Challenge: Find a simple way to prevent this.
  •    60 million plastic water bottles are used annually in the United States alone. Challenge:  Find a biodegradable plastic, that degrades in 90 days, and that also fertilizes plants.  (One of my students in Shantou Univ. China, is close to a solution).

*  Apple has $158.8 billion in unspent cash reserves.  Huge cash reserves are held (abroad) by Microsoft, Cisco, Google, Pfizer, and other U.S. companies.  Challenge: Feasible legislation to get them to bring the money home and invest it in America.

   And, one example of how this could work.

  • Why don’t we get heart cancer???   Because tumors grow when cells divide and multiply uncontrolled – but heart cells never split and multiply, beginning shortly after birth, unlike other cells.  

 

  •    Idea: Technion Prof. Yoram Palti thought that if you put an electro-magnetic field around, say, the brain, when brain tumor cells tried to divide, creating a narrow cell wall, you could explode them with the magnetic field. This could treat ‘untreatable’ tumors and stop them in their tracks. Basis: Cell division is largely by sick ‘cancer’ cells.   Palti, who is over 70, and his startup now have a proven device that stops brain tumors in their tracks, as well as lung cancer (very hard to treat).  Check out “Novocure”. Thanks, Prof. Palti!

The Three Biggest Ideas in History – and The Biggest of All

By Shlomo  Maital   

 Big Idea

  I’m reading a big thick book,  Peter Watson’s book “Ideas: a history of thought and invention, from fire to Freud”, [Harper Perennial, 2006], over 800 pages, and 75 pages of close endnotes.

Let me try to summarize it for you,  though I recommend that you try to plough through it.

   Watson says that the three most influential ideas in history (only a very brave person would assert he could identify the three BIGGIES!) are:

  • The soul
  • The idea of Europe
  • The experiment.

 

  Now, Watson does not say this, but two of this big ideas have really not worked out too well.  The soul?  Well, this idea is a foundation of religion.  And religion has caused death, wars, suffering, persecution, and continues to do so (see ISIS, Hamas, and other fundamentalists), though for many (including me) religion does bring comfort and service to others. 

    Europe?  Well, European unity  has ended wars within Europe, especially between France and Germany.  But by placing monetary union ahead of political union, Europe put the cart before the horse, and horses are very poor at pushing carts, though good at pulling them.   There is a good chance England may opt out of Europe, and that will be a severe blow.

    But the experiment.  Now THERE is an idea.  How do you learn about the world? Well, you can pretend you know.  But as Goethe said,   thinking is better than knowing, but looking is best of all.   So, you learn about the world by trying experiments.  If you’r a scientist, you have a lab and you can do controlled experiments. If you’re a social scientist, you let the world be your lab and watch closely for natural experiments – places where unusual things happen – and learn from them.  If you’re an entrepreneur, by definition you are an experimentalist.  Your product is by definition an experiment.  The only way you will learn if it truly creates value, is by getting it out into the marketplace, and have people use it.

      So, Peter Watson,  you got one right out of three.  We all should become experimenters.  This is a mindset.  Don’t be afraid to try things.  Don’t be afraid to fail (most experiments fail).  See my previous blog.   And become an experimenter in your daily life as well. Try new foods, music, books, magazines, TV programs..welcome experiments, even though they may be uncomfortable.  (The old familiar stuff is comfortable, the new unfamiliar stuff is Uncomfortable).   Soon, you will become more comfortable with experiments.  And the mindset will spread to your work as entrepreneur and innovator.   

 

Nicholas Negroponte: Where Do Ideas Come From?

By Shlomo  Maital    

Negroponte

                            

MIT Media Lab

   MIT Prof. Nicholas Negroponte was the featured speaker at the 20th anniversary event of the MIT Enterprise Forum of Israel, an organization I helped found in 1994,  and now run by Ayla Matalon.  Negroponte spoke about how and why he started the Media Lab, together with MIT President Jerome Wiesner.  His plan was to create a place for outsiders, for those whose radical innovative ideas would never be accepted in conventional MIT faculties.   For 30 years the Media Lab has been a fountain of radically new ideas built on strong research foundations, with corporations lining up to pay fortunes just to gain access to those ideas.  

     “Where do new ideas come from?”  Negroponte asked the audience, rhetorically.   In one word:  “From differences.”  From people who think differently. 

     I think this explains why so few really new ideas emerge from universities, places where creativity is supposed to live but never does,  and from big corporations, which pay lip service to innovation but do everything to stamp it out.

     Universities reproduce ideas, by having students do research that in tiny incremental steps extends the research of their advisors, and generally affirms it.  Imagine a thesis that disproved the central theories of the advisor!   Tenure is gained fastest and easiest by publishing mainstream research that irritates no-one and ruffles the fewest feathers.   

    Businesses grow to global scale by operational discipline, in which people are well paid to do the same thing, again and again, with excellence and discipline.  Imagine a manager who tells his CEO that the company’s most profitable product line is becoming commoditized and should be sold or closed. 

    Neither universities nor large multinationals want their people to think differently. Nor do they hire people who are different.   This, despite the well-known finding that it is the most diverse teams that are the most innovative, and the rule that you should include a non-expert in every team, to ask the ‘dumb’ questions.

    I strongly urge my students to respond to job interviews with their own interviews. Interview the interviewer.  Find out if they really do want your creative ideas.  Find out if they celebrate failure, and welcome diversity.  Do this BEFORE you get put into the corporate blender and emerge as bland conventional porridge, instead of remaining a spicy jalapena pepper. 

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
June 2019
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