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The Genius Machine
The 11 Steps That Turn Raw Ideas Into Brilliance
By Gerald Sindell
New World LibraryCopyright © 2015 Gerald Sindell
All rights reserved.
Yes, There Is No Vanilla
A genius thinker looks at what everyone else has
looked at and sees something new.
Innovation begins with a need — whether it's the next-generation high-speed switch, a change in corporate culture, the design for a flagship product, or finishing a book on deadline. Throughout our lives we are met with challenges to create something that isn't already there. We can either do decent work and make something that, at the very least, does the job, or we can come up with something that is simply brilliant.
In many ways, the choice is yours. A great many people get by with doing a pedestrian job of it. But many of us would like to create something that truly reflects our potential. Certainly, if we're consultants trying to make a living by being the smartest person on the block, brilliant work helps our bottom line. And for the rest of us — those of us working in organizations, researching in science, struggling for a PhD, or just pursuing our dreams — knowing how to think brilliantly could make all the difference in how we experience our lives.
The process we're about to explore has lifted a great number of people to function at their genius level. This process has generated books that not only have fulfilled the lives of a lot of authors but also have transformed the world's largest organizations. In helping draw brilliance from a few, this process has improved the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.
Here's the structure of the Endleofon: We start by recognizing that you have work to do, an idea to be developed, a problem to be solved, a notion that needs to be ferreted out and developed. We'll start at the beginning, with what real thinking is, and then I'm going to lead you through all kinds of interesting and even challenging processes, until not only are your ideas fully developed but also your work will be aligned with your life's goals. Successful development of your ideas will mean that what you create also helps fulfill your life. This is true too for people working in teams. Your team will get to the truth of your values as a group and as members of a larger organization, and your work will be aligned with what you want to do as individuals, as a team, and as part of that organization.
Since genius thinking requires integrities of vision, mission, and self-knowledge, we must accept that not all individuals, teams, or organizations are going to easily achieve the alignment required to do great work. If fundamental disagreements about values exist either within a team or between the team and the larger organization, success may require that some people leave this particular effort. If as you work through the Endleofon process, disagreements surface that cannot be resolved, don't attempt to paper them over.
Defining Your Point of Departure
The first step in the process of discovery is stating what it is we're trying to do. Throughout this book you'll find lots of examples and stories that we'll examine once and not revisit. But I thought it might be worthwhile to create three examples that repeat throughout the book to show how the eleven steps can bring robust innovation. The three examples that we will return to repeatedly are designing an eco-friendly toaster, finding the best way to educate children, and developing a way to stem the flow of talented people leaving our organization.
With each of these projects, we need to make sure that we're stating the root of what we're trying to do, and not just addressing a symptom. Let's take the ecofriendly toaster. We need to ask what problem an ecofriendly toaster will solve. Do we want to reduce the total carbon impact of our toasters, from manufacture, to fuel consumption, to recycling? Or are we simply trying to create this toaster to appeal to a customer who would like to believe that buying an eco-friendly toaster would be a good thing to do for the earth? Depending on the answer, we might come up with significantly different solutions.
How about the desire to discover the "best way" to educate children? We will need to decide what age group we're going to focus on. And we're going to need to figure out what we mean by "best way," by defining a specific series of measures that will let us see differences between one way and another.
In our effort to find a way to stem the flow of talented people from our organization, our first challenge might be to find the reason why talented people are leaving the organization. Then we can begin to develop possible solutions.
When we state our challenge, we must define our time constraints. Do we have one week or five years to develop our solution? A realistic budget for time will help us decide when to end the divergence part of our work — the phase when we look at all kinds of possibilities and directions — and when we will need to begin narrowing our options.
We must also, as individuals or as a group, describe what success will look like in a number of time frames: in one year, three years, five years.
Thinking is Making Distinctions
To a surprising extent, thinking is a matter of making distinctions. If we do not see the differences among various kinds of lettuce, for instance, our understanding of a salad will be limited to the perception that it's just a bunch of green stuff in a bowl. But if you were a truck farmer in Ohio specializing in growing boutique greens for the New York and Chicago restaurant markets, you would be familiar with dozens of lettuces. You would know their growing preferences, their pests, their various flavors at different stages of growth. You would know when to pick them, how to pack them, how to ship them, and how to price them.
Take a moment to think about "white." Without making distinctions, one might say that white is simply white. But take a piece of white paper, or gaze at a white wall for a moment. What do you really see when you look at white? On my desk, my white sheet of paper is resting on a yellow legal pad. When I raise or lower the white sheet, I can see the yellow cast from below and even some faint green lines. If I let my eyes rest on the whitest part of the white sheet, I see lots of dancing blue areas and considerable gray blotchiness moving around. Then it dawns on me that movement is the most prominent aspect of seeing white. For a moment I recollect being a child, looking at a perfect blue sky (a rarity in Cleveland, so when it happened, you took the time to stare), and wondering if everyone else saw a million dancing little objects in what was supposed to be just flat blue. After contemplating the effect for several years, I began to realize that the pointillism I was seeing was more likely a characteristic of my eyes than something in the sky. Another distinction.
To help you develop your appetite for making distinctions, you might consider spending a day in a museum just looking at various artists' use of white. Renoir frequently used white to show the dazzle effect of bright sun. You can imagine him using white as the last pass he made at a canvas. His whites are always on top, used in tiny areas, to convey the glint of a bright sun on grasses and other greenery. Van Gogh's whites, on the other hand, are like the rest of his colors: swirls of high energy with the underpainting always peeking through.
Have vanilla ice cream in your fridge? When you have a moment, take it out. Taste it. Think about what it actually tastes like. Does it taste like burnt sugar? Does the taste change as it fades away on your tongue? Does the taste alter as it gets warmer in your mouth? Now take a second spoonful. Is the impression of the second taste more intense or less intense than the first? Next time you go to the market, buy three or four kinds of vanilla ice cream. Taste them side by side. Perceive the differences. Try to describe the differences so that someone else might be able to understand what it is you're tasting.
The same is true for ideas. If you are thinking about a problem you want to solve, or something you want to convey to others, you'll find it valuable to express what you actually see and think. There are no vanilla ideas. There is no plain old white or black. Everything is dazzle and movement. Uniqueness is there, waiting to be witnessed and captured.
Creative thought is about looking at what everyone is looking at, or has looked at for years, and seeing something new. Sometimes that new thing is just the possibility of something new, and sometimes what we see is right there, already in existence, but had never been noticed before. Charles Goodyear noticed that natural gum rubber charred like leather when it was heated but didn't burn up. He thought he had discovered something important, that rubber might be able to be "cured," but when he brought his observations to others in his brother's nearly bankrupt rubber factory, where they were working only with pure fresh rubber, no one was interested. Eventually his discovery contributed one of the essential elements of the modern industrial era.
Seeing, as opposed to looking, is the beginning of thinking. The challenge is to see through our own eyes and not through the preconceptions we may have developed from what others have told us, or from what we have gathered unconsciously. Ever ask someone about a movie recently seen and heard the answer "I didn't expect to like it, but it was pretty good"? If we have expectations, it makes it more difficult for us to actually see.
In the biblical narrative of creation, the opening verses of Genesis give us a powerful view of the significance of making distinctions, of seeing. Genesis says that at first everything was the same. "When God began to create heaven and the earth — the earth being unformed and void" — the first thing God did was call for light, and then God separated the light from the darkness. Next God divided the sky from the earth, and then separated the land from the water. Distinction after distinction is made in the void, until the earth is fully populated with a vast variety of plants and creatures. The story of Creation is the story of making separations, of making distinctions.
This is the essence of the new, a continuing refinement of what is, into ever greater variety and possibility. Consider the last five or so centuries of music. Think of Gregorian chants, sung one note at a time, simple harmony or no harmony, straightforward rhythms. Then consider the development of music over the centuries, complex tonal modalities and harmonies, ever more complicated rhythmic discoveries, cultural influences swirling together into an ever more varied and remarkable soup.
Complexity Creates Simplicity
Running in the direction opposite of ever more complexity is our preference for more surface simplicity. We want our computer operating systems to become so simple that they're virtually invisible to us. In the old days of DOS, a user needed to know dozens of commands to make the computer load a program and work. Now, with a vast operating system made up of millions of lines of code, a user hardly knows it's there. So the antidote for inevitably ever greater complexity, as we continue to see and create never-ending new distinctions, is our ever increasing preference for the elegance found in apparent simplicity. Without elegance, we would drown in the very real complexity that underlies all our technologies.
In engineering, elegance means that a solution has been achieved with less — less force, less energy, less material, fewer parts. Ben Franklin was a particularly elegant inventor. His solution to a person's need for close-vision glasses and distant-vision glasses was the invention of the bifocal lens. People no longer had to constantly shift between two pairs of glasses. Franklin's solution to the endless threat of building fires caused by lightning strikes was also elegant. The inelegant solution was to build buildings far apart, so if one caught fire, the neighboring structures would be spared. Huge water supplies would have to be kept nearby to fight fires. Slate roofs were helpful, and brick or stone could replace wood. All these solutions were expensive in terms of time and materials. Franklin's solution cost a few pennies and took only the slightest effort. First, one had to provide a slightly higher and more attractive target for lightning (by fastening a metal post — the lightning rod — to the roof). Second, one had to establish a path by which the energy would bypass the building and go directly into the ground (the grounding wire).
Elegance is inherently attractive: simplicity is artful. In thinking and writing, too, elegance is appealing. When we have refined our thinking to the point that our hard work has become invisible, then we will have achieved elegance. Elegant thinking has many advantages over its cruder competition: elegance communicates more efficiently, is likely to be adopted faster, and will often have the strength to fend off the competition. Elegance is not only good ideas well thought through but also good ideas cleaned up and well dressed. Elegant thinking is much more likely to be invited in.
In our creative thinking, at first we create new complexity as we make more distinctions. And as we explore the inevitable new complexity that is part of the creative process, many of us will become anxious that what we're creating is too complex, too cumbersome, too awkward, too expensive to ever be accepted or useful. But trust that once we've fully explored our new creation, the next stage of the process will be refinement toward elegance. The achievement of elegance is one of the ways we'll know we're done.
Think about the cars we drive now and compare them to the vehicles of the early days of the horseless carriage. These early vehicles had extremely simple systems for suspension, for steering (a bar straight out of a horse-drawn wagon), and for braking. The total number of distinct parts in a 1903 Duryea was fewer than twenty-two hundred, and driving it required a week of training. A modern vehicle is comprised of more than ten thousand parts (not to mention tens of thousands of lines of code), and yet we can move from one type of car to another without even thinking about taking more than a moment to find the controls for the headlights and windshield wipers.
The Necessary Level of Granularity
At some point we will need to stop making distinctions, the process of seeing the new, and begin development, the process of organizing and refining our innovations. How do we know when we've gone far enough?
From predigital photography comes the metaphor of granularity. Before digital, pictures were recorded by exposing silver halide crystals to light. The more crystals available on the original camera negative, the more information we could record. The same notion, applied to different technology, is true in digital photography. Granularity simply refers to how many receptors are available to record information, so that when we enlarge a picture to see details more clearly, we are able to reveal more and more of the information we originally captured. If you take a picture with your cell phone and try to make a billboard out of it, you're probably going to be disappointed with the results — there's enough information for you to see and understand the image when it's two inches wide, but when you blow it up to forty feet, something will be missing. Your image will probably not be sufficiently fine-grained to make sense on your larger canvas.
Granularity can be important when you are trying to develop something, as well as when you are deciding how much of what you have developed will be necessary for your ultimate user to know. If you are just grazing the web for news, you are probably going to be satisfied with a low-resolution take on what's happening at the moment. But if you are learning something that you will soon be teaching others, or gathering knowledge that you plan to build on, you will need a much higher level of detail — much more information than the person you will be teaching. Your job will be to select what's important from all the things you know.
The Delight of the Amateur
Granularity becomes a consideration when we're making judgments about useful distinctions. In virtually everything we do, we can always see more, learn more, capture more, dig more into any object or idea. We could spend the rest of our lives just getting to an incomplete but thorough understanding of white. Knowing everything about everything is probably impossible, given the time constraints of a human life, so understanding how fine-grained our knowledge of a subject must be puts some useful limits on us as we make distinctions. How do we determine the granularity needed in a given project? First, let the depth of your curiosity be your guide. If you are passionate about something, you will want to dig and dig until you have mastered a certain level of knowledge about your subject. English gentlefolk of the Victorian era often developed a passion for a specific area of knowledge and pursued it with lifelong devotion. They frequently did so without a college degree, and many poured their fortunes into their pursuits, as opposed to doing it for money. The word that described them best was amateur, which implies doing something "for the love of it."
Excerpted from The Genius Machine by Gerald Sindell. Copyright © 2015 Gerald Sindell. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction: What Is Thinking?,
1. Distinctions: Yes, There Is No Vanilla,
2. Identity: The Skinny Sumo,
3. Implications: The Reasonable Extremist,
4. Testing: Find the Breaking Point,
5. Precedent: The Great Conversation,
6. Need: We Are Not Alone,
7. Foundation: Discover the House Rules,
8. Completion: The Alexandria Test,
9. Connecting: Flatten the Learning Curve,
10. Impact: The Point of No Return,
11. Advocacy: A Curator of Hooks,
The Endleofon Questions,
About the Author,