In schools, we teach (or at least we used to teach) critical thinking, logic, communication, and even marketing. But we don’t teach creativity. We assume that everyone has creativity, lurking inside them somewhere. To that end, we send children to classes in music, dance, art, to give them a chance to
let some of that relentless creativity out. (Otherwise, they might use that creativity to rebel against authority, and then where would we be?)
What I find, though, is that by the time children grow to be adults, their creativity often needs a little help. We spend so much time teaching children to follow the rules, to do things a certain way, that they don’t always know how to bend or break the rules. They don’t realize that creativity doesn’t always mean following your own path. Sometimes it means jumping from one path to another, and another, and possibly back again. The truth is that there are no creative paths out there. Every possible path has been walked countless times before. What makes a person creative is the ability to jump from one path to another path, to walk more than one path at the same time – in other words, to make connections.
Creative ideas in the world of business come from those creative connections – not from just plugging away, putting one foot in front of the other, showing up at work every day and giving it 100 percent. I’m all in favor of 100 percent effort, of course. But effort without creativity, without vision, is likely to be relatively fruitless. And the thing we don’t always realize is that creative visions don’t come from an artist or inventor suddenly thinking of something new that has never existed before. Often, those ideas come from old ideas, boring ideas, that are connected by an artist, inventor or entrepreneur in new way. Consider the following examples:
- Sticky notes. Sticky notes were not suddenly thought of by someone who wanted a quick, easy way to apply notes temporarily to a surface. Sticky notes came about because of a mistake. In 1970, scientist Spencer Silver, working for the company 3M, was trying to invent a stronger type of glue. He came up with a new adhesive, but it wasn’t stronger, it was weaker – super weak instead of super strong. He figured it was the world’s worst glue, but kept it anyway. Four
years later, another 3M scientist, Arthur Fry, thought of Silver’s weak glue when he was trying to keep his place in a church hymnal while singing in the choir. His bookmarks kept falling out of his hymnal, so Fry coated some of them with Silver’s weak glue. He was able to keep his marks in place, lifting them out and moving them around as needed, without causing any damage to the pages. Over the next six years, 3M scientists kept working with the glue, and in 1980 they
presented the first sticky notes – Post-It Notes – to the world.
- Coat hangers. The coat hanger was invented by Albert J. Parkhouse, who upon arriving at work one day in 1903, discovered that all the coat hooks were already taken. Determined to hang his coat on something, Parkhouse looked around. Parkhouse worked at Timberlake Wire and Novelty Company (in Jackson, Michigan), so he grabbed a nearby piece of wire and twisted it into two ovals to make a coat hook, hung up his coat, and went to work.
- Ear muffs. What could be more mundane than cold ears? Yet nothing will draw your attention more, if you are stuck outside in icy cold weather with an exposed head. That was the problem that was disturbing 15-year-old Chester Greenwood in 1873 when he went out to try a new set of skates. Greenwood was allergic to wool, so a wool hat did nothing for him but make his ears itch. But he thought of an idea, and went to his grandmother for help. Greenwood took baling wire and bent it into a shape that would go over his head and around his ears. He then asked his grandmother to sew a cover for the wire out of velvet and beaver fur. Eventually he replaced the baling wire with flat spring steel and by the time he was 18, Greenwood had a patent on his Ear Protectors, and a new business.
- Scotchguard. Like sticky notes, Scotchguard was invented at 3M – and like sticky notes, it was the result of an accident. In 1953, chemist Patsy Sherman’s assistant accidentally spilled a new compound onto Sherman’s sneakers, and was frustrated by her inability to clean the compound off the shoes. Sherman, fascinated, began to work with a colleague, Sam Smith, on the idea of developing a compound that could not be removed and that would protect fabric by repelling oil and water. By 1956, Scotchguard was on the market.
Could anything be more boring than glue? Or hanging your coat up and going to work? What could be more boring than trying to warm up cold ears, or trying to clean soiled sneakers? Yet these boring roots led to inventions that have become a ubiquitous part of everyday life for millions of Americans. Boring is not really the new exciting – it’s the old exciting, and the basis for almost all the new exciting ideas that are developed every day by creative entrepreneurs and inventors.