Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Problems and solutions do not necessarily arrive in that order

Prolific innovators often find a solution before they encounter the problem.  The iconoclastic inventor, sitting alone at a workbench furiously solving problems is a fun image, but falls short as a template for successful innovation.  A far more solid path to invention is innovation-based situational awareness — keeping an eye open for problems that should be solved and for good ideas that can solve problems.  Innovation is a profoundly non-linear adventure — so much so that we need not even identify the problem we are trying to solve before we gather the components we will need to solve it.

Advertisers have exploited an analogous model since the inception of advertising.  Car companies, for example, know that while few people are currently shopping for a car, many people will buy a car in the next several years.  Similarly, a coffee company may advertise on late night television, knowing that while few viewers are going to interrupt a night of insomnia to run out to the supermarket and buy caffeinated drinks, many of those viewers will shop for coffee in the near future.  Advertisers are in the business of planting a solution in our heads before we are even aware of the problem.  By the time we run out of coffee or go shopping for a car, our heads are awash with brand awareness and product information.  

Invention is best done the same way:  When you encounter something that strikes you as cool, amazing, interesting, valuable for a reason you cannot identify, or otherwise bearing a “wow” factor, take the time to commit that information to memory.  Inventors need tools to solve problems.  Waiting until the problem is identified before finding tools is akin to a carpenter showing up at a job site without tools.  Sure, the carpenter can go out and purchase tools, one at a time, as needed, but if a carpenter is good at her job, she has already gathered a collection of tools that work for most jobs.  So it is with innovation.

Inventions are built by combining a variety of ideas, often from different subject areas, to create a new thing that improves life for people.  Generally, innovators know the areas that they are most interested in — and therefore most likely to invent in.  Prolific innovators never miss an opportunity to stock their imaginations with great ideas, whether or not they know why they find those ideas attractive.  Each of those ideas becomes a tool they can use to solve problems.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The brain is a really complicated device, disinhibition is a really powerful skill

I haven't posted on this blog for a long time.  I've been dealing with some medical issues (I've written extensively about them here).  One thing I learned is that my brain function is heavily influenced by a medical condition I have called "CPT2 deficiency".  A likely side effect of CPT2 is that sometimes my glucose level drops.  The brain accounts for about 20% of our total energy use.  Glucose is virtually the sole fuel for the human brain.  CPT2 patients are unable to properly metabolize long chain fatty acids (i.e. nearly all of the fat in the human diet), so we rely solely on carbohydrates for energy (until we run out, then we start digesting our own muscles).  This means that while most people can conserve glucose for brain function by switching to/supplementing with fatty acid metabolism, I can't do that efficiently.

The bottom line is that sometimes my brain runs low on fuel.  I've written about some of the effects on my other blog.  When it happens, I have trouble making decisions; I have trouble thinking linearly; I have trouble staying on topic.  In short, I become disinhibited.  I see connections between things that I might otherwise have missed.  I have difficulty accepting "normal" solutions.  This is not so great for getting my bills paid on time, but it is a pretty good environment for innovation.  Also of interest along these lines is that my  brother, who is also a prolific inventor, shares my CPT2 genetics.

In looking at my own experience, I learned that innovation is facilitated by certain physiological brain states.  I'm lucky in that I float between good linear thinking (when my CPT2 symptoms are absent) and a more disinhibited, non-linear, creative mode (when I have some level of CPT2 issues).

I recently came to understand this phenomenon by sharing experiences with other CPT2 patients via a Google Group.  Because this is new information for me, I have not yet figured out the implications.

I do know that I can keep this from happening very often by regularly supplementing my diet with MCT Oil and carb-rich foods.  The question is whether it will impact my creativity.  I think that the answer is "not as much as you might think".  Over my life, I've learned what it feels like to be in a good linear thinking state, in a disinhibited state, and pretty much in every place in between.  While being forced into a disinhibited state frequently as a child (via CPT2) was helpful in forming a natural understanding of how disinhibited states feel and work, a genetic anomaly is not a prerequisite for getting into a creative space.

Once you start looking for it, you frequently find people who experience disinhibited, creative states, yet who waste those opportunities because they do not think such a state is a good one for getting things accomplished.  The good news is that tough, linear data processing seems to use an entirely different part one's mental energy than creative thinking does.  Being "zonked" after a tough day at work can be an excuse to sit on a sofa and watch television -- but it can also be a sign that your brain is primed for non-linear, creative thinking.  It is not a coincidence that people who are successful in non-creative fields have creative hobbies like photography, music, writing or art.

The take-away is that you should not assume that some brain states are naturally bad.  Instead, each brain state is an opportunity to explore the possibilities.  I spent all of my life thinking that when I was having trouble working, it meant that I couldn't work.  How wrong I was.  When I have trouble doing the linear stuff is when I do my best at creative work.  When I have trouble creating things is often when I can do the linear work of implementing my creations.  So the next time your kids leave you exhausted, you can thank them for priming your creativity.