In addition to Mt. Rushmore, one of Gutzin Borglum's great works as a sculptor is the
head of Lincoln in the Capitol at Washington. He cut it from a large, square block of
stone in his studio. One day, when the face of Lincoln was just becoming recognizable out
of the stone, a young girl was visiting the studio with her parents. She looked at the
half-done face of Lincoln, her eyes registering wonder and astonishment. She stared at the
piece for a moment then ran to the sculptor. "Is that Abraham Lincoln?" she
asked. "Yes." "Well," said the little girl, "how in the world did
you know he was inside there?"
Bits & Pieces, June 23, 1994, p. 23.
A mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.
During periods of great change, answers don't last very long but a question is worth a
lot. The word question is derived from the Latin quaerere (to seek), which is the same
root as the word quest. A creative life is a continued quest, and good questions are
useful guides. We have found that the most useful questions are open-ended; they allow a
fresh, unanticipated answer to reveal itself. These are the kind of questions children
aren't afraid to ask. They seem naive at first. But think how different our lives would be
if certain questions of wonder were never asked. Jon Collins of Stanford's Graduate School
of Business has compiled the following list of questions of wonder:
Albert Einstein: What would a light wave look like to someone keeping pace with it?
Bill Bowerman (inventor of Nike shoes): What happens if I pour rubber into my waffle iron?
Fred Smith (founder of Federal Express): Why can't there be reliable overnight mail
Godfrey Hounsfield (inventor of the CAT scanner): Why can't we see in three dimensions
what is inside a human body without cutting it open?
Masaru Ibuka (honorary chairman, Sony): Why don't we remove the recording function and
speakers and put headphones in the recorder? (Result: the Sony Walkman.)
Many of these questions are deemed ridiculous at first.
Other shoe companies thought Bowerman's waffle shoe was a "really stupid
Godfrey Hounsfield was told the CAT scan was "impractical."
Masaru Ibuka got comments like: "A recorder with no speaker and no recorder -- are
Fred Smith proposed the idea of Federal Express in a paper at Yale and got a C.
Bits & Pieces, April 29, 1993, pp. 5-7.
Memo From Hal
Blush like a rotted skin;
Brighten like a dusty tower;
Wail like an enormous flood;
Tremble like a red locomotive;
Flop like a damp gate!///
The beaches are praying.
Listen! How they stifle their enormous lips!
And I am ravished.
-The Meditation of IBM 7094-7040 DCS
Before you rush off to English to read your class the greatest since Edgar Allen Poe,
you ought to know that the preceding was written by a computer. Although the quality
is...well...unusual, the computer has one thing going for him. He's fast. Such literary
masterpieces are knocked off at the rates of two stanzas a second. The computer has only
its teacher to thank. Yale English Professor Marie Boroff fed in the raw data.
"Reading the collected output," Miss Boroff wrote, "one gets the impression
that the computer is obsessed with earthworms and caterpillars, and that it has a penchant
for making gratuitous references to locomotives and Vaseline." The computer doesn't
totally lack in intelligence, it seems. In the middle of one of its greatest works it
wrote, "The roses are vomiting. Enough!"
A certainly unorthodox instance that illustrates this kind of uncommon creativity is
given us in a story by Alexander Calandra (source unknown):
Sometime ago, I received a call from a colleague who asked if I would be the referee on
the grading of an examination question. He was about to give a student a zero for his
answer to a physics question, while the student claimed he should receive a perfect score
and would if the system were not set up against the student. The instructor and the
student agreed to submit this to an impartial arbiter, and I was selected. I went to my
colleague's office and read the examination question: "Show how it is possible to
determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer."
The student had answered: "Take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a
long rope to it, lower the barometer to the street, and then bring it up, measuring the
length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building." I pointed
out that the student really had a strong case for full credit, since he had answered the
question completely and correctly. On the other hand, if full credit were given, it could
well contribute to a high grade for the student in his physics class. A high grade is
supposed to certify competence in physics, but the answer did not confirm this. I
suggested that the student have another try at answering the question. I was not surprised
that my colleague agreed, but I was surprised that the student did.
I gave the student six minutes to answer the question, with the warning that his answer
should show some knowledge of physics. At the end of five minutes, he had not written
anything. I asked if he wished to give up, but he said no. He had many answers to this
problem; he was just thinking of the best one. I excused myself for interrupting and asked
him to please go on. In the next minute, he dashed off his answer which read: "Take
the barometer to the top of the building and lean over the edge of the roof. Drop the
barometer, timing its fall with a stopwatch. Then using the formula S = 1/2 at2, calculate
the height of the building."
At this point, I asked my colleague if he would give up. He conceded, and gave the
student almost full credit. In leaving my colleagues' office, I recalled that the student
had said he had other answers to the problem, so I asked him what they were.
"Oh, yes," said the student, "there are many ways of getting the height
of a tall building with the aid of a barometer. For example, you could take the barometer
out on a sunny day and measure the height of the barometer, the length of its shadow, and
the length of the shadow of the building, and by the use of a simple proportion, determine
the height of the building."
"Fine," I said. "And others?"
"Yes," said the student. "There is a very basic measurement method that
you will like. In this method, you take the barometer and begin to walk up the stairs. As
you climb the stairs, you mark off the length of the barometer along the wall. You then
count the number of marks and this will give you the height of the building in barometer
units. A very direct method. "Of course, if you want a more sophisticated method, you
can tie the barometer to the end of a string, swing it as a pendulum, and determine the
value of 'g' at the street level and at the top of the building. From the difference
between the two values of 'g', the height of the building can, in principle, be
"Finally," he concluded, "there are many other ways of solving the
problem. Probably the best is to take the barometer to the basement and knock on the
superintendent's door. When the superintendent answers, you speak to him as follows: 'Mr.
Superintendent, here I have a fine barometer. If you well tell me the height of this
building, I will give you this barometer."
At this point, I asked the student if he really did not know the conventional answer to
this question. He admitted that he did, but said that he was fed up with high school and
college instructors trying to teach him how to think ... and to explore the deep inner
logic of the subject in a pedantic way, as is often done in the new mathematics, rather
than teaching him the structure of the subject.
Tim Hansel, Holy Sweat, 1987, Word Books
Publisher, pp. 183-185.
When we think of creativity, we tend to picture a composer or an artist at work on a
masterpiece. But creativity is simply a new approach to anything. Earle Dickson, an
employee of Johnson & Johnson, married a young woman who was accident-prone. Johnson
& Johnson sold large surgical dressings in individual packages, but these were not
practical for small cuts and burns. Dickson put a small wad of sterile cotton and gauze in
the center of an adhesive strip to hold it in place. Finally, tired of making up these
little bandages every time one was needed, he got the idea of making them in quantity and
using crinoline fabric to temporarily cover the adhesive strip. When the bandage was
needed, the two pieces of crinoline could easily be peeled off, producing a small,
The firm's president, James Johnson, saw Dickson put one of his homemade bandages on
his finger. Impressed by its convenience, he decided to start mass-producing them under
the name Band-Aids. Dickson had been looking for a way to handle a small problem, and in
the process he invented a useful new product.
Three Minutes a Day, Vol. 27, Christopher
When St. Petersburg, one of the most splendid and harmonious cities in Europe, was
being laid out early in the eighteenth century, many large boulders brought by a glacier
from Finland had to be removed.
One particularly large rock was in the path of one of the principal avenues that had
been planned, and bids were solicited for its removal. The bids submitted were very high.
This was understandable, because at that time modern equipment did not exist and there
were no high-powered explosives. As officials pondered what to do, a peasant presented
himself and offered to get rid of the boulder for a much lower price than those submitted
by other bidders. Since they had nothing to lose, officials gave the job to the peasant.
The next morning he showed up with a crowd of other peasants carrying shovels. They
began digging a huge hole next to the rock. The rock was propped up with timbers to
prevent it from rolling into the hole. When the hole was deep enough, the timber props
were removed and the rock dropped into the hole below the street level. It was then
covered with dirt, and the excess dirt was carted away.
It's an early example of what creative thinking can do to solve a problem. The
unsuccessful bidders only thought about moving the rock from one place to another on the
city's surface. The peasant looked at the problem from another angle. He considered
another dimension -- up and down. He couldn't lift it up, so he put it underground.
& Pieces, October 15, 1992, pp. 9-10.
When Jean-Claude Killy made the French national ski team in the early 1960s, he was
prepared to work harder than anyone else to be the best. At the crack of dawn he would run
up the slopes with his skis on, an unbelievably grueling activity. In the evening he would
lift weights, run sprints--anything to get an edge. But the other team members were
working as hard and long as he was. He realized instinctively that simply training harder
would never be enough. Killy then began challenging the basic theories of racing
technique. Each week he would try something different to see if he could find a better,
faster way down the mountain. His experiments resulted in a new style that was almost
exactly opposite the accepted technique of the time. It involved skiing with his legs
apart (not together) for better balance and sitting back (not forward) on the skis when he
came to a turn. He also used ski poles in an unorthodox way--to propel himself as he
skied. The explosive new style helped cut Killy's racing times dramatically. In 1966 and
1967 he captured virtually every major skiing trophy. The next year he won three gold
medals in the Winter Olympics, a record in ski racing that has never been topped. Killy
learned an important secret shared by many creative people: innovations don't require
genius, just a willingness to question the way things have always been done.
Reader's Digest, October 1991, p. 61.
British journalist Alistair Cooke has made a career out of writing about the U.S. In
the process he has built an imposing library of books about the various regions of the
country that covers an entire wall. He was always having trouble finding what he needed,
so he began seeking an effective way to arrange them. Initially, he placed the books on
the shelves alphabetically by the author's names. That didn't work, because he had trouble
remembering who had written what. Then he tried arranging them alphabetically by states.
That posed problems, too, because some of the books were about regions, like New England
or the Great Plains. Finally, he hit upon a solution. Books about New England went on
shelves in the upper right hand corner. Books about the Great Plains states went in the
middle. Books about the southwestern states were placed on the lower left. When Cooke was
researching any state or region, all he had to do was look at the area on the library wall
that corresponded to that area on the map of the U.S.
Bits & Pieces, September 19, 1991,
As a student, fashion designer Sandra Garratt was given a project to design clothing
that would go against her natural inclinations--clothes that she didn't like. She came up
with a line of economical, one-size-fits-all, modular clothing for women. Garratt moved on
to a series of jobs in the fashion industry, but she kept thinking about those clothes
she'd designed. They intrigued her enough that she eventually began producing them for a
boutique in Dallas. Several business people saw promise in Garratt's clothes, and in 1986
they invested the money to help her start a nationwide chain of shops. The investment paid
off. Within a few years, more than $100 million of Garratt's clothes had been sold, and
she had made millions in royalties. All because she put her natural inclinations aside and
investigated something different.
Bits & Pieces, August, 1989.
The most important way parents can help children be creative is to teach them not to
fear failure. To be creative, people need to explore and try new things. Also, children
need to learn to tolerate being laughed at. Creative people are willing to risk criticism
and aren't afraid to be different. Trap: Stressing success. Children whose parents have
emphasized achievement over exploration are more inclined to try only things they know
they do well. These activities make them feel secure in their abilities, but they don't
lead to fulfilling success.
Joyce Brothers in Homemade, January, 1987.
A young couple decided to start their own business. He was an engineer and she was an
advertising copywriter. They wound up buying a small salmon cannery in Alaska. They soon
discovered they had a problem. Customers opening a can of their salmon discovered that the
fish was gray. Sales sagged. Investigation revealed that the problem was a result of the
way they processed the fish. "This is a technical problem," said the wife,
"and you're an engineer. You have to find a way to fix this."
A month later, the
husband announced that they would have to replace some machinery and make other changes.
It was going to take at least 10 months to do the job and it was going to cost a lot of
money. "We have to do something sooner than that," said the wife, "or we're
going to go under." For the next two days she pondered the problem and came up with
this solution: There was nothing wrong with the salmon--it tasted fine. The problem lay in
its looks. So she changed the label on the can. In bold letters, right under the brand
name, the labels thereafter announced, "The only salmon guaranteed not to turn pink
in the can."
Bits & Pieces, June, 1990, p. 9-10.
Statistics and Stuff
Mental blocks to creativity:
1. The right answer.
2. That's not logical
3. Follow the rules
4. Be practical
5. Avoid ambiguity
6. To err is wrong
7. Play is frivolous
8. That's not my area
9. Don't be foolish
10. I'm not creative
Roger von Oech, A Whack on the Side of the Head, p. 9, quoted in
Swindoll, The Quest
for Character, Multnomah, p. 200.
Great composers do not set down to work because they are inspired, but become inspired
because they are working. Beethoven, Wagner, Bach, and Mozart settled down day after day
to the job in hand with as much regularity as an accountant settles down each day in his
figures. They didn't waste time waiting for inspiration.
Ernest Newman, in Bits & Pieces, September 1990.