As I was vacuuming the stairs using the special attachment, the brush stopped spinning for no immediately obvious visible reason. Looks like it was time to take out the screwdriver! When I managed to unscrew the casing, I was confronted by an incredible sight: a beautifully constructed motor.
I was struck by a sense of wonder that this tiny motor, a few hundred years in making, lived in my vacuum cleaner. It’s a simple electrical device when compared to integrated circuits and cellphone signals. Plug it into a standard 120 VAC power source and the motor will spin. Simple.
Yet imagine the generations of ingenuity that would be required to build this motor. First of all, you would need the material: copper, steel, plastics, rubber (for the belt), carbon (for the brush), zinc for the screws and who know what else. To build such a motor, you would need to understand something about electricity and magnetic fields. You would need to have the tools to machine all the parts to fit perfectly. You would need to come up with a solution for handling AC current, and you would certainly need a way to supply the electricity in the first place.
That is to say, this product has taken generations upon generations of people trying to figure out how the world works and how to put it to work. This is how great works have been achieved by the human kind.
So the next time you flick a switch or push a button remember that you are relying on the perseverance and thoughtfulness of countless other people.
Which reminds me, I wonder what I can do to add to this inter-generational work.
“I have never thought of myself as innovative. I figure the folks in marketing and R&D can take care of our innovation needs while I spend my work life just doing my job. But recently I read that we all have the capacity to be innovative, even conservative people like me. Should I focus on being an innovator?”
Being an innovator, in my opinion, does not have much to do with personality. Csikszentmihalyi, who studied creativity in a variety of people, found that you can be a happy extrovert like Raphael or a conservative introvert like Michelangelo. Or on the business side, one might think of Toyota who, according to Jeffrey Liker (The Toyota Way), is a very conservative company that makes decisions slowly, but implements quickly.
The key is more in the discipline of innovation or creativity. Although it is hard to create something new, the skills required to do so are discoverable!
Unfortunately, learning how to engage with non-routine challenges is not taught in schools or universities. More often people have had sought those kinds of projects in extracurricular activities that lie beyond the conventional curriculum.
On the personal side, one can begin the innovator’s journey by creating a wider and deeper space for creativity. For a playful exploration of this territory, take a look at How BIG is your Creative Space? and How DEEP is your Creative Space?.