How to begin to innovate

Discontent is the first necessity of progress.  
-Thomas Edison

There is something untidy about a new idea. 

Like a splinter just below the skin's surface, it can persistently irritate and whisper: There must be a better way. 

I was thinking about innovation and my protagonist, Johanna, when the May 2018 issue of Fast Company arrived in the mail. On the cover it announced 2018 winners of world-changing ideas. A couple of examples: 

  • Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) -  small freestanding dwellings on the same grounds as a regular home are an affordable solution to housing shortages. 

  • Patreon - a membership platform enabling creatives (artists, musicians, etc.) to find "patrons," or fans, that make regular financial contributions to fund the artist in exchange for exclusive content.

Two-hundred forty finalists were culled from 1,400 submissions across 12 categories from consumer products to urban design to energy to transportation and more for this competition. Though the article doesn't go in depth into how and why each innovation came about, the ideas break through entrenched assumptions about the way things need to be. For example, the ADU smashes the assumption that a house needs to be on its own plot of land. Patreon shatters the premise that an artist's income is dependent on single buyers. 

So, it's easy, right? Innovate by simply challenging assumptions. The problem is, introducing new ideas can be tough when those assumptions, or the status quo, are backed up by entrenched interests and an organizational structure that profits from it. 

This is the challenge Johanna will face in my book. She will need to think innovatively, against an entrenched status quo. 

During the 19th century, Paris served as a European mecca for artists. The French capital was the largest metropolis in Europe; artists flocked to the art scene established by its famous Ecole dex Beux-Arts, the must-attend academy for all up-and-coming artists. The academy emphasized teaching techniques used by the Old Masters.

The Ecole had an administrative arm, the Academie des Beux-Arts, which held an annual exhibition called the Salon, the most important place for artists to present their work. Showing at the Salon was the only way an artist could make a career: they were eligible to win prizes, to secure government commissions and to qualify as a lecturer at the Ecole dex Beux-Arts or to be a civil servant at the cultural ministry of the Ecole. 

A jury selected the artists for the Salon. Acceptance of an artist meant that their artwork would be hung in plain view. If their work won a prize, it drew the attention of the press where critics wrote in detail about each winning artist in magazine and newspaper articles. Tens of thousands of people attended the public art showing each year giving exhibiting artists wonderful exposure to the public and buyers.

Clearly, competition among artists to get into the Salon was fierce, so winning artists strove to fit into the criteria the jurists were looking for. 

How can Johanna possibly promote her brother-in-law Vincent's work when it didn't fit into the "establishment"? 

Though Vincent's work was not like the mainstream Impressionists, they had been trying. Theo, Vincent's brother, was a partner in an art dealership and tried for years to solicit buyers from his connections, but was ultimately unsuccessful.  And, on his own, Vincent tried to sell his work by getting permission from local cafe owners to hang his paintings on their walls. Only one person bought a painting -- a fellow artist. 

So, by the time it's up to Johanna to decide what to do with Vincent's art -- after both Theo and Vincent are dead and she has inherited all of Vincent's paintings and drawings -- all the usual sales channels have been tried. The assumptions she will need to break through -- the only way to sell is through a Salon connection, women don't belong in business, Vincent was not a legitimate artist but a mentally unbalanced man, Jo is a bad mother for not returning to her parents as a widow, and on and on -- are lining up as I'm thinking through a number of scenes. She is confused; she is a mess. She does not have clear answers yet, but I do know one thing she will have. 

A persistent feeling, an irritation, a discontent, an impatience not to give in to conventional thought. 

The beginning of innovation!

How I'm Writing the Book
Story Genius: Week 7 (of the 10-week class) and we'll still be on the opening scene. I am being challenged to go even deeper in thinking through the action of the scene and its consequences, and, under the surface, why the scene's action matters to Jo and what she is realizing as a result.

Books I'm reading: I finished the novel Blindsighted by Karin Slaughter, on my iPad. Whoa! A serial killer emerged and Slaughter masterfully had me second-guessing whether each guy in the story was the secret murderer. Next up is a (gulp) 500-page Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy, for my W4 bookclub. Finally, still reading the non-fiction Chaos Monkey by Antonio Garcia Martinez. I decided to set it aside for awhile since the investment book club meeting has been pushed into May. 

Meanwhile, on the wedding front this upcoming week Juan and I will drive to Kansas City to check out the downtown venue Cristina and Jay have chosen for their ceremony and reception (Cristina calls it "industrial elegant"...hmmm). I asked Cristina if there will be enough room on the dance floor for my interpretive dance and she said, ".....maybe."  

On another topic, this past week Juan and I attended a fundraiser for our friend Tiffanie's non-profit, Fighting H.A.R.D - Fighting Against Hit and Run Drivers. Tiffanie's sister, Jameca, was tragically killed by a hit-and-run driver.  Since then, Tiffanie has established her organization to raise awareness, educate and provide resources to families of victims. Please click on the link behind H.A.R.D. for more information. 

On my last note - it was easy to think of Thomas Edison as the individual to quote in this week's blog on innovation. His inventions are ideas that broke the mold in their time -- the incandescent light bulb, phonograph, movie camera, and electric power distribution to name a few. He liked to say, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." But the quote I'll close with is even simpler:

There's a way to do it better - find it.

Challenge an assumption!



Childhood is the one story that stands by itself in every soul. 
-Ivan Doig

I have a kicker for you in the following story. Will you guess it?

Twin brothers come home from school every day, eat snacks, watch TV and do homework, brush their teeth, go to bed and the next morning get up, dress, catch the school bus, attend classes, etc. and then repeat the cycle. The brothers are lively in class, turn in homework, hang out with friends on the playground and interact with lots of adult teachers and neighbors throughout the day. Day in and day out, for four months. Sounds normal, right? It isn't until the weather turns chilly and the boys come to school under-dressed, despite the November cold snap, when a question is raised. What's discovered?

The boys are living on their own. 

They are 9-years-old.

It turns out an uncle was supposed to have moved in with the boys while their parents took an overseas trip. The uncle decided not to do it, and then the parents' return was delayed for three months. With self-reliance the boys simply took care of themselves, knowing they were supposed to go to school and figuring it out. They got breakfast and lunch at school; occasionally the uncle dropped food off at home. (For the full story, here's the original article.)

Though I read this a few years ago, the story stuck with me. I was amazed at the boy's resilience. I remember that not long before reading the article, I'd had a conversation with my sister, Meg, whose career is in primary education. I'd asked her what grade she liked teaching the best? "Fifth," she'd laughed. "It may sound funny, but fifth-graders have more 'world' experience. We can have broader discussions. The children have started to be more aware of the world around them and we can apply ideas to more things."

Although at first blush a 9-year-old seemed young to me, it made sense as I thought about it. From my professional work studying generations, I knew that in times past people moved from childhood to adulthood quickly. It wasn't until the 1940's that teenager years were carved out as a separate life stage. And many cultures celebrate the passage from child to immediate adult in a special ceremony once adolescence begins. 

So, the idea that a 9-year-old is a critical thinker, capable of insightful reasoning while gobbling up life experience, is not so far-fetched. 

What does this have to do with writing my book? This week I wrote a critical incident impacting Johanna, my protagonist, when she is 9-years-old. 

Imagine her just beginning to become more broadly aware of the world outside her family. She is full of energy and curiosity and openness. While she is in this state of mind, I've written a scene when the seeds of an idea are planted that will hold her back in the future. Not just any idea, but a false idea, a core misbelief that will stand in the way of what she truly wants, deep down. As an adult the misbelief will feel like a hard-and-fast fact. She doesn't question it; this is the way the world works and she's certain of it.

Sounds kind-of mean, doesn't it?

I need this incident to set up how Johanna views the world. For like you and me, and how what we believe is how we interpret what happens around us, this worldview will be the lens I write through for Johanna. It is wrong and her parents are wrong. It also is a reflection of the times and society she's living in. 

I also may sow seeds that will challenge her thinking. For example when Johanna was a 10-year-old (1872) she could have heard of Florence Nightingale who by then had revolutionized the role of nursing in battlefield hospitals. The Nightingale Training School, England's first official nursing school, opened in 1860 in London. By then, Florence's fame meant her story had been told many times over. She'd grown up in a typical Victorian middle-class family, expected to follow in her mother and sister's footsteps of a genteel life running a household and directing servants. 

Yet, Florence felt so constrained as a teenager, she underwent bouts of hysteria. She had horrible experiences of feeling as though she was suffocating and couldn't eat in front of her family, imagining that her tongue was too big for her mouth. There was something -- some internal longing telling her she had to do something different -- so strong, she reacted physically from the restriction. Later, against the strong opposition of her family, she rejected the plans they'd laid out for her and pursued nursing, a decision that ultimately saved thousands of lives in her time by revolutionizing nursing with innovations still used today, such as triage.

What will Johanna think of Florence Nightingale?

In preparation for writing my book's scene when a misbelief takes hold (plus some additional scenes that reinforce it), I watched a TED talk by "wrongologist" Kathryn Schulz called "On Being Wrong." If you have 17 minutes it's a thought-provoking talk. SPOILER ALERT: SKIP THE REST OF THIS SECTION if you want to be surprised by the TED talk. Schulz asks the question, what does it feel like to be wrong? Various people have answers like it feels embarrassing or humiliating. But she shares that no, that's what it feels like to realize you're wrong. In fact, being wrong feels like being right. 

This is how Johanna will feel. Very sure of something that, as the reader, you will know is oh, so wrong. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Story Genius: Week 4 is coming up with its work on getting deeper into how and why Johanna is blocking her own way toward getting what she wants. 

Books I'm reading:  I finished Ivan Doig's The Whistling Season. Wow - what a wonderful story of a family in western Montana in 1909. Against this backdrop, Doig brings vivid characters to life through language that's rich and nuanced and warm. Now I'm trying to speed-read Chaos Monkey by Antonio Garcia Martinez. So far it's an irreverent tell-all from the inside of Silicon Valley. This is for friend Asma's April Investment Book Club meeting. 

Virtual website class: It's been in the back of mind to tweak my website. For instance, there's no reference to me writing a book. As a result, I spent last Thursday in a 1-day virtual class on website revision. It gave me the structure to think through the issues, to research author websites, and then to create a 1-page plan with a timeline on doing the update. One step at a time; this was the first step. 

No updates on my kids' future weddings, but last week I did go through a time warp back to my past. After 44 years, my best friend from Illini Junior High School and I got together. Crystal gets the credit for connecting via Facebook. I drove up to Springfield, Illinois, for a 2-hour lunch that with lightening speed became 4 hours. We laughed a lot and felt like 13-years-old again. Without the geekiness. (OK, with it.) There's something so life-affirming about picking up where you left off so that the years don't matter and souls connect again.

In this spirit, here's a wonderful closing thought from Ivan Doig:

Life is wide. There's room to take a new run at it.