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!

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Pushing through resistance to change

It was involuntary. They sank my ship. 
-John F. Kennedy
(when asked how he became a war hero)

The unexpected happens: you react. 

Not because you want to or choose to or are following a premeditated plan, but, instead, like the ship that scuttled JFK’s PT boat, you act in order to survive. Lose a loved one. Lose a job. Lose a home. Lose health. With your back against the wall and nowhere to go sometimes there’s no choice but to act in the face of fear and the unknown. 

This specific, heart-rending spot of getting shoved out of a comfort zone is what I’ve been trying to zero in on this week for my book. The moment of no return when my protagonist Johanna must act because of events completely outside of her control. It could be when her husband, Theo dies, or perhaps when he’s sick. Or perhaps when Vincent van Gogh commits suicide. What I do know is that it must be when an external event is so forceful she has no choice but to act. 

It’s the point where the book will start. 

She will be her own worst obstacle because she will be so resistant to change.

Her resistance is normal. As human beings we are wired for survival. We resist change because a new idea can mean leaving the familiar — even an uncomfortable, horrible familiar — in order to move into the unknown or unexpected. 

So a comfort zone may not be good or healthy but it can be really tough to face the resistance to leave it.  It can create the urge to take the easy way out. The problem is the easy way out can mean delaying inevitable change and even losing the chance to leave behind the old and, instead, break through to something new. 

I have two examples that make this point:

  • Nora Ephron, writer and filmmaker, relates in her book, I Feel Bad About My Neck, how she was struggling with writing her first movie script when she heard about a hefty inheritance she would be receiving. What a relief - she could stop grappling with her writing and use the unexpected financial gift to pay the bills. Instead, the actual amount turned out to be much smaller so she had to return to the script and finish it. It was When Harry Met Sally. This hugely successful movie  — plus Nora’s succeeding films Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail — are romantic comedy classics. Nora is credited with creating the rom-com movie genre with these films.
  • Will Terry, children’s book illustrator, shared in a podcast interview, of a low point in his career when he'd gotten himself into a financial pickle during 2008’s economic downturn by taking on too much debt. At one point, his father offered to ask a wealthy relative for financial help to save Will's house. Will describes how a voice in his head said, “Yes! Yes!” but out of his mouth came, “No.” And, subsequently, he discovered new ways for his illustrations to generate revenue. Today he credits that single decision to determine his own way as the impetus to discovering new creative ventures. He says, “If I had taken that money, I don’t think I would be doing the things I’m doing today. Today my life feels so much better and happier, almost zero stress."

These are success stories, but, If you’ve ever resisted leaving your own comfort zone, then you have an idea of how this struggle feels. In a way, right now, I feel like I’m doing this every week by choosing to write. So many voices in my head tell me I’m an imposter: "Who are you kidding, Joan?” I saw an estimate that 81% of adults feel they have a book in them. In my writing class I found out the majority of people never get beyond writing three chapters. The numbers add up to more people failing, then succeeding, at writing.

But I do feel sure that if I don’t persist, I will be far more miserable in the long run. It would be so much more comfortable to stop, but the regret will carry a higher cost of feeling disappointed that I didn’t try. 
 
Perhaps this will be how Johanna feels about her struggle too. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Story Genius: Week 6 is this week with a scary assignment from my writing class to write the opening scene of the book, pinpointing the moment of no return for Johanna.
Books I'm reading:  Still reading the non-fiction Chaos Monkey by Antonio Garcia Martinez about Silicon Valley. I’ve also just started the novel Blindsighted by Karin Slaughter, a murder mystery thriller in a small town for my Villa bookclub. 

I’ve been under breathtakingly pure blue Tucson skies this past week at an exercise/spiritual/no-cell-phone spa with a group of girlfriends. It took me a few days of unsnarling mentally to reach a wonderful sense of mental and physical balance. There’s something about the sound of a gentle babbling stream and blooming cactus and mountain vistas that magically melts away tension.

Then on Saturday I travelled to Flagstaff to hug Eric and Angela and take care of fun wedding stuff (67 days away!) as well as meet their goofball greyhoundish dog, Kota. Several times a day he greeted me with startled barking that sounded like, “You’re still here?!!!” Mother-in-laws-to-be get no respect. 

Here’s a final word from JFK:

Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past and present are certain to miss the future.

Time for a change?

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