Why a creative genius is really just a copycat

By Jeff HanhausenJeff_Hanhausen1


Where does creativity come from? When someone invents something new, we call them a genius. From the outside, it appears this person came up with the idea, product or service all by himself or herself. We have characterized the term “genius” to mean something very personal or self-contained. If this has any truth, it certainly puts enormous pressure on the very few geniuses that live in our world.

I make the claim that creativity and innovation come from without and not within. You need only look as far as the music industry to see it.

In his 2012 TED Talk Embrace the Remix, Kirby Ferguson points out how the music industry “remixes” to create new songs. This means copying existing music, then transforming it by combining multiple elements. For this reason, lawsuits often emerge over who owns what. But I don’t think the “stealing” is intentional as much as a tune that lives in the background. It’s been happening for decades, Ferguson says. Back in the 1960s, Bob Dylan was accused of “stealing” tunes. His famous “Master of War” sounds very much like “Nottamun Town,” written and performed by Jean Ritchie.

Many times, genius comes from so-called “mistakes” that lead to great creations. It’s much like a jazz band whose musicians feed off one another other. One musician may take the lead for a while, then defer to another who picks up on that tune and takes off with it. If they take off in an unexpected place, is it really a mistake? If you’re not listening, you could miss the opportunity to build on the riff. As you listen to a performance, you’ll hear multiple riffs. Innovation can look this way — a series of riffs that feed off one another and build to an extraordinary performance.

“The words are the important thing. Don’t worry about tunes. Take a tune and sing high when they sing low, sing fast when they sing slow, and you’ve got a new tune.”
Woody Guthrie

To be an innovator — a creative genius — you must first embody the posture of an artist, no matter what your eventual mural looks like. You must be curious and alert, grounded in the science of listening so you don’t miss the opportunities or “mistakes.” Everything begins with intentions, so you must begin, with intention, to notice, observe and assess what is happening around you.

In my case, I would send my engineers out once a quarter to investigate new inventions having nothing to do with our designs. They would go to the toy store and purchase toys to look for new ways of doing things. I wanted them to explore and perhaps remix designs to something valuable for our products and services. They would frequently come back with some new thinking or new design that was already being used in toys and that was applicable for our use with minor modifications.

The mouse and the fax

Do you know when the computer mouse was invented? What about the year the fax machine was brought to market?

Very often, the beginnings of innovation are not clear. By the time something gets recognized in the marketplace, it’s often been in existence for many years. A retired British professor has claimed he invented the computer mouse while working for the Royal Navy at the end of World War II — almost 20 years before an American was widely credited with creating the first one. Professor Ralph Benjamin said he developed the roller ball while developing radar-tracking systems for warships but that the idea was kept confidential by the military. The American, Douglas Engelbart, working at the Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International) invented the “mouse” prototype in the 1960s. SRI subsequently licensed it to Apple, Xerox and other companies, who remixed the mouse into three-button and one-button systems suitable for their end users in the early ’80s. Today, of course, the mouse is widely accepted and used with many computers, even as touch screens become more commonplace.

“I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work … progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready and then it is inevitable.”
Henry Ford

The use of the fax machine to transmit images via telephone lines did not become common in American businesses until the late 1980s. But that technology was actually invented more than a century earlier.
In 1843, Scottish engineer Alexander Bain devised an apparatus comprising a clock connected to two pendulums, a cylinder with metal pins and an electric probe that transmits on-off pulses. It was designed for line-by-line scanning of a message. From that beginning came a string of names and inventions (Frederick Bakewell’s “image telegraph,” Giovanni Caselli’s Pantelegraph, etc.) that led all the way up to the adaption and use of the fax machine in the 1980s, more than 140 years after Alexander Bain’s invention. Remix?

It looks to me like innovation comes from “without” as a process of multiple smaller iterations until it is useful in the marketplace. This can happen very quickly, or it can take place over decades. It can be purposeful or come from a mistake. The beginnings are often unclear, so in the end, it’s not just one genius but perhaps a whole string of geniuses who contributed to the end result. Perhaps the true genius of great inventions is knowing that you’re actually not a genius as much as an artist who puts new words to an old tune. CEO

Jeff Hanhausen is CEO of The Hanhausen Group, which invests its expertise, network and money in a small number of private companies to produce a significant shift in the rate of growth of enterprise value. www.hanhausengroup.com. Contact him at jeff@hanhausengroup.com.

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