Why Inventing Matters

The best and most inspiring ideas often come from people outside your periphery. That's why we hold Interesting Café at our startup, Clickable. It's a community discussion led monthly by a different interesting person, who provokes and shares wisdom through a personal story. Last month, we hosted Garrett Brown, Oscar-winning inventor of the Steadicam. Garrett shot with this game-changing instrument on nearly 100 movies, including "Rocky," "The Shining" and "Return of the Jedi."

I'd like to share highlights from an interview during his visit. Garrett's gems are valuable to anyone who develops solutions to problems -- meaning everyone.

What does invention mean to you?

I understand invention to be finding something that's missing and filling that gap. Those are the two polar, indispensable components. Filling a gap that nobody's missing is stupid, and finding one you're unable to fill is hopeless. To me, invention is the combo. It's identifying something missing, and being able to fill it.



How does passion play into invention?

Passion has elements of fierceness and joy. It has elements of obsessions swirled around in it. Passion is something you may almost do excessively, but you do for the reasons of joy and pain that come with it. The word is so debased in language and commercials that I'm almost reluctant to even say it anymore. But yes, I have a passion for the moving camera. I love what happens when you move a lens someplace it hasn't moved before, or in a way it hasn't moved before. And that, fortunately, is a place I've been fortunate to slide into here and there and do things.

Why do some inventions succeed and others fail?

An invention fails if it doesn't deliver something that somebody wants... There are lots of inventions that are simply not sufficiently wanted or needed, and they're a great waste of time and money. There are other inventions [when] you have an aching need and want for something -- and the damn invention doesn't quite do it well enough. That's frustrating as well.

What's the balance between human spontaneity versus automation?

Robots, at least of the industrial sort, are as far from spontaneity as you can imagine. Their every aspect is programmed and arranged, and therefore repeats endlessly, perfectly. But at the moment, a human -- bionic, augmented and tireless -- brings a lot to this party that a robot brings very expensively. A human brings judgment of the results and the process, of perception of quality, and an incredible manipulative quality we all have, courtesy of evolution.

How do you know when the usage of an invention becomes art?

When you are moved by what is done with it; when you are moved in the ways art can move you. The invention of the violin became art when people learned how to play it. And curiously enough, the Steadicam is the same. It is an instrument, strangely enough. By the time people learned to play the Steadicam well, they did things that had an emotional effect on people. That was exciting.

You suggest that invention should be part of every job description. How do we make inventiveness ubiquitous?

I believe that, I really do. We teach kids to do all sorts of things, but we don't teach them to think about things in the inventive way -- and why don't we? It's something you should be alert for from earliest childhood. You should be conscious that when you do devise something, when you fill a gap, you have invented. I'd love to see kids thinking in that way, and growing up to be adults that think in that way... that solve their own problems, and acquire stuff for themselves that they want, whether or not it can be bought off the shelf. The process of doing it is absurdly easy... it's ridiculously easy to get a machine shop to build you a gizmo. You sketch it, they'll help you make it, you try it, and if it doesn't work, you make another. You can't imagine how much fun that is.

Our country is in a mess right now. What role does the inventor psyche play in getting out of it?

We need to be innovating more than ever. We've innovated hugely in our history. We need to invent our way out of this, because we've made a mess of the world. We've jeopardized many of the world's creatures. We need to invent the green way to live on this planet, the sustainable way. For us to carry our nearly eight billion souls along, we need to invent, devise and have the will to follow through on the rather not impossible task of giving people enough food, water and shelter to live a decent life and remain productive themselves.

(You can view our full Garrett Brown video interview here. Also see him online at GarrettCam.)

4 comments about "Why Inventing Matters ".
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  1. Pamela Principe-golgolab from PNA Associates Inc., April 17, 2009 at 1:12 p.m.

    Max - Awesome! This comes at a perfect time when we are promoting a group of 8th graders from Chester, NJ, who just won first place in the state for their inventions in the Destination ImagiNation program - a world wide, school supported creative problem solving program. I agree, we need more creative thinkers - and real teamwork. Love your posts! Be well.

  2. Lisbeth Kramer from Identities, April 17, 2009 at 3:41 p.m.

    LOVE THIS! Very much aligns with a key communication this week from BRANDING INSIDER...the key platform bringing the two together being...where has differentiation gone?
    I love the passion expressed here and indeed I believe this is key to business models moving forward...imagination, passion put into tangible results.
    Thank you for sharing this conversation and indeed I hope it engages MANY many minds in motion.

  3. Tim Mccormick from McCormick Fields, April 17, 2009 at 6:24 p.m.

    I was able to watch Garret demonstrate his early Steadicam
    to a group of Seattle cameramen in the early seventies.
    I noticed that his persona has not changed much. Yet like the Steadicam has become a bit more refined. I think that his
    ability to stay on track and really follow through with his ideas has brought him the respect in the media community
    that he richly deserves.
    Kudos to the Clickable folks for sharing their interesting
    cafe interviews. Great concept.

  4. Richard Monihan, April 20, 2009 at 11:04 a.m.

    Great post. There are several points worth adding:
    1. Invention EXPANDS the economy. Economies stagnate when innovation slows and productivity gains from innovation begin to decline.
    2. Invention is that great idea that you had, and you thought "somebody had to have thought of this already". The difference is, somebody may have...and like you still done nothing about it!
    3. Invention is sometimes spurned under the assumption that it is "cannibalizing" existing methods, systems, or technologies. But this is necessary for economic growth. Schumpeter called it the "perennial gale" of creative destruction. Horses aren't the primary mode of transport anymore, nor are railroads. But both still exist. Invention does not always completely destroy that which it squeezes out.
    4. Just because everyone has the same thing doesn't make the playing field equal. An invention means different things to different people. A Stradivarius violin is meaningless to me, but to a great violinist, it is a wonderful tool. Were I to learn to play, the difference in value of this tool would still be vast.

    These are key points of invention, and they are often overlooked or misunderstood.

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