The premise is simple, but clever: the facility takes donations of old computers. The computers are disassembled and their components tested by a team of volunteers. Broken components are shipped off to a recycling facility in Lombard, IL, and functional ones are put together to make fully working computers.
Volunteers give 24 hours of service, during which they are trained in taking apart, testing, and building computers. At the end of their hours, they are given a computer built from donations, running Xubuntu.
The service educates, recycles, finds a use for older machines, and successfully operates with limited budget all at once. Volunteers get training, get a computer, and help keep the program going. And that's what makes this business so clever: that both their resources and their labor are so broadly purposeful, directly benefiting environment, volunteer, and business at once.
Inventables is giving away 1 gift certificate worth $250 to our store.
To win, submit your idea for what you would build to @inventables on Twitter. We'll post it to the poll on the right side of our blog and we'll let the world decide who wins the site credit. Voting closes on 12/17/10 at 5pm. We'll post pictures (and maybe video) of what the winner did with the prize.
You might be wondering, why are we doing this? At Inventables, we believe that it is currently too difficult for designers, artists, and inventors to source materials. We've set out to solve this problem by building an online store that will streamline the process of innovation by making previously hard to find materials available to purchase. We think of our store as "the innovators hardware store," and our goal is to inspire everyone—regardless of profession—to explore what’s possible. We think we can accomplish this by leveling the playing field of materials research.
The first step we took towards realizing this goal was making samples of materials available for sale on our website. Traditionally, many of these materials were only available for purchase by large companies purchasing in large volume. The next step we'd like to take toward leveling the playing field of materials research is to make some of these products free for innovators with great ideas. If this contest is successful, we'll likely expand it to give more even more innovators the opportunity to make something special. We believe that energy, ideas, and industriousness (read: not deep pockets) should be all that is required to compete with the biggest R&D teams in the world. When writing software in 2010 all you need is a computer, open source tools, and your mind...we're asking, can it be the same for building physical things?
Growing up I built projects ranging from robots, to potato cannons, to LEGO sets. In the beginning, construction toys like LEGOs, Bolt and Play, and Construx were awesome because they gave you a framework to build with. Once you get the hang of it they become good tools for prototyping and concept development but a bit limiting for the final product. Well, unless you are Nathan Sawaya:
So I tried building things that looked more like products you would buy in a real store like Toys R Us. The first place I would go was the local ACE hardware store or Radio Shack to get materials and components. As anyone who has gone down that path knows you are somewhat limited in the types of materials, components, and fasteners you have at your fingertips. One of the projects I was most proud of was when I made my own laser tag gun and sensor using one of these project boxes from Radio Shack.
When I was done it barely worked, and cost more than the toys available at retail, and looked like a science experiment. I was proud to have built it, but was ashamed that mine didn't look nearly as good as the real ones:
Product designers and engineers that work in big companies have had materials and tools available to them that, until now, little R&D did not. We want to change that. We hope this experiment works, because it we believe that it could lower barriers to entry in the field of product design, and allow more people to build cool stuff.
New uses for old materials
Much of the most interesting work displayed involved finding novel uses for well-known materials. One artists would cut rocks into thin slabs that could be used as drink coasters, or reassembled into their original formation. There were bottlecaps turned into magnetic art, jewelry made from junk, notebooks made from scrap leather.
Bringing producer and consumer together
One of the booths that most struck me was a booth selling jewelry advertised as "Powder-Coated Steel Jewelry", almost reading like an Inventables product headline.
When I asked the seller for an explanation, she eagerly explained how the metal was charged to attract ionized colored powder, evenly coating the jewelry it before it was baked on. The method itself was nothing new, but it was fascinating to have the process emphasized over the product. If this same jewelry was sold at a mall, their tagline would read something like "colored steel jewelry".
You could see this throughout the Trunk Show. Everyone was eager to talk about the way their craft was made, was eager to advertise the origins of their creation. In most of the modern marketplace, the consumer is heavily removed from the product. We rarely understand how something works, moreover how something was made. R&D is a distant, mysterious realm of thick glasses and tesla coils.
While we may not be selling cat sweaters, the DIY Trunk Show was an engaging showcase of the exact kind of spirit we hope to help evoke.
This success starts to put some pressure on established consumer products companies that outsource their product design. It starts to put control in the designers hands. If they can go direct to consumers with sites like Kickstarter, do they even need the clients anymore? Fee for service relationships might not make as much sense. A designers true vision can be presented to a customer rather than a watered down version that has gone through the corporate gauntlet.
Since launching the online store the response has been tremendous. Our goal is to continue to remove barriers between "makers" and "prototypers" and their visions. The first way we are tackling this is by offering materials for sale in small quantities that are typically hard to find or unavailable. The second thing we're doing is redesigning our homepage for this new business model. Specifically we have re-designed two versions. The first uses vertical categories. The default view is the most recently purchased products and down the left side you can review all the different categories we offer. Within each category we have subcategories. If this version wins we will continue to develop it and add additional filters to help a visitor narrow down their search to find the products that meet all their criteria.
The second version takes an editorial approach. We tell a story of how the materials sold on our site have been used in the past as a way to inspire visitors to the site to think about how they could be used in the future.
Click the links, try out both home pages, and let us know which one you like better by posting a comment to this blog post or tweeting us @inventables.
A product called Rubber Glass, lets you create special effects that simulate glass without the inherent dangers. Unlike other transparent plastics, this one breaks with the same spiderweb, shattering pattern as glass.
It uses a polyurethane that enables you to create glass and ice-like objects without the hassles of conventional breakaway plastic products. Unlike other plastics, this product cures at room temperature; once cured, it is odorless and easy to handle. You mix it up and shape it into whatever you need.
Rubber Glass is a non-toxic silicone that simulates broken glass or ice. Once you combine the two bottles, you let it cure to form a soft, clear rubber, and then crumble it. The film Die Another Day used over 1.5 tons of it, and several other films rely on it to create broken glass and ice chips.
With the launch of our new store, we seek to democratize the practice of materials research, streamline the process of innovation, and inspire everyone—regardless of profession—to explore what’s possible. We believe exploration is a precursor to innovation. In order to create a workspace that embodies that spirit of "Exploring What's Possible", we approached the team at Studio O + A to design our new office.
We found an awesome loft space near the west edge of Chicago's loop and two blocks from Union Station.
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The designers at Studio O + A had a blank canvas to work with. The building is currently being renovated, and it has tall ceilings and a really cool concrete look and feel.
The main focus of our work at Inventables is software development. We're continually improving our website to make it easier for our customers to find materials that can help them build prototypes and products. We designed our main work area to be open and to encourage collaboration, yet one special feature is that the room will not have any phones. This will help keep a quiet work environment and minimize disruptions. We'll have a few pair programming stations and two flat screens that will display the OneTh1ng each team member is doing each day, as well as a dashboard showing real-time analytics from our website using ChartBeat. Each morning, we'll gather around the two flat screens for our stand up meeting.
We also installed a phone booth room and a customer success area where our team can talk on the phone when necessary.
We're really excited about two new areas of the office - the exploration area and the video production room. The exploration area will give guests and members of our team the opportunity to explore what's possible. We are installing some awesome honeycomb shelves designed by Clive Wilkinson to hold and showcase materials we sell on our site. We plan to have a worktable where visitors can build quick prototypes, take pictures of their creations, and share them with future visitors on built-in monitors. We'll hook the monitors up to a flickr photo stream to share their creations with the world. This area will be full of all sorts of things to explore. For now we're going to keep them a secret; you'll have to stop by to experience them for yourself.
Down the hall from the exploration room will be the video production room. This is where we plan to interview innovators in the fields of computer science and product development. When we started thinking about what we wanted out of our space, we realized that our current space wasn't set up to share as much as we'd like. Creating a space specifically designed for interviews will make it possible to invite the best technical minds into our office and help them tell their stories of creation. We hope to peel back the layers of the onion and dig deep into why they do what they do. We hope to hear stories of how they got started, what they explored, and how their work and persistence translated into success.
Another exciting feature of our new office is that the furniture will be easy to move around, making the space convertible. This will make it easier for us to hold events like Ruby meetups, IDSA Chicago meetings and ORD Sessions. During the next two months the space will be transformed, and we're excited to share the progress with you.
I recently found the CORE-Materials OER project and they share our passion. They are working to make a significant number of the many existing learning resources in Materials freely available online. They explain on their site "the resources will be licensed for open use and repurposing worldwide."
They offer a resource page with a number of interesting resources. One that stood out to me was a paper by Prof Claire Davies, School of Metallurgy and Materials, University of Birmingham where she goes through materials used in sporting goods.
Hat's off to this organization. If you know of other resources for learning about materials tweet it to us! @inventables
To answer this question, it helps to think about WHY we exist.
Inventables was founded on the premise that “Anything’s Possible”. The spirit behind that phrase can be explained by Thomas Edision’s quote, “None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” In the beginning, Inventables worked on building a brand and a company around our belief in Yankee ingenuity and the can-do spirit. We believed that, given an idea and a relentlessly curious disposition, you could build anything. Over the years our customers proved this to be true. For example:
Peter Skillman, the former VP of Design at Palm, was faced with a challenge when working on the Palm docking station. He found that the station could easily be knocked off of a desk, causing the phone to fall and the screen to crack. He found micro-suction tape through Inventables and used it to solve this problem.
The micro-suction tape was used on the bottom of the docking station, as seen in this picture provided by Palm Info Center. It's got tiny little micro-suction cups so there is no sticky residue.
For years, hackers, makers, and students have lusted over the materials, like micro-suction tape, listed on inventables.com, but access to them has only been granted by paying subscription fees. Typically, only major corporations have been able to afford access. We originally took this path because we bootstrapped the business. We didn't have the money to fund longer term initiatives and used our customers' subscription fees to fund our growth. Customers paid their annual subscription fees up front, and we used that revenue to hire researchers to find and procure all the materials on our website. In exchange for the subscription fees, users gained access to the contact information for the vendors and we shipped them a sample of each material.
This subscription service was wildly popular amongst industrial design departments specializing in consumer products. At our peak, 20% of all Fortune 500 companies, including 7 of the top 10 most innovative, subscribed to Inventables. Design firms, artists, and small companies longed for access to the materials but weren’t able to afford it…until now.
Inventables is a mission-based company. We've always used long term thinking to guide our decisions. In 2009, we raised some venture capital to help us begin to realize our long term vision for the company. Roughly two years ago, we started giving away access to our collection of materials for free. Some questioned the validity of this approach since, at that time, we earned nearly all our revenue from selling information. We realized that in order to have a bigger impact on the world and to bring our idea to a much larger audience, we had to innovate and push ourselves forward. With the most recent model, we earned revenue by selling sales leads to the suppliers and manufacturers that produce the materials. This approach grew the size of our audience by roughly 300%, from a few thousand to a few hundred thousand. After analyzing thousands of inquiries from potential customers, we discovered that roughly 70% were trying to buy a sample or a small quantity of our materials for prototyping.
A few weeks ago, with this data in hand, Inventables started working with our suppliers to make their products available for sale in small quantities. So far the response has been tremendous. Here is a sampling of a few that can now be purchased through our site:
In the coming months, we’ll be working with our other suppliers to make their products available for sale through Inventables. Our goal is to eventually have all the materials available in small quantities so that someone doing research and development can easily buy them for prototyping.
We believe this is an exciting time in the history of the world because the existence of the internet and search engines like Google has made access to information immediate and essentially free. With manufacturing moving to Asia, most of the product development work being done in the US revolves around R&D projects, prototyping, and short runs for testing. At the same time, the Maker community has exploded. Make Magazine and Maker Faire have joined some of the more traditional science and engineering magazines, like Popular Science, Wired, Popular Mechanics, Design News, and Machine Design, in bringing new energy and new blood to the art of building. In addition to all of this traditional media, the web has also provided new ways for people to share what they build, from sites like Etsy and 1000markets where you can sell handmade goods to sites like Instructables where you can learn how to do just about anything.
We believe that by making information about materials and how they have been used free, along with making them available in small quantities for purchase, we can help our customers explore what's possible. This, in turn, will lead to a larger audience of makers and even more product innovation. We believe we're democratizing access to materials, and new, smaller teams will have similar access that major corporations have. These new teams will give product innovation departments at great companies like Nike, Apple, and Boston Scientific a run for their money.
We invite you to come explore what's possible and challenge you to think about what you would build with a squishy magnet.
Stephanie started Laf, Inc., a Florida-based industrial design firm, in 2002. Many clients have walked into her office with such napkins in hand, hoping to turn their rough sketches into finished, sellable products. She’s worked on everything from packaging for an organic line of soap to designing promotional pieces and advertisements for a fashion label. She says, “Every day is a different challenge,” acknowledging that her diverse array of projects keeps work from becoming boring.
It’s that spirit for embracing new challenges that has driven Stephanie throughout her life. She left business school to pursue her passion for design at the Savannah College of Art and Design, starting her company shortly after graduating. And she takes on these varied projects, even though they can be difficult and unpredictable at times. In order to introduce structure into her exciting and ever-changing schedule, she’s developed a distinct 12 step program that she uses for each design project that she takes on.
Stephanie’s process includes defining the project concept with the client, coming up with branding, packaging, and advertisements, and prototyping and manufacturing the products. While much of the design work comes naturally to her, there’s one part of the process that always presents a challenge – finding materials to make the finished products. She says, “Material sourcing is its own ballgame. The most difficult part is having enough time to source the materials.” She says that many of the traditional avenues for finding these resources aren’t efficient, especially for small businesses like Laf, Inc.
At Inventables, we’ve recently started selling small quantities of materials and technologies online in an attempt to help designers like Stephanie explore what’s possible. We believe that if we can create an easily accessible catalog of materials for a vast array of projects, we can make material sourcing simple and efficient for Stephanie and other passionate designers that are driven to find the best solution, rather than the available solution.
As we continue to develop our online store, Stephanie’s business continues to blossom. She has multiple new products hitting the market at the end of 2010. And eight years after starting Laf, Inc., her passion is still evident. “You only live one time, and you should do it your own way. Who doesn’t want to design and make people happy?” And she is definitely making her clients happy, one scribbled napkin at a time.
Cowhide leather better watch out because there is a new game in town...fish leather. Fish leather typically comes from four different varieties of fish: perch, salmon, wolffish, and cod. The leather comes from fish commonly caught for food. As you might expect, this means these materials are a by-product reclaimed from food processing activities. In the past the hides have often been discarded. Fish leather is being used in everything from purses to women's shoes. Some big brands you've heard of including Prada, Dior, Nike, Ferragamo and Puma have used it in some of their products.
The leather comes in small strips or can be made into panels using 7 strips which is useful when making larger items.
Check out the salmon fish leather we have here, samples are now available.
Mechanical Engineer at The Payloads Concept Center, The Boeing Company
As in real life, a personal creative journey is fraught with hiccups. Even the best laid plans to become a fanatical journal-keeper will, at some point, be derailed by reality. In Part Four acceptance, and even expectation, of life’s disruptions and upheavals become more than traumatic – they become a tool.
If you are not scared, you aren’t living. Fear does not have to become a weakness. Both admitting you experience fear and becoming confident letting it into your life, are not easy things to do. It certainly is easy to be so afraid of yourself that you unconsciously make choices that take you to where you most fear. Fear is the animal in us. It is being human that allows us to choose how to use it: harness it to survive, to be creative, or give in and let it take our choices away. Animals are not capable of being their own worst enemy.
I have done some very stupid things. When I think back on my single day, solo climb of Mt. Adams I really wonder what I was thinking. The weather was set to be great, I had a little bit of mountaineering experience, the route I was taking was non-technical, and I had been up the mountain previously. I set out after a full day of work and drove the five hours to the trail head where I took a little nap. In the wee hours of the morning I set off up the mountain. I enjoyed the climb and dawdled, chatting with folks, and basking happily in the sun. It was not until I had reached the top and the euphoria of the moment started to wear off that I realized just how late and tired I was – and how far from a safe night’s sleep. I did make it down, but just before dark and dangerously exhausted. I had not been equipped to spend a night on the mountain alone. Fear is what got me back to the car before dark. I proceeded to drive the five hours home which was probably more dangerous in my tired state than spending a night on the mountain alone.
Immerse yourself in foreign environments where your instincts are tested, your skills are challenged, and you feel deeply uncomfortable. Run amok over your own boundaries. Risk abject, debilitating fear and use it to store up soul food for a winter, and creative juices for a drought. Part of my fascination with diving has to do with fear. Some driving force propels all divers into an environment where the primary ingredient for life is blatantly missing. Aside from the majesty and mystery of The Deep, I am a bit afraid every time I enter the water. I take that figment of fear and pop it into my pocket but, like a hundred dollar bill, I do not ever forget it is there. The day it is not there is the day I should stop diving.
Photo credit: Cameron Etezadi
When you admit fear, you take away its ability to sneak up on you and you outwit panic. When you share your fears with others, you allow them to do the same. Together you shine a flashlight in fear’s face and cry “Boo!” Most of the time fear retreats and you share a laugh.
Surround yourself with people who get it, and be patient with those who do not. Embrace Crazy and her entourage. Judge less. Some people just reek of fire and light – they naturally sparkle. Gravitate to these kindred spirits like the proverbial moth to the flame. Others are like glows sticks: the ingredients are all there, you just need to shake them up before they shine. Give willingly and often of those things, like compliments and smiles, that cost you nothing. In mathematical terms, a generosity that cost you nothing provides infinite returns. Ask questions. Listen, and be listened to. Let a sunset loose your usually tight lips, and spill your guts to a winsome stranger. Do that more often and prepare yourself to be the winsome stranger for someone else. Those who create easily owe it to others to be their awe factory. Be a comet. Leave a trail of light!
Practice letting go. If it does not matter, do not make it. Forgive yourself when you misstep or you need to be ordinary: a temporary state of ordinary is not the enemy. Ordinary or extraordinary, be confident enough to be comfortable with either label. Be as forgiving with yourself as you are with others. You are not Atlas and the weight of the world is not your burden, so shrug it off carelessly. Do not carry a lifetime of baggage with you everywhere when all you really need is a toothbrush, sunscreen, and three ounces of liquid self respect in a clear Ziploc bag. (Oh, and a notebook).
Night diving is an exercise in letting go; it has to be one of the most surreal experiences on earth. Suspended weightless in a salty womb, I am aware that every sense and synapse has been tinkered with. To then deliberately turn off my dive light and disable what is my primary sense, my safety net, takes courage, but this is the essence of letting go. It is a willful release of what you hold most dear, with forethought and foreknowledge of the consequences. Letting go is the antithesis of instinct and yet, without being willing to do it, I so often hobble myself. Unless you let go, turn off the light, you miss the secrets of the sea. You miss how she phosphoresces when you stroke her. You miss hearing the pistol shrimp death knell as they cavitate their supper to stew with a genius of mechanics. You miss feeling the vertigo of space, an astronaut in Eden instead of the barrenness of space. When I am ready, I flip on my light and become a star in the constellation of the coral. I become part of a creation.
Left: Not wanting to get out of the water following the final Clipperton dive.
Photo credit: Randi Eisen
Celebrate every iota of progress. Honor mistakes, for they are only truly a waste when you refuse to learn from them. Play music that sets your duodenum dancing and abandon humbleness to unleash your inner hubris, just for a spell. Compel your cohorts to join you and acquiesce when reciprocally required.
Take Care of your Physical Self
A neglected body breeds a weak mind and a vaccinated soul. The most creative mind with the most creative spirit will fail to blossom if the health of the body is disregarded. Eat well and with forethought, rest deliberately, and sweat copiously. There is truth in the saying “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” It is impossible to enjoy the things I love to their fullest when I have neglected my body. As I age, I am reminded of this more often. Some sneaky extra pounds deflated my love of a good hill and affected my diving. They multiplied and chortled along with me over several years until I realized how active a roll I was playing in my own mugging. I am a better diver, climber, napper, kisser, musician, runner, giver, worker, and thanker when I am healthy in spirit and body. When I am physically healthy, I am a better creator.
Franck again leaves us with a challenge:
“I know artists whose medium is life itself, and who express the inexpressible without brush, pencil, chisel, or guitar. They neither paint nor dance. Their medium is Being. Whatever their hand touches has increased life. They SEE and do not have to draw. They are artists of being alive.” (Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation)
They are creative.
Lest you conclude otherwise, I have nothing really figured out. I regularly and grudgingly shoulder burdens better buried, am brusque with folks, and tend to judge harshly. I am afraid. However, I am also learning to be at peace, that the puzzle in my life does not have numbers on the back. If I put a piece in wrong, the worst that can happen is that the image appears surreal for a few moments while faces are reversed in the American Gothic reproduction before me. I laugh, decide if I like it that way or not, and then move on. Learn to do the same. A puzzle may come with a box and a picture, but there is no legend for life.
Special thanks to shipmates and crews of the Nautilus Explorer, Professor Molchanov, and to fellow La Cusinga Biomimicers, as well as to my treasured kindred spirits who helped make this somewhat coherent. Thanks to Zach for the impetus and opportunity.
Photo Credits: Heidi Kneller
Above: Leopard Seal, Antarctica
Photo Credits: Heidi Kneller
The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds by Jeanette Winterson
Notes to Myself: My Struggle to Become a Person by Hugh Prather
View with a Grain of Sand by Wisława Szymborska
I Want to Be by Thylias Moss
Gitanjali: Offerings of Song and Art by Rabindranath Tagore
The Prohet by Kahlil Gibran
Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter
The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul by Douglas Hofstadter, Daniel Dennett
Mathematical Basis of the Arts by Joseph Schillinger
Fire in the Mind by George Johnson
Photo Credits: Heidi Kneller
Mechanical Engineer at The Payloads Concept Center, The Boeing Company
Recognizing that every person’s creativity equation will be different, Part Three tackles the importance of keeping a record and the different forms this record keeping can take. As always, I am sharing what I have found works best for me. You will need to discover your own iteration.
Collect and Capture
“I get so busy trying to get somewhere I miss what's on the way
No time for looking around a thousand miles an hour.
What good is getting there if I'm not happy just the way it is?
Appreciate what comes around, the sweet or sour.
Do you soak it in, this life you're living?
Do you soak it in, this life you're living?
And after all you've done and all you've seen
Will you remember anything?
Do you soak it in, this life you're living.” (Rachel Farris, Soak)
Find a way that works for you to soak up experiences, both new and familiar. Create private records of moments when assailed with new sights, smells, feelings, or thoughts. Train yourself to take advantage of every moment when it hits you. It is most satisfying to me to capture life’s experiences with images - photographs and sketches - and words, but experiment with different methods that work for you.
1) Take lots of pictures
Photographers are shamans who conjure with time and light, and photographs are technology’s equivalent to moonbeams carried home in a jar. While a good photograph commits to carrying the weight of a moment for eternity, your pictures do not have to be technically good, they just need to be able to carry that instant forward in time for you to relive later. You should employ the modern hard drive as a snuff box to pop open when you need a fix.
Photo Credit: Heidi Kneller
This photograph means nothing to anyone else; it is a disaster technically, even in an abstract sense. However, this single shot epitomizes a memorable moment of a trip to China. It is my mental tag for the experience of the entire trip. It is a shot of a cheerful young couple riding a bicycle. She and her partner are sharing an intimate laughter while riding down the busy street. To them there was no one else in the world and I was a guilty voyeur. Just a single moment captured carelessly with the thoughtless flick of a finger yet, when I look at it, I can hear her laughter and smell the exhaust in the warm air.
2) Carry a notebook and pen everywhere
Photo Credit: Heidi Kneller
Here is the final page from my latest notebook. It is a mosh pit of randomness, but three lines have been reused and several more are percolating into something bigger. Two morphed into a poem celebrating the marriage of friends and the third turned into Schizophrenic on a Friday Afternoon.
3) Keep a journal
I am an artistic neophyte and exceedingly fickle when it comes to choice of medium and outlet. I cannot sketch reality to save my life but my mind is full of phantasmagoria and I try to let it out with as little judgment and in as many different ways as possible. Franck’s mantra really strikes home: “Let drawing be the celebration of experiencing, of the eye in love, instead of making pictures to be framed.” (Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation) Still, it is words that leave me much less demure.
Artist & Photo Credit: Heidi Kneller
Photo Credit: Heidi Kneller
4) Revisit, Reuse, Recycle, Retry, and Revise
Revisit the notebook, the journal, the pictures, the people, and the places. Part of the compelling reason for each of those things is to stave off starvation when creative fodder gets thin. When your days are filled with the mundane, as they surely will be, return to this archive of new experiences and relive them. The key is to continually inject creative precursors from those moments into your system with the fixation of a recovering surgery patient on a morphine drip. The records you keep are laden with latent creative karma because you have carefully collected each one, and unlike tea leaves, they produce a better refreshment with each successive brewing.
Top Left: Coatimundi at La Cusinga, Costa Rica hoping I am not going to steal his supper.
Top Right: Underwater life in Antarctica.
Bottom: Humpack whale mother and calf cuddling during Clipperton trip.
Photo Credits: Heidi Kneller
Creativity does not always have to be on a timeline, and keeping a record frees you from that pressure. I have found that activities or outputs that give me the most satisfaction have been given the time to mature. Words will get juggled around umpteen different ways at many different times, sometimes over the course of years, before I really feel what I have written is right. Nothing I have ever written is safe from revision. After all, words have such infinite possibility. Take an ordinary sentence as an example; the permutations, combinations, and rearrangements are endless. Combine them, then polish, re-examine, deconstruct, mangle, and dismember. Masticate, ruminate, regurgitate, and re-arrange. Reassemble and suture, but do not sterilize. Finally, embellish with aberrance and garnish with re-punctuation. A good sentence is all about cadence, which seldom shows itself in the first few takes.
When I sit down to play with words, I realize that time is creativity’s ally. With the science of a sorceress, I try to snitch a word you used last week and mix it with something I read last year, toss in a line scrawled in my notebook yesterday, some spice from an old photograph, a sound, or a whiff, and whip up a powerful spell. This takes practice and requires many failures. Most of the time I find that I have turned gold into straw. Yet, I try to gain currency from the fact that I am at least able to transform, if not matter, then at least thought.
As much as personal creativity can be a solitary pursuit, finding a way to make others a part of it is important. Others can provide fodder and feed into your process as well as share in our outputs as friends, critics, and adoring fans. Everyone should have multiples of each. In Part Four, I share the importance of including others in your creative process.
Mechanical Engineer at The Payloads Concept Center, The Boeing Company
Yesterday, in Part One, I put some fundamental definitions in place and then I shared some of the necessary ingredients for my personal creativity. In Part Two I will share the practical ways I have found to cement those ethereal ingredients of wonder, awe, peace, gratitude, and joy into my daily creative process.
Enable Personal Creativity
I believe that the single most important facet to nurture in oneself is the ability to wonder, both to do it regularly and to have it flood over you easily, often, and unexpectedly. Being constantly wonder-full also reminds you to be grateful, it breeds reverence for our world and each other, it is contagious, and it self-propagates. Although theory is interesting, practice can be another matter entirely. Move with me from conjecture to practice. The following are empirical tools I have found essential to my creativity. Look for relevance from here and from others to augment your own toolkit. Keep only what dependably provides you results and satisfaction and throw out the chaff. Be finicky. Apply the scientific method: question, hypothesize, test, analyze, and iterate continuously.
“We choose what we experience, not what we see.” (Hugh Prather, Spiritual Notes to Myself) Deliberately seek out amazement wherever you are and whatever you are doing. Attempt to make the density of your matter more closely match that around you so that experiences penetrate you with little effort. Ask yourself what do you see? and then STOP to think on it. Turn what you see on its head. Turn it inside out. Look for the extraordinary in ordinary people and things, and for new ways to share what you see. Search and experiment with new ways to see. Prather admonishes to: “Look lightly on your destiny. Look lightly on the world. There is more to seeing than your eyes, more to life than a body.” (Hugh Prather, Notes to Myself)
The painter and sculptor, Frederick Franck expresses a similar view so succinctly “If you can see, you can see with your nose and smell with your ear.” (Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation) He continues:
“Everyone thinks he knows what a lettuce looks like. But start to draw a lettuce and you realize the anomaly of having lived with lettuces all your life but never having seen one, never having seen the semi-transparent leaves curling in their own lettuce way, never having noticed what makes a lettuce a lettuce rather than a curly kale. I am not suggesting that you draw each . . . vein of leaf, but that you feel them being there.” (Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation)
There are many different ways to seek out amazement but I find it easiest to find in nature. Scuba diving is only one of the lenses available to me, and I often draw on my love of hiking and climbing to carry me away. As I look back on an experience scaling Mt. Rainier and how I will be forever infatuated with that mountain, I find a good example of what I mean when I say “Turn it on its head.” I had been trying to write about the climb ever since I had stood upon her summit, miserable, indelibly humbled, and completely enamored, but had gotten nowhere. Everything started with describing the mountain as “high” which is completely mundane and, although true, totally uninspiring. Cholesterol levels and crime rates are high but describing Mt. Rainier as “high” just did not seem to do her justice. I spent an entire afternoon thinking up various ways to describe her dominance of the skyline. I turned her upside down and her profile became a “sky trench Mariana”. I turned her inside out and finally settled upon an opening line of “Much less below the sky than I.” There are an infinite number of ways to describe a mountain as high. Do not use one anyone has used before.
Inject yourself with concentrated doses of delight. My default elixir of choice is the natural world, on which it takes so little effort to get drunk. Explore places where you can rest and be perpetually bathed in bewitchment because the place is overflowing with it. Take yourself away from your normal to where it is easy to shut out the droning of a busy life.
Sometimes you just need a fix and something new. Most recently, while returning from Clipperton Island, diving off Roca Partida served up an incredible chance for revelry, providing everything necessary. The concentration of diverse and interesting people was off the charts, the place was as foreign and virgin as space, and the sea a plush liquid. It made it so easy to let defenses necessary for survival in real life disintegrate and the senses to be titillated.
One extraordinary afternoon we were treated to hours of snorkeling with a mother humpback whale and her calf. Both seemed at ease with our presence, the sea was cooperative, and we were fertile for memorable moments. Inter-species communion took place and the memories weigh heavy with reverence. When we get used to plodding through life, such things easily overwhelm or, more tragically, underwhelm because we lack the faculties and discipline to process and appreciate them. I was so desperately out of practice that, by the following day, when we shared a dive with the giant mantas off San Benedicto I was still so full of humpback alchemy that there was no room for more.
Photo Credit: Heidi Kneller
Photo Credit: Cameron Etezadi
Photo Credit: Henrik
The goal is to naturally and unflaggingly exist in this awakened, yet awkward space, facilitated by such sought out experiences, even when you are not scuba diving in Antarctica or snorkeling with a humpback whale family in paradise. Exercise your psyche like a muscle, stretch it like a yogi, and train as if your life depends on it. Become an awe addict with a high tolerance for inebriation and be prepared to abandon modesty at first opportunity.
“The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence:
. . .
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” (T. S. Elliot, The Rock)
I find this to be the most difficult of all and, once again, being out in nature makes it easier to simply be. Terry Krautwurst, in the wonderful article Secrets of Watching Wildlife, assuages my conscience by admitting that “most humans find it difficult to remain motionless for more than a few seconds.” Strive to become adept at quieting yourself, expecting nothing, needing nothing, wanting nothing, struggling against nothing, and at the mercy of everything. Surrender.
Night nature walks force me to be still. Usually, it only happens after I have been charging around in the dark at my normal high speed trying to see everything. Once I stub my toe, bonk my head, or fall down and I am at last forced to pause, the real experience is allowed to begin. Once you allow your primary sense to become disabled, all the other ones step up their game.
For example, after a very long day immersed in the Costa Rican rain forest, and then attempting to decipher scientific abstracts to uncover nature’s mechanisms for sound and moisture management, the entire team was tired. Still, around midnight, darkness did manage to draw several of us out on the short walk down to the beach. Night stood naked before us, her silk lingerie of darkness strewn over the forest floor, and her excitement apparent in the rich forest scent. We separated at the beach and I walked down the sandy strip to lie down alone, face up, on nature’s magnificent mattress. Within moments the sand bubbler crabs resumed their mysterious festivities frenetically clicking and painting with their sand baubles to create fleeting masterpieces. Revealing her foot fetish, the sea foam flirted and licked at my toes. Befuddled, I went out to be still in the water’s rhythm, our two bodies swapping saline through a single skin. How much I miss when I fail to be still.
While I have been most successful when practicing this “being still” on my own, there is not a much higher communion between souls than happens when two can be still in complete repose, silently replete in an extended moment. Find someone who has mastered this skill and unabashedly flatter with imitation. A good teacher will force your hand. After all, it is easier to shut up when the person you are with refuses to talk to you, for, “like giggling, stillness is infectious.” (Jeanette Winterson, The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds) Giggling. Stillness. I strive to be an epidemic of both.
Creativity is a response action. You should strive for the response to be involuntary and prompted by the conventionally ordinary. In order for this to happen, you need to clear out the head clutter that everyone accumulates. Use new experiences and cycles of revelment and stillness to purposefully define those things that most incite you, and then seek out those triggers. Unlearn bad habits and re-examine your goals and expectations of yourself and others. Take advantage of challenging times in your life to molt beliefs and belongings, and make experimental forays into unchartered territory. If you do not like what you find, you do not have to stay.
A few years ago I went for a week alone to a cabin on the Washington coast. I ran on the beach. I hiked. I read I spontaneously napped on the sandy shore. I poked around in tide pools and watched the grass grow. I wrote and I dissected. It was Thoreau-ean. I had no agenda other than to examine my world. The most important realization was how important scheduling such time is for me. If you ask me now how I have incorporated that realization into my life I will admit to failing miserably. Such introspection is frightening and few of us have the luxury of that much alone time at regular intervals. I am still attempting to have the discipline to do a bit of this daily and to find a way to achieve a lasting benefit on an abbreviated time schedule.
“Toward what end is my life lived? A great freedom comes from being able to answer that question." (Jeanette Winterson, The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds) I had a lot of time to ruminate during the two and half week Clipperton trip, and the six days steaming at sea were a gift. The realizations made were not earth-shattering, but they were pivotal. They were not sudden, but instead built upon things I had been musing upon since Costa Rica. Clipperton simply served as a capstone experience in my current iteration.
These words are a product of some difficult but satisfying introspection. It is a reaction to an accumulation of awe, and writing it has been very satisfying. It is a product of my creativity and an example of yet another important tenet: collect and capture.
Part Two concludes with the plea to become adept at doing nothing. In Part Three the work really begins and I will share mechanisms I attempt to practice daily to invest in sustaining the creative process.
Mechanical Engineer at The Payloads Concept Center, The Boeing Company
“Water is always an invitation to immersion [for me], an immersion with a quality of totality, since it would accept all of me, as I am. Some primal urge invites me to return whence I came. . . There is some special delight in simply walking into a stream, stepping into a lake. The child’s delight in a puddle is my adult’s in the sea . . .” (Mathew Kelty, Flute Solo: Reflections of a Trappist Hermit)
Scuba diving is space tourism for poor people; last year I went to Mars, and this spring I went to the Moon. Breathless and weightless, I have indeed been fortunate. In 2007, I spent a week in the Costa Rican coastal rain forest learning from The Biomimicry Guild how to attack technical challenges by looking to nature for inspiration and instruction. Last year I boarded a Russian icebreaker to scuba dive off the Antarctic Peninsula, and this spring I dove off Mexico’s Revillagigedo Islands and explored the waters around Clipperton Island, a remote atoll off the coast of Baja. These experiences have affected how I look at the world, and have challenged how I see my place in it. Along with being incredible journeys to far-flung locations, they have both forced successive re-examinations of self, and their memories will continue to provide creative fodder forever. Upon my return from the Clipperton trip a few weeks ago, Zach Kaplan of Inventables, a business associate and friend of mine who is well aware of my fantastical exploits and rave reviews upon returns to work, suggested that I share my personal experience, with a focus on “how exploring new experiences can help one be more creative.”
My job is such that I have the opportunity to think and talk a lot about creativity. It is very easy to focus on how to try to make yourself and others be creative and how to measure, schedule, quantify, and monetize it rather than on creating an environment which allows one to take creative action. In short, many people much more qualified than I, are writing about creativity and innovation these days. Since I make no claim on the creativity bourgeoisie, I decided to tackle the assignment from a personal perspective. My responses come from lessons learned on my own journey and upon which I am continually iterating. I have found that regularly and deliberately feeding the creative part of myself is basic to a purposeful life, my survival, and my evolution. When I ignore its import, I become apathetic, less compassionate, less productive, and lose confidence.
In order to properly answer Zach’s query, I have to start at the beginning and share the things that I find allow creativity to breed in my life: wonder, awe, peace, gratitude, and joy. I found that only in the context of those ingredients could I find a definition for what creativity means to me, and how new experiences influence it. Finally, I will share ways that I have found to keep creativity alive and fund inspiration in my life on a daily basis, and things that I do to help maximize the benefits of the new experiences in which I invest so much.
My Cycle of Discovery
I have found that people who easily create are those whose neural pathways have more pot-holed dirt roads than freeways, because they invest in cognitive infrastructure differently. They are great pattern recognizers; if you cannot discern the pattern, how can you purposefully subvert it? These people make a habit of taking the thought-road less travelled at every opportunity and, to them, nothing is ordinary. Most of us have lost, or never had, the ability to bushwhack naturally and perpetually through life this way, but it is never too late to step off the pavement. Doing so opens ourselves up to new experiences, and our lives to depths of the human condition that the majority overlook in their fight to simply survive. Too many are so focused on not being dead that they forget to live.
If it really is survival of the fittest, what recourse is there for those of us who would prefer more? In order to thrive, you cannot expect to remain immaculate. You cannot be content to let the sweet juice of life simply flow over you. You have to purposefully wring every succulent morsel of rot and wonderfulness from it. You have to end up sticky. In that context, simple survival feels grotesquely over-rated.
It is impossible to attempt to define creativity without at least touching on inspiration. While many people believe inspiration is a requisite for creativity, the former is not required, nor does it unilaterally beget the latter. “We tend to think of awakening as a single, dramatic event, but it is experienced most often during the small moments when we remember the present and return to our actual nature of kindness and joy.” (Hugh Prather, Notes to Myself) Inspiration does not strike like lightning but rather, given the opportunity, it will stubbornly and perpetually pervade the patterns of our lives. Inspiration has been blamed and beaten, and its purported elusiveness pined after, since the first time man had enough to eat and energy to spare. Most seek continued absolution for its absence, use its supposed scarcity as an excuse for laziness, complacency and conformity, and hang on to its myth as a crutch on their inevitable path to a paralyzed personality. Inspiration is not a royal pardon handed out to a lucky few with money and homage to pay. It cannot be bought. It is earned by deliberate actions.
I have never believed those who speak of freak, sporadic instances of inspiration that send them into frantic moments of ecstasy and to new heights of creative satisfaction. True satisfaction comes from the peace of knowing that creativity is at your fingertips at every moment. This is a learned lifestyle that comes only with conscious practice, a heightened self-awareness, and a constant openness to risk being changed by the everyday world around us. Personal creativity does not exist in a vacuum, but is only a fraction of something much grander. As with all natural things, it is part of something that waxes and wanes with a cadence, and is only sustainable as part of a cycle nourished by the elusive ingredients of wonder, awe, peace, gratitude, joy, and finally laughter. Because the definitions of these Sprites of Creativity tend to be amorphous, each meaning something different to different people based upon their personal experiences, I felt it important to begin by providing cogent clarification of how I personally perceive each one.
Ingredients of Creativity
One of my favorite authors, Jeanette Winterson, has this to say about the power of wonder: “Wonder is the heaviest element in the periodic table. Even a tiny fleck of it stops time.” (Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses) Wonder is the primordial soup of modern emotional and cognitive evolution. It is the expectation of awe because, as humans with our capacious cognitive function, it is our due. Franck ties generic wonder to its speculative core in his simple quote: “Curiosity is dissolved in Wonder.” (Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation). Wonder is the potential from which experimental change crawls out on new legs and our person evolves. It is the impetus for seeking out new experiences and exploring unfamiliar landscapes, both physical and emotional. It is a heads up, ears perked, muscles taut, speculative movement towards somewhere other than where we currently are. It is the power of fear-free risk.
Left: Curious penguin in Antarctica
Photo Credit: Heidi Kneller
In kinematic terms, awe is the instant when a moving mechanism passes through equilibrium and contains the most stored energy of position, or potential energy. In the arc of a movement, awe is the pinnacle. It is the instant of stillness weighted with the inevitability of movement. This small stillness of matter allows one to feel most deeply the potential of momentum, of opportunity. In the presence of awe, extraneous baggage disintegrates and history and possibility balance on the pivot of a breath, inhalation is impossible for the press of the cosmos in your chest, and there is an absence of fear in the face of the unfamiliar, the unknown, and the unexplainable. Awe is a reaction brought on by the assault of something outside current instinct; this is an unexpected reaction to a fresh perspective. It is amazement that requires recovery. Again Winterson says it best, “They say that every snowflake is different. If that were true, how could the world go on? How could you ever recover from . . . it?" (Jeanette Winterson, The Passion)
Awe is the drug of genius and optimists but, if allowed, can make addicts of us all. Einstein refers to awe this way: “One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.” Awe addicts are what adrenaline junkies become when they outlast the folly of youth.
Wonder and awe, although often confused, are distinctly different to me. Wonder is the mental gymnastics of questioning, challenging, being infatuated by, and vexed with the unexplained, while awe is the act of being at peace with exactly those same things for the same basic reasons wonder causes pause. Awe is basking in the unknown and the mysterious because it caused you to wonder. A healthy balance of both is required for sustainable growth and creative output.
That you should recognize creativity from its yield is essential. In the sentence of my life, creativity is the verb to the noun of awe - it is the action I involuntarily make, or am compelled to take, following true awe. True creativity is not static and it is difficult to hide. These response actions tend to provide great individual satisfaction and a personal value easily recognizable without metrics.
Peace is the ability to be awed by everything, but overwhelmed by nothing. It is a state where the frantic falls away, and reaction is not just a choice between fight or flight.
I often struggle with how to establish a datum for my life that is constantly being elevated and influenced by the beauty around. How do I acknowledge both the magic of the world in one moment, and share the corporeal pain of friends in another, in a genuine, profound way, while not breaking upon my own gallows? How do I bend just the right amount with a practical flexibility in the face of reality, while not whipping around in life’s turbulences and tearing myself and those around me to shreds?
This is a problem of practical impossibility; there exists little in the natural world that allows an explanation of how to fend off the harshness of reality without donning the armor of cynicism. While survival is about incremental improvement, conservatively risking more than the least, and less than the most, those who thrive are after the game-changing play and are willing to speculate. They invest in experiences outside the survivalist boundaries and live to tell about it. Maybe that is why we humans are special. Maybe that is why we have so many facets at our disposal - mechanisms of deliberate physical, mental, and spiritual exploration. We have the gifts of time and energy, and the luxury to explore beyond the basic practicalities of Maslow. Basic species survival simply requires sex and luck but not wonder, not awe, and certainly not peace.
Admittedly, the din of the world can so often be deafening. While some both physically and metaphorically dismember themselves, and others eke out a false sense of equilibrium, yet still others remain whole while writing symphonies, growing gardens, painting masterpieces, and curing cancer. The differentiator is the ability to filter, to make and find peace.
Gratitude and Joy
Gratitude is both a feeling and an action, with the latter generally following the former. The feeling requires preparation followed by simple acceptance, while the action is conscious. A feeling of gratitude cannot upwell through exhaustion or a cluttered mind. Gratitude starts when you take the opportunity to hibernate, meditate, and rejuvenate. Clutter is banished when energy is invested in daily post-processing and emotional housekeeping. As negative emotions are composted, an optimistic anticipation is allowed to build, and gratitude bursts forth, followed closely by joy. Action is inevitable.
Gratitude “takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder . . .” (Thomas Merton, Thoughts of Solitude) Gratitude is non-dogma and non-entity specific worship, and joy is simply gratitude unfettered. Gratitude is your chance to gift wonder like buttercups decorating a fallow field, and peace like a mystic at the spring fair. In a world where children are taught that nothing worth having is free, the act of giving thanks allows us to make something from nothing and then give it away for free. Thanksgiving strips you of residual selfishness, and joy eclipses imperfections. Together they make laughter and are the most creative thing you will ever do.
Left: Being silly in the joy of the moment atop Mt. Pilchuck
Photo Credit: Heidi Kneller
In the chemistry of creativity, laughter is the energy released by the exothermic reaction of gratitude and joy combined. A molecule of each, touched off by a catalytic smile, rival even fission’s chain reaction. We should all learn to be alchemists.
This mad science leaves no room for the use of the fake laugh. Ideally, the real thing should be always there, just under the surface, only held in check by a thread of silk to keep you from appearing completely insane. It should manage to escape often on its own, like water from a leaky faucet and, when you choose to loose it, the world will silence to feel its healing. This does not mean that you do not live in reality. It does not mean you are unbearably positive nor that you never cry. It does not mean you are immune to fear, depression, uncertainty, loneliness, low self-esteem, anger, or heartache. Or reality. It just means that you recognize that there are always going to be those things around you, and sometimes even in you, but you do not make space for them to stay long. You do not let them get comfortable. It just means they are only ever squatters in your hall of laughter. While there is very little about joy that involves control, true joy requires strength. That line between sanity and madness is so very thin. The trick is to dance on that line with as much gusto, joy, and abandon as is in you and to be strong enough to choose the time and the side of the line off which you will fling yourself. “Beneath the garments of the world is joy.” (Hugh Prather, Spiritual Thoughts to Myself)
Creativity is the verb to the noun of awe: it is the action I involuntarily make, or am compelled to take, following true awe. Creativity is that simple; it is a response action inspired by awe. What makes thinking about it so complex is that, for me to be creative, I require all those elusive ingredients of wonder, awe, peace, gratitude, joy, and laughter. When I am creative, the output takes so many forms that recognizing creativity almost requires one to be creative. It is not surprising the attention the subject is receiving these days. Circular logic seldom makes good science.
Now that we have some basic definitions in place, tomorrow’s discussion will center on the practical ways I have discovered to increase my personal creativity level.