Sunday, November 25, 2012

Don't Fence Me In!

"I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of old ones."
~ John Cage

I find the progress of innovation and the diffusion of new ideas fascinating subjects. Where innovations come from and how they permeate the world has been studied with increasing frequency in the last ten to fifteen years. Today there is no shortage of information on innovation and how to spark creativity. A great book on the subject of innovation is “The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the five skills of disruptive innovators” ( Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton M. Christiansen extensively document how entrepreneurial innovators as varied as Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz (founder of Starbucks) and many others developed so many groundbreaking ideas. The authors’ findings are broken down into what they call five “Discovery Skills.” Even if you are not an entrepreneur the concepts can help you bring fresh ideas to your writing, art or profession.

The Discovery Skills are:
  1. Associating: “the ability to make surprising connections across areas of knowledge, industries, or geographies”
  2. Questioning: Keep asking the powerful, simple questions “Why?” and “Why not?”
  3. Observing: Watching the way things work in different environments can often help connect “common threads across unconnected data”
  4. Networking: Especially beyond  your normal realm of contacts to generate new ideas
  5. Experimenting: Typically, not the conventional laboratory type but trying things out, often in the real world, to answer “what-if” questions.
The resistance to innovation is equally fascinating. Today some of the most useful, commonplace things in our everyday lives were once crackpot ideas, ridiculed by experts and common folk alike. Most of us are probably familiar with the scorn heaped on electric lights, airplanes, automobiles and computers when they were first introduced. There were lots of good reasons why they would fail. They were too expensive, too complicated, destroyed some status quo or threatened the livelihoods of powerful people. There was lots of resistance, lots of inertia working against change.

Resistance to older, more basic inventions may be more surprising. Writing, for example (yes the written word) was once a new idea and some people just didn’t like it. Socrates, for one, was dead set against it. He was a big proponent of memorization. Plato quoted Socrates as saying writing “destroys memory,” “weakens the mind” and is an “inhuman thing.” In the world of Socrates (Greece, about 400 BC) writing was an innovative new technology. It was more expensive than using human memory and difficult to implement. The new writers were using existing tools (sharply cut reeds and clay tablets) in new ways. Clay and reeds had been around for a long time but nobody had used them together in a way that facilitated communication. The brave citizens who wanted to write not only had to learn how to use these silly new tools correctly, they had to overcome resistance to doing something completely new and also overcome the ridicule of their peers. 

But you might be thinking that Socrates is generally understood to be a pretty bright guy. How did he miss the writing thing? It should have been a natural fit for him with his education and position as a major thought leader of his era. Couldn’t he see it coming? Why wasn’t he on the development team? My theory is that he missed the whole point of writing and its obvious potential because he didn’t have good enough “discovery skills,” especially when it came to circulating and connecting with people who thought and did things differently than he did. He didn’t network enough with people from different backgrounds, with different jobs, different experiences. While Socrates was an innovative philosopher and one of the great thinkers in recorded history he wasn’t necessarily open to ideas outside his area of expertise. A little too insulated, he spent much of his life in the same place (Athens) talking to the same people (aristocratic young Athenians) about the same things (knowledge and virtue).  

Nothing wrong with knowledge, virtue or Athenians but sometimes you need to expand your horizons, even when you’re a great thinker in your field. Do you want to be in on the next big idea or improve on some promising smaller ideas? Break out of your routine or, better yet, sharpen up your discovery skills to create new routines that nurture fresh ideas. Get out of the same old space. Mix it up a little. Meet some interesting new people. Ask lots of questions. Experiment. Don’t let yourself get fenced in. Who knows, you may even be inspired to invent something as revolutionary as writing.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year!

Not much to say this evening. 2011 was an interesting and sometimes difficult year.
Let's end it on a high note.
Some new black and white here:

Sunday, November 20, 2011

I'm a lousy blogger

I want to go ahead of Father Time with a scythe of my own.
H. G. Wells

OK, I admit it. I’m a lousy blogger. I’m too easily distracted and don’t post anything for weeks; sometimes even months!  Too easily wrapped up in assorted obligations and other amusements. There are way too many other things that take time away from sitting down to write with regularity. First there is a regular job not related to personal blogging or writing.  (For a couple of years there was a second job but I quit that one so I have freed up some time.) Then there’s commuting to said regular job - about two hours per weekday. Admittedly, my commute is a drive through some interesting, rural countryside and I make it a point to stop and make photographs whenever possible. The commute is not a total waste it but takes time and it’s very challenging to blog while driving. 

Then there is actually being at the aforementioned place of regular employment; grinding out spreadsheets, marketing strategy documents, going to staff meetings and lots of other such excitement. Personal blogging is not in the job description and I do like to pay the mortgage on time. All of these pesky employment endeavors leave little opportunity for personal blogging but I'm not quite ready for sofa surfing at the homes of friends and acquaintances or life in a refrigerator box.

But here’s a thought: Could I angle a way to get paid for blogging about photography? People do it – make a living blogging. Maybe that is a solution worth investigating; might even be worth blogging about. If I become successful I could even write a book: How to Make A Million Blogging! (Call now! Operators are standing by!!)  It’s sort of like turning your stand-up comedy act into a TV series. Jerry Seinfeld did it! On second thought, some of the statistics I’ve read about bloggers lead me to believe I have a better chance making money playing the Lotto twice a week. I’m sure there are lots of funny people and would-be bloggers on the Lotto ticket line.

I could make lots of other excuses but really, life is just buzzing by. It happens when I’m not paying attention. That’s what is so disconcerting. We’re just screaming down the time tunnel and there’s no turning back. Must get in control! Before I know it I’ll be 112 wondering what the hell happened.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Black and White Thinking

"To visualize an image (in whole or in part) is to see clearly in the mind prior to exposure, a continuous projection from composing the image through the final print."

Ansel Adams, The Camera

With the help of some new software I’ve begun seriously thinking in black and white again. It’s taken some time to start thinking that way after a couple of years of shooting digital color almost exclusively. It may sound funny but when I shot film, I could more easily visualize the end product. I could look through the viewfinder and visualize the composition in black and white without distraction. I couldn’t see the results until I developed the film and made contact prints.  I’d have in my mind the b/w images I wanted to see in the final prints; wouldn’t even think about the original color scene. In the darkroom, with a little work (sometime lots of work!) the image would become my reality in the developing tray. It was a total b/w “workflow” uninterrupted by color images popping up anywhere.

I actually used this “imaging” technique to good advantage with whatever film I was shooting whenever I was shooting it. I could spend a Sunday morning thinking in Tri-X about the city grit and evaporating fog wandering the streets of San Francisco. Later in the day I’d be thinking in Kodachrome as the sunlight slanted across an August afternoon at Land’s End. It worked well for me, this compartmentalized thinking.  I know photographers who carried two cameras – one with color film, one with black and white; shooting both at the same time. To me, this was photographic schizophrenia and would have driven me over the edge.

With today’s amazing digital technology the image pops up on the back of the camera in full color in an instant! This was very disturbing to my b/w vision quest. Yes, I know I can change the camera settings to make the instant image b/w but it’s still distracting. It’s not the b/w image I would see in my mind’s eye and just confused the issue even further.  When I was shooting I found it hard to think in b/w and was too distracted by the ease of shooting spectacular color. To muddy the waters even more I wasn’t happy with the results I got converting color to b/w in Photoshop.  For whatever reason - my lack of software skills or limitations of the product, I just couldn’t get what I wanted.

Lately I’ve managed to start “thinking” in black and white (and shades of gray) and with some new software tools I can realize my vision. It’s very satisfying (and more than a little ironic) to get “old fashioned” results with new technology.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011