Analysis & Comment

Opinion | If There Are No New Ideas, How Do We Keep Innovating?

In 1903, Mark Twain wrote a letter to Helen Keller. She had been accused of plagiarism. Twain consoled her, writing that “substantially all ideas are second hand, consciously or unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.” He went on: “It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone, or any other important thing — and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple.” The whole, glorious passage is here.

Now comes a book by Sheena Iyengar, who is herself blind, that I’m tempted to call original, except that she (like Twain) would undoubtedly insist that there’s nothing new under the sun. In “Think Bigger: How to Innovate,” Iyengar writes that thinking bigger is about assembling old ideas in a new way. Sounding much like Twain in 1903, she writes that all successful innovators are “strategic copiers,” who “learned from examples of success, extracted the parts that worked well, imagined new ways of using those pieces, and combined them to create something new and meaningful.”

There’s a fable that Isaac Newton, one of history’s greatest scientists, thought of the theory of gravity in a flash when an apple fell on his head. In reality, Newton built on the work of the Scottish mathematician David Gregory, the Belgian mathematician René-François Walter de Sluse and the German astronomer Johannes Kepler, among others. Newton explained his method of innovation when he wrote in 1675, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

By pushing and pulling on the familiar notion that there’s nothing new under the sun, Iyengar accomplishes what she advises her readers to do. She creates something new and meaningful.

Iyengar is known as the Jam Lady for a groundbreaking (can I say that?) experiment she did for her doctoral dissertation at Stanford University. She set up two tables inside the entrance of a supermarket in Menlo Park, Calif.: one with six kinds of jam and one with 24 kinds. Thirty percent of shoppers who stopped at the table with six kinds of jam bought something, but only 3 percent of shoppers who stopped at the table with 24 kinds bought something. They were overwhelmed by too many choices.

Iyengar told me that she thinks of “Think Bigger” as a natural extension of her work on choice. Economists think of choice too narrowly, as just about satisfying wants, she said. It’s partly that, but it’s also about discernment, she said. She pointed me to a quotation in the book from Henri Poincaré, the great mathematician and physicist. “Invention consists in avoiding the constructing of useless combinations and in constructing the useful combinations which are in infinite minority,” he wrote in 1913. “To invent is to discern, to choose.”

Iyengar, the daughter of immigrants from India, grew up in New York City. She was partially blind at birth and gradually lost the rest of her sight. She recalls trying to take in the Statue of Liberty on field trips: “Perhaps I never saw her with my own eyes. Or if I did, she was a giant blur — and even up close, an amalgam of smaller blurs that I could not make coherent.” She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992 with dual degrees from the College of Arts and Sciences and the Wharton School, then earned her doctorate in social psychology from Stanford in 1997. She has been at Columbia Business School since 1998 and was the faculty director of the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center in 2014 and 2015.

A lot of books on innovation urge people to draw on the right side of their brains, which is supposedly the seat of creativity. No, Iyengar says. “The new model of the brain is called Learning+Memory.” Eric Kandel of Columbia shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000 for his work on the model.

As Iyengar describes the concept of Learning+Memory: “Neuroscience shows that all thinking is an act of memory in some form. That includes imagination, creativity, innovation and other variations of ‘new’ thoughts. That means the components of the thought are not new. Only the combination is new.”

Iyengar presents “Thinking Bigger” as a manual for coming up with good and big ideas. “There is no magic key. Anyone can open that black box of creativity,” she insists. She includes step-by-step procedures, starting with carefully choosing a problem to work on, breaking it down and so on. She gives exercises to readers to develop their idea-generating skills.

I admit that I didn’t have the energy to try her techniques, so I can’t say if they work. They seem to be well received by students at Columbia Business School. What did grab me is her examples of successful people who have done what she prescribes — creatively putting together ideas from disparate fields.

Take Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the French sculptor who created the Statue of Liberty on the shoulders of giants. The statue “is the size and form of the colossal statues guarding the Egyptian tombs,” she writes. “She has the role and siting of the Suez lighthouse” in Egypt, where he originally attempted to place a sculpture. “She has the posture of La Verité,” a nude painting by a contemporary of Bartholdi. “She has the crown, name, and symbolism of Libertas,” a Roman goddess. “And she has the face of his mother.”

Henry Ford got the idea for a moving assembly line from the Chicago slaughterhouses. James Naismith invented the game of basketball with bits from soccer, rugby and a game he played as a child, duck on a rock, whose objective was to throw stones at an opponent’s stone (the “duck”) to knock it off a boulder (the “rock”). The first basket was really a basket, made for peaches. Leonardo da Vinci, no less a genius than Naismith (I’m kidding), “was constantly learning about many different things — physics, chemistry, anatomy, engineering, painting, and sculpting,” she writes. “I consider him the first person in recorded history to consciously recognize the value of searching out of domain to generate new ideas.”

I asked Iyengar if her blindness affected her thinking about choice and innovation. “The reason I care so much is because when I was growing up there were so few choices that people thought I was capable of,” she wrote by email. “So my method is in many ways about going from imagination to a real choice. Can you make anything and everything possible? Of course not. But I do believe that you can make more things possible than we often initially assume.”

“Thinking Bigger” was written before this year’s explosion of progress in consumer-friendly, idea-generating artificial intelligence tools such as the latest versions of ChatGPT and DALL-E. They seem to do what Iyengar wants people to do: mash up bits and pieces from many realms. The difference, I guess, is that Iyengar thinks innovation should be directed. “There are good experiments and bad experiments. I want you to avoid the bad ones,” she writes.

Iyengar told me that large language models “will only help us be more creative.” Some people will use them more deftly than others, just as some people are better than others at using Google to find information, she said.

What she predicts is already happening, of course. Early adopters are doing amazing things with ChatGPT, shooting ahead of the rest of us in creativity and productivity. And more power to them. Said Iyengar: “If you’re going to be nervous about computers you’re probably going to be left behind.”

Outlook: João Granja

Banks that own bonds don’t have to acknowledge any decline in their market value if they declare that they plan to hold the bonds until they mature. Before its failure, Silicon Valley Bank avoided recognizing losses on its bonds from higher interest rates by moving a lot of them into its held-to-maturity profile. Lots of other banks did the same, according to research by João Granja, an accounting associate professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. The share of assets at commercial banks classified as held to maturity rose in 2022 to around 45 percent from around a third, according to a Booth brief released on Thursday. “Those responsible for monitoring accounting rules must assess whether auditors failed to properly evaluate what was happening, or whether the rules themselves are effective, or some combination thereof,” the brief said.

Quote of the Day

“Corporations have neither bodies to be punished, nor souls to be condemned; they therefore do as they like.”

— Edward Thurlow, First Baron Thurlow, quoted by John Poynder, “Literary Extracts” (1844)

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