Arias and recitatives

The opera is a fascinating art form combining both text and music to dramatize a story. Most operas contain both arias and recitatives. The aria is the full blown and usually passionate singing in an operatic piece that highlights a key emotional or narrative theme of the story. The recitative is the “connective tissue” that maintains the storyline between narratives. It is usually more speech than music. I am by no means an opera expert, but in thinking about these two components of opera, I see a strong analogy to the creative process.

In my book, The Art of Invention, I talk about the “staircase of creativity.” I describe how it is almost impossible to be constantly creative. One often goes through significant dry periods between creative ideas or breakthroughs. The step of a stair has a flat horizontal section called the tread which we stand on to gain our footing and a vertical section called the riser which we step above to gain height. By design, the tread is longer than the riser. I compare the riser to the creative burst and the tread to the “latency” that precedes the burst of creativity. It struck me that the opera analogy is similar. It seems that nothing is happening during the latency period but in fact, your unconscious mind is working very hard preparing for the creative breakthrough. When the creative breakthrough comes, it sings out vibrantly. Unfortunately, the latency period, like the recitative can seem to go on and on. Creative people will often feel very frustrated during the latency period. They will think that they are “completely blocked” or that they are “finished and will never have a creative idea again.” All creative people go through this frustration.

But like the operatic recitative, this latency period is a necessity for the next aria. In opera the recitative not only connects the story line but builds anticipation for the dramatic release of the forthcoming aria. Our creativity works the same way; our unconscious is always working, processing thoughts and sensory inputs in ways that we cannot fathom. It makes connections that we would not normally make and when the moment of creativity comes, it has laid the groundwork for the breakthrough.

While creative breakthroughs are exhilarating, the latency periods that precede them are disheartening. Often after a creative breakthrough, we become very depressed. Sometimes, the more successful our breakthrough, the more depressed we become. “I’ll never be able to do something like that again,” we think. But the truth is, we will. As I say in The Art of Invention, “If our creativity stems from unconscious connections, we need to accept that these connections are not made according to any predetermined schedule.” It is all part of a cycle; the recitative that precedes the aria.

Bill Moggridge

One of the great product designers of our generation passed away earlier this month. Bill Moggridge was the designer of the GRID computer (the first true laptop with a "clamshell" design), the founder of both ID Two and IDEO, and most recently, the director of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum. Bill was an icon in the design world and will be greatly missed. He was also my thesis advisor when I was a Product Design student at Stanford University and his teaching and guidance changed my life.

I would like to share one Bill Moggridge story with you.

This particular story involved the written proposal for my product design Master's thesis in which I identified a need in the marketplace and outlined the project that I intended to pursue to address this need.  My project was to be a computerized device to help stroke patients recover their lost bilateral perception. I worked closely with rehabilitation specialists at a local hospital, and felt that I had a very worthwhile and exciting idea. This was the 1980's and microprocessors were just starting to come on the market. I felt that by using this new technology, I could invent a novel approach to stroke rehabilitation.

I collected my data and wrote up my idea. The culmination of the semester's work would be the written proposal submitted to my thesis advisor, Bill Moggridge. I knew that Bill had very high standards for design, so I went to great lengths to make my proposal stand out. I purchased a new ribbon for my electric typewriter (yes, this was way back then…), and purchased a box of the most expensive vellum typing paper at the school bookstore. I typed up my proposal – letter perfect – and then took the extra step of having the entire document professionally bound at a local print shop. All in all, I felt that the proposal was both well researched and beautifully presented — a sure winner in anybody's eyes.

I submitted the proposal on time to Bill and anxiously awaited its review and the anticipated praise. The proposals were returned to us at the end of the semester, and mine had a single short comment penned on the cover. It read, "Good content, ratty presentation."

What did this mean! He must have mixed up my work with someone else's and mistakenly wrote that comment on mine. I made an appointment to see him in his office as soon as I could.

When we met, I couldn't contain myself. "What do you mean by 'ratty presentation'. I bought the best quality vellum, a new typewriter ribbon, and retyped any page that had an error instead of using white-out. And I had it professionally bound!

Bill looked at me and smiled. "Why did you pick that ugly font," he asked. "And that paper looks like you bought it in a local stationery store. Why didn't you use an offset printer to prepare this? Do you really think this looks like the work of a designer?"

I was flabbergasted.  "Why would I go to an offset printer?  Nobody would do that for a school paper. That would be above and beyond consideration, not to mention expensive. And my typewriter only comes with one font — the keys are attached…"

Bill smiled again.

"So this is the best you can possibly do?" he asked. "What if your life depended on it?" Is this really the best you could do if everything hung in the balance?"

I left his office both downcast and thinking. No, if my life depended on it, I could do better. I could have had it offset printed and thought more about the font choice and design presentation on the page. But this was just a paper for school. I didn't even think in terms of offset printing and the like. And yet…

It was only later that I realized the crucial lesson that Bill had taught me. Yes, you can do better. You have a choice: you can be pretty much like everyone else – maybe toward the top end – or you could go above and beyond. You could strive for a level that was outside the norm – a level that was not required or absolutely necessary, but would place you in a whole different class; a level that would be truly extraordinary; a level you would strive for if your life depended on it.

It's been 30 years since that encounter. And of the many things I learned in graduate school, that lesson stands out. Bill taught me something incredibly important that I can honestly say was a key to success in all of my professional endeavors. His question became my touchstone for every challenge and project. Is this really the best that I could possibly do?    




A tribute to my father

Edward Paley                              January 12, 1924 – July 19, 2012

My father is the embodiment of the American dream. He was a war hero, a self-made man who started and built a large and successful company, and wonderful father and family man. He was an inspiration to all who knew him, and especially to his family. His creativity knew no bounds and his passion for ideas and invention was all-consuming. He was an entrepreneur before the word became commonplace. He was the best kind of teacher – one who taught by doing. All those around him were his pupils. He lived an incredibly busy and productive 88 years and has left a wife, four children, and ten grandchildren as well as a legacy of innovation, business success, good humor, charitable giving, exemplary army service, and close relationships with his family, friends and business associates.

I would like to tell you a little about his life – his service to our country during World War II, his passion for innovation in business, and what he was like as a father.


10th Mountain Division

He can describe his war experience much better than I can. He wrote letters home to his parents almost daily on the army issued American Red Cross stationary. His mother saved all of his letters, and he kept them upon her death. Several years ago, my sister Jane created a binder of all of his letters and military awards. As I mentioned, he was a war hero for our country fighting the Nazis. He was in active combat in the Italian Alps as a member of an advance guard intelligence unit, in the famed 10th Mountain Division, also known as the ski troops. His mission was to go beyond the front lines and gather intelligence on enemy positions. I would like to read a few brief excerpts from his letters as well as some of his commendations.


May 30, 1945

Dear Mother and Dad,

One thousand men presented arms on a rain-soaked mountain as taps sounded in tribute to their dead—these notes reverberated around the world as soldiers in every theatre honored their fallen comrades. We shall not break faith with them. At retreat this evening, I was presented with the Bronze Star. I am very proud of this award because it represents an act by which a buddy of mine is today alive; the other died in my arms. I am sending you the citation as I know what it means to you.

Now that the battle is over, I believe that there is no harm in mentioning battle casualties – they were not light. As you already know, my intelligence section is composed of 7 men – three are dead, one had his legs blown off, one lost his arm, and the sixth was sent back because of battle fatigue. Yes, six (of seven) men are no longer with us – There is no conceivable reason why I was not one of them. I broke every rule imaginable. I rarely wore my steel helmet, never carried an entrenching tool or first aid packet – I volunteered for every patrol and made up my own missions when none were available. For some fool reason I craved this sort of excitement and was scared only after the mission was accomplished. And yet I did not die. When a mortar shell burst near me injuring four men, I only received a slight cut on my knuckle—why? It is quite difficult to remain agnostic…


The citation reads:



June 31, 1945

Dear Mother and Dad,

Today was your day as well as my own. If you were only there it would have been complete. The regimental combat team composed of the 1st, 2nd, And 3rd battalions plus attached engineers and artillery stood at attention while a small group of officers and enlisted men were decorated with the army’s third highest award – the Silver Star. I can only remember hearing my name announced—then the fifty foot walk up to where Major General Hayes was standing. I saluted; he did the same. He spoke as he pinned the medal on my tunic: “Sergeant,” he said, “You have the combat infantry badge, the Bronze Star, and now the Silver Star. I am proud to have you in my command.”


The citation for the Silver Star reads:


My father was a war hero in the service of his country. However, there were comic moments as well. My father was in an advanced intelligence outfit that probed enemy positions beyond the front lines. While he was on a reconnaissance mission in the Italian Alps, he entered a small town with a group of his men. He was immediately surrounded by excited townspeople speaking to him in rapid Italian. Unfortunately, he did not speak Italian, but they gestured for him to follow them into the town church. Seated in the pews were a group of men in their underclothes. The Italians were speaking and gesticulating and my father, looking at the crowd seated in the pews, figured that they wanted him to make a speech. So he went up to the pulpit, pulled out his Italian dictionary and, as best he could lauded the cooperation of the partisan Italians in the advance of American troops. The men in the pews seemed to listen politely, but the Italians that brought him into the church were getting more and more agitated. As it turned out, the men in the pews were captured German soldiers that the Italians wanted to turn over to the American army.

That story made the New York papers and we still have the clipping.

My father returned home after the war, went to college and business school on the GI Bill and married my mother in 1953. He went to work as a sales manager for Exeter Manufacturing, an industrial textile company. In the early 1960’s Exeter was sold and he realized that he would have to find something else to do. He had a family of four children and a house with a large mortgage. But he also had one other thing – an idea.



My father considered himself a “seat-of-the-pants engineer.” This means that although he didn’t have a formal engineering degree, he had lots of ideas. He would invent many things in his mind and he figured, somehow, he would find a way to make these great inventions work. He liked to read technical journals to see what the latest technologies were and how he could do something with them. One day he happened upon a NASA technical bulletin and read about the ongoing problem of micro-contamination in high-precision devices that were being developed for the space program. These contaminants, which were then in the form of dust particles and fibers, would cause this precision equipment to malfunction. The phrase “contamination control” struck home for my father. I have often observed that all he needed was a phrase or group of words to form an idea around and he was off and running. From his textile experience at Exeter Manufacturing, he knew he had a solution to one of the basic problems in the field. With that and a $5,000 loan from my grandfather, he started a new business in the basement of our house. His wife and children were the first employees. I remember packing boxes with my brothers for my allowance. My mother handled the paperwork, and my father would invent. He loved developing and inventing new products and he would read journals and technical magazines, travel and walk trade shows, all in search of new ideas. He was constantly creating and if one idea didn’t work out he would have ten others to replace it. He developed numerous new innovative products and the business grew.

Very soon we outgrew the basement. He rented space in an office building in Westwood and set up some small-scale manufacturing. That space was also outgrown quickly as the business expanded. He then purchased a building in Hillsdale which was to become the home of the Texwipe Company for many years, until we built our own corporate headquarters in Upper Saddle River.

My father’s creativity and his passion for new ideas were infectious. I grew up with this as my education. One could not have asked for more. I used to walk trade shows with him as he was in search of the next great idea. I saw first-hand how the creative mind works and that has never left me. With the development of the semiconductor industry in the 1970’s and 80’s, the business grew by leaps and bounds. Much like Steve Jobs at Apple, my father was a creative visionary whose passion for new products not only drove the success of the company but created a culture of innovation that was unmatched by any other company in our industry. He was always hands-on and his enthusiasm inspired all those around him. Texwipe continued to grow and by the time we sold it in 2001, we had over 400 employees, offices throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia; large manufacturing plants in North Carolina, Mexico, and the Philippines; two joint ventures in Taiwan, and our beautiful corporate headquarters in Upper Saddle River New Jersey which my mother and father designed.

Employees not only respected my father, but I think they loved him. He wasn’t just a boss; he was a role model, teacher, and friend. We were a family business in the best sense of the word in that we considered our employees as family and I believe they felt the same way.



You would think that with all the demands of growing a business that my father would not have much time for family life. But that would be incorrect. His life revolved around his family; he was always there for all of us. I cannot recall a time when he was too busy to attend to any of our needs or wants. In a way, the business was his hobby, and we were his real work. He was not only a wonderful father, but also a role model for all of his children on how to be a father. For Bill, Doug, and myself – as well as Jane—you can see so much of him in the ways that we raise our children. There are so many stories to tell – some very funny and embarrassing, but I’ll leave them for the Shiva.

Finally, I want to do something that is not usually done at funerals. I would like to pre-announce the winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize for medicine. The prize this year will be awarded to my mother, Florence Paley, whose energy and tireless devotion to my father’s health kept him miraculously alive over the past almost 50 years. My father had a major heart attack in his early 40’s and, as the doctors have said to us in amazement, nobody survives an event like that for such a long time. All I can say is that he survived because of my mother’s iron will for him to survive. Pharmaceutical companies world-wide are competing to try and synthesize all of those traits my mother possesses to create the next block-buster medicine for prolonging life. My mother’s tireless efforts from diets to doctors to programs and therapies are what gave us the gift of another half century of my father. For this, at a minimum, she deserves the Nobel Prize.

I also want to acknowledge another person who went way above and beyond what was required to ensure that all of Dad’s health needs were taken care of. This person is Dr. Steven Zaretsky who for years was at my father’s side whenever there was any kind of problem. For the past two months, Steve was at our house and with my father every day, giving critical advice, help, and guidance. Steve, both as a physician – and really a third brother, your help through this difficult process was beyond compare, and I want to publicly thank and acknowledge you.


Isaac Newton, perhaps with some false modesty, described in a letter how he had made his great discoveries. He said, "If I have seen further than others, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants."

When I reflect on my father, and I’m sure I speak for Bill, Doug, and Jane as well, I believe that everything that we are, everything that we have accomplished is because we too have stood on the shoulders of a giant.



                                                                             -Steven J. Paley   

Eulogy at given funeral  7/22/12



Zero Mass Design

In the early 1980’s Dr. David Thornburg, professor of Design at Stanford University, came up with a concept which he called Zero Mass Design. He proposed categorizing products along two axes. The x-axis ranged from “simplicity” to “complexity” (these were qualitative assessments), and the y-axis charted functionality. Thornburg proposed a “U-shaped” curve. He said that on one side of the “U”, as things became more complex, they became more functional –- in other words more features could be engineered into them. But his real insight was that as things became simpler, they could also become more functional. Something simple could be used in ways far beyond its intended use (think of the paper clip or a tennis ball). This profound insight is not only a key to good design but can also serve as a business model. The drive toward SIMPLICITY AND UBIQUITY has many interesting consequences.

Quick. Think of ten things you can do with a tennis ball besides play tennis.

To name a few I’ve seen: cut it in half and use it as a slider for a walker; cut it in half for soft but easily grip-able handles; suspend it from a string as a marker for pulling your car into your garage (it’s time to stop when the tennis ball brushes against your windshield); cut it in half and use it as a spring or shock absorber; play baseball with it; dip it in paint to make patterns on canvass for a painting; etc, etc.

None of these uses were the intended use of the inventor or manufacturer. The product’s simplicity belies its incredible functionality.

My former business, the Texwipe Company, manufactured cleaning cloths (called wipers) for ultra-clean manufacturing environments such as those found in semiconductor or pharmaceutical manufacturing. The array of unintended uses was mind-boggling. Our products were designed to be used to clean surfaces that needed to be kept absolutely free of any type of microscopic contamination. They were physically simple products (woven or knit cut pieces of cloth that were processed in a way to make them contamination-free) and were typically packaged in bags of 100 or 150.

The simplicity of the product led to uses that we could have never imagined. Technicians working on machinery would tape handfuls of the wipers around their knees to use as knee-pads as they were kneeling down to fix a machine. The product was used as packing material and as disposable work mats.  One guy, a competitive downhill ski racer, used the product to wax his skis. He told us that the knit texture was perfect for applying wax, and he felt it gave him a competitive edge. My favorite “outside the box” use came from a facility in the Midwest. They were a consistent customer, but they were not in the semiconductor business or any other high tech business that we could ascertain. Our sales rep visited them to find out what they were doing with our wipers. It turns out that they were in the animal breeding business and they said that our wipers, due to their porous knit, made a perfect filter for bull semen. Talk about unintended uses of an invention…

Dr. Thornburg’s premise, that very simple inventions can have great functionality, is an insight that can be of significant value to businesses. Your customers will often find uses for your products that you never could have imagined. Typically, it is the simpler and less specialized products that lend themselves to these unintended uses. It’s possible that uses that were never imagined when the product was designed can end up accounting for the lion’s share of sales, or even spawn a completely new product line.

One final story of unintended uses.

Way back when, we produced a product for cleaning electronic components and tape head capstans on computer mass-storage units. The product, called Texpad®, was a non-woven piece of fabric saturated with isopropyl alcohol and packaged in a foil pouch. We knew people used this product for many things other than cleaning tape heads, but one day we received a letter from a Florida police officer that really surprised us.  

It read, “…where can I get these Texpads? A friend gave me a box, and they are great. Every day I deal with criminals and the scum of the earth. When I come home at night to my family, I need to disinfect myself. Your products are perfect for this…”

The key word was disinfect, and it led us to developing a whole new product line of disinfecting hand wipes.

Sony and Apple

I know this topic has been beaten to death, but, based on personal experience, I’m afraid I have to jump in as well. Sony, as we all know, has wonderful technology and has been the inventor or on the forefront of many new consumer innovations (wearable electronics, gaming consoles, etc.). They have a wide breadth of products and technologies that have often set a standard for others to emulate.

That’s the good, and there is much to be admired about Sony.

Apple has also introduced many new genres of product from the personal computer to the iPad. With Sony, we have come to expect great new technologies; with Apple we have come to expect great new innovation in product concepts. All this is very good but there is another side to the story – that is, what happens once the product is sold.

I own a very nice Sony Vaio notebook. My kids work on iMacs. Inevitably, somewhere along the way, there will be problems with these systems that you can’t solve yourself. These problems will require technical support from the company. This is where my personal experience with both companies comes to the fore.

When one of our iMacs stopped working (and I couldn’t fix it with my usual routine of button presses and reboots), I made an appointment at the local Apple store. Unlike going to the doctor, I was seen promptly by their technical support person who immediately started diagnostics on the hapless iMac. It turned out that the hard disk was defective, and he promised to replace it and have the machine repaired in a day or so.  The next day I received a phone call from Apple asking if I would accept an upgrade to the hard disk since they did not have the exact replacement in stock.  If so, I could pick up the computer that day. And by the way, there would be no charge.

That’s Apple. They know the value of a customer is far greater than the few dollars they could make in the repair.

Then there is Sony.

While I was using my Sony laptop, the USB ports suddenly stopped functioning. I phoned Sony tech support and asked for help. “Sorry,” said the gentleman on the phone, “but your laptop is out of warranty. But don’t worry, we can still fix it.” I was relieved.

It will cost you $89 and if you give me your credit card number, we can proceed.

I gave him the number and was hoping for some words of wisdom on how to diagnose and fix the USB problem. “We can definitely fix your computer,” he said, “but I think in your case, it would be very worthwhile for you to purchase our service package. For $299, you can have your computer both checked and serviced for a year.”

“No thank you,” I said. “I just want to fix this problem.”

“Ok, let me talk to my manager and see if I can get a better price for you.”

Before I could reiterate that I just wanted to fix the current problem and be done with it, I was put on hold as he consulted his manager.

“For you today, we can sell you the package for $199.”

“But I don’t want the package,” I said. “I just want my computer fixed!” I was beginning to think I called a car dealer by mistake.

“$199 is an excellent price for the package, but let me see if I can do even better for you…”

Believe it or not, this went on for the next 20 minutes. When I adamantly turned down his final price of $99, he reluctantly agreed to transfer me to “someone who could fix the problem.” He reconfirmed my credit card number and reiterated that the single repair would cost me $89. Finally, I was transferred to tech support.

The guy at tech support listened as I described my problem. Then he again reconfirmed my credit card number and the price for his time. He said as follows (and this advice might be helpful to a countless number of people):


“Shut down the computer and remove the battery. Then, hold the on/off switch down for two minutes. Once that is done, replace the battery, reboot the computer, and you should be fine. Your registry must have become corrupted and this resets the registry.”


It worked, but boy did I feel taken advantage of.

Sony apparently feels that they need to squeeze every last dollar out of their customers. Even though I like my Sony laptop, I will NEVER buy another computer from Sony.

The moral of the story for any business is so obvious to be painful. If you treat customers well, they will like you and continue to buy from you. If you try to take advantage of them at every turn, they will resent you and look for the next opportunity to switch brands.

Sony, with all its wonderful technology and creativity in the marketplace, just doesn’t get it.


What is the most important trait that an inventor needs to possess?  My answer is that by far, courage is the most important trait. That is, the courage to venture into the unknown and not turn back when things seem uncertain or bad. Along with courage goes perseverance. The ability to persevere through long periods where you are not successful or feel that you don’t really know what you are doing is essential for an inventor. You as the inventor are forging a new path; there is no roadmap to follow, so there will be many inevitable mistakes along the way. It would be so easy to give up; to say, “I’ve really tried, but this is just not going to work.” To persevere, you must suspend disbelief. You must continue to try even though you meet failure at every turn.

How do you do this?

Psychologically it is difficult, but you need to realize that through every failure, you are getting deeper into the problem. That depth is what will give you the wherewithal to solve it.

Let me put this in real life terms through a personal example. I design and build robots as a hobby. I enjoy taking on challenging problems, even though I don’t necessarily have the background or knowledge to solve them. One type of robot I have always wanted to build is a robot that balances on only two wheels – basically a derivation of the Segway. This is a very complex problem that many have tried solve. Most who attempt this difficult task give up somewhere along the way.

So I decided to accept the challenge and went to work on this robot. The hardware was easy, but getting it to balance seemed impossible. After months of work, I wasn’t even getting close. I became obsessed with solving this challenging technical problem and worked for over six months with no solution in sight. In fact, things became worse than when I started. My work on getting the robot to balance was overshadowed by a new electromagnetic interference (EMI) problem whose origins I could not pinpoint. The problems seemed to cascade, and I was no longer focused on the balancing problem but only on how to get rid of that crippling electromagnetic interference.

Eventually, I threw in the towel.

I had to admit that this particular project was beyond me. It only led to frustration. I left the robot parts in a corner on my desk and quit. I went onto other things.

Nine months passed with the parts sitting on the desk as a constant reminder of my failure. I had no idea what to do to solve the problem, but this failure constantly nagged at me. One day, this past October, after letting the project go for nine months, I e-mailed a friend to ask him if he had any recommendations for solving an electromagnetic interference problem. He had some ideas, so I gingerly returned to the project. The ideas did not produce success, but I was back and reabsorbed by this challenge. I couldn’t let it go.

Then I started to make some progress. I solved the EMI problem by changing the motors. I took yet another approach to balancing and had some partial success. This was enough to spur me on. I delved deeper into all the literature and internet references I could find on this subject. Sometime in December I came across a previously discounted mathematical method for filtering the input data. I tried it and struck gold. I found a way to combine the data coming from my various sensors into a stable representation of tilt and angular velocity. It Balanced! From there it was simply refinement, and you can view the results by clicking on the link shown below to a YouTube video of the robot.

Of course, the message here goes far beyond my success with this robot. For me in this situation, perseverance was everything. I had failed, completely given up, but could not leave it alone. Eventually, I was rewarded. Inventors face this every day. Often it is completely demoralizing to experience failure after failure. But the inventor must have the courage to persevere. Even in the bleakest situations, a breakthrough might be just around the corner.


Trapped by the obvious

How many times have you been trapped by the obvious when trying to solve a problem? By the obvious, I mean the obvious rational approach or solution that is clearly in front of you. This solution to your problem would be great, except that it doesn’t work. I have certainly fallen into this trap many times. I try a solution that should work, but it doesn’t. Then I try the same solution over and over again with some variation in the hope that one of my attempts will magically succeed. It’s as if you were trapped within four walls.  You run against one and then the next and the next and before you know it you are running against the same one again. You are running so hard, and with such focus and intent, that you fail to notice the trap door in the ceiling.

One key to getting past the obvious is to try and reframe the problem. This is analogous to reframing a picture; by doing so, you can see the same picture in a completely different way. This exercise of reframing, or restating the problem in a different way can lead to the discovery of a completely new approach. It can disrupt the futile effort of pursuing the same failed idea over and over again. To push my analogy of the room a little further: my problem is not how can I break through the wall, but how can I get myself up to the ceiling, so I can enter the trap door. I used another analogy in my book:  that of trying to solve the problem of building a sturdy bridge across a river in order to transport goods from one side to the other. A reframe of that problem might be, “How do I get goods from one side of the river to the other.” That opens up many more possibilities besides a bridge.

The more you focus on the “obvious” solution (that unfortunately doesn’t work), the more it will reinforce itself in your mind to the exclusion of other approaches. If you’re stuck on problem, sometimes the best thing to do is to forget about it. Go to the beach. If it’s winter, go skiing. Your best chance of getting around the obvious is to engage in something completely unrelated to the problem and let your subconscious go to work. The work of your conscious and rational mind is really to feed your subconscious information. Then let the subconscious go to work on the problem while you are engaged in something completely different. You’ll be amazed how, when you are least expecting it, a perfect non-obvious solution will just pop into your mind. “Wow! How did I come up with THAT”, you will say. Or, “why didn’t I think of that before?”

Reframing and working the interplay between conscious and subconscious problem solving are two techniques for getting past the obvious. In contrast, continuing to run against the same walls over and over again will only make you frustrated, tired, and very sore. 

Steve Jobs

With the death of Steve Job’s many people have been eulogizing him and writing about his contribution to American innovation and industry. With this entry, I will add my own two cents by quoting a few paragraphs from my book.  The story is taken from Steve Job’s 2005 speech at Stanford University’s graduation ceremony. If you haven’t heard that speech (available on iTunes), it is well worth listening to it. Below is what I wrote in my book: Sometimes seemingly random or unrelated experiences play a significant part in a creative breakthrough. Steve Jobs, the chairman of Apple Computer, told a story to Stanford graduates at the 2005 commencement about how the idea of using typography and multiple fonts was introduced to computers.

After his first semester at Reed College, he dropped out. He remained at the school, sleeping on the floors of friends’ dorm rooms and making ends meet by returning empty bottles for the deposit. One of the advantages of not being a student enrolled for a degree was that he had no course requirements. Simply out of curiosity, he ended up sitting in on a calligraphy course. In that course he learned all about typefaces, fonts, letter spacing, serif versus sans-serif, and what it took to make the printing of letters a beautiful art form.

The course had no practical value that he could imagine, but he took pleasure in gaining an appreciation for typography. Ten years and an entire world later, he was involved in the brand new field of personal computing. The seemingly random experience of having sat in on the typography course at Reed College became an impetus for the design of the Macintosh computer user interface and set a standard that emphasized typography and font choice for all word processing software to come.

Curiosity leads us down paths we might otherwise never take. Curiosity means pursuing something that does not necessarily have an obvious purpose. We examine something and follow the path that we are led along merely because it seems interesting. Steve Jobs was curious about calligraphy and decided to sit in on a class. I'm sure he had no obvious goal in doing this. Curiosity leads to connections, often seemingly bizarre connections that can form the basis for new ideas. In this case, Job’s curiosity eventually led to the use of multiple fonts in word processors.

The ability to choose a font on a word processing program is now taken for granted. One could say it is obvious. But take yourself back to the days of typewriters. The days when computers were scientific and business machines and the primary mode of documentation was typing. Most people did not even know what the word font meant, and if they did, they would be hard-pressed to name a single one. What kind of thinker would have blended the idea of multiple fonts, or calligraphy, with what were then "calculating machines"?

His message to the graduates that commencement day was to follow their instincts and curiosity; to soak up all the experience that they can; for you never know when or how it will come to benefit you.


My favorite invention?

I am often asked: “Of all the things you’ve invented, which is your favorite?” I guess my favorite invention is whatever I am currently working on. However, I can give you a few that stand out.


1.       Perhaps the most successful in terms of dollars was the invention of the sealed-edge wiper – a product used to remove contamination in ultra-clean manufacturing environments such as semiconductor fabrication cleanrooms. This invention was a technological leap into the unknown on my part. I think we made the production process work through sheer force of will. The product, as far as I know, is still a best seller twenty years after its introduction. It has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in sales and solved major contamination control problems in the semiconductor industry. It was named one of the top 20 product advances by Semiconductor International magazine when it was introduced into the semiconductor marketplace.


2.       The iPad! No, only kidding. But I did invent a precursor to the iPad. In the mid 1980’s, I worked for AT&T Bell Laboratories and was given the assignment to design a portable electronic device that could be used to enter and view data at a hospital patient’s bedside. I combined technologies that were already in use – a flat screen terminal and a touchscreen – to produce what was essentially an electronic notebook. Like today’s iPad, it had an on-screen keyboard, you could write on it, and enter data via touch. This project, which involved a team of engineers and programmers to complete, was part of a large computer-based medical information storage and retrieval system for hospitals. The electronic notebook was integrated into this system both to view and input data at the patient’s bedside. In many ways, this was a product that came out before its time. Had the internet been at the level of maturity it is now, this could have been the original iPad, and gone far beyond its intended medical use. However, while the product and the entire medical information system were a great technical success, such a radical departure from the existing paper systems was not yet readily accepted within hospitals (this was the 1980s), and the project never met with commercial success. The electronic notebook or patient care terminal as we called it was patented, and even though the patent is expired, it stands as prior art to any similar invention. Every so often I get calls from attorneys requesting information (or in one case – a request to be an expert witness) for cases they are pursuing regarding similar products in this area.


3.       Finally, what is sure to be my favorite invention of all time. Well, actually, it’s a reinvention. But I have to wait until it has been completely forgotten to reinvent it. I don’t know if I should reveal this publicly yet, but in several years time, I plan to invent an incredibly versatile system for recording and storing any kind of written data. The system will be lightweight, conformable enough to store in your pocket and yet flexible enough to be enlarged so you can work on it (folding and unfolding), incredibly intuitive and easy to use (no instruction manual needed), and capable of an unlimited range of written expression both text-based and graphical. The system will be able to be personalized to anyone’s style, and will serve as a tool to express individual creativity. The system is both very robust and environmentally friendly. And the cost is just pennies. You may have guessed by now what my revolutionary re-invention will be:  pencil and paper.

The lone inventor and the patent myth

What does it take to make a success in the marketplace with your invention? Well, the trite answer is money. But let’s assume you don’t have a lot of that. What you have is ideas, ingenuity, and a basement or garage full of cool stuff. Often the lone inventor can become very frustrated. Our sense of right and of fairness says, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” But unfortunately, in this day and age, that is no longer the case. The inventor thinks, “Well, it’s a tough world out there, so the first thing I need to do is patent my invention.” But alas, not only IS THIS NOT a panacea but can be a long tortuous waste of time and money. While new patent rules are currently being legislated, the patent office is so backlogged that it can take over two years for your application to even get examined. The cost of obtaining a patent can be easily over ten thousand dollars. But that’s not the worst of it. It is up to you as the owner of the patent to ensure that it is not violated. This means that if someone copies your invention, it is up to you to sue them in court. The validity of your patent will then be on trial as the copier of your invention will probably claim that there was prior art to your patent and it should never have been granted. Whether you win or lose, a legal battle can be extremely costly and take years. And what would you have accomplished?

If your goal in inventing a new product is to make money, I believe that the best avenue is to create a small business around your invention. That means going into small scale production using a contract manufacturer, creating a name and marketing materials for your product, and selling it – with the easiest avenue being over the internet. With moderate success, you can achieve what should be your first goal – a brand name and a revenue stream. Then you are in a position to either decide to sell your product to a larger company (market recognition and a proven revenue stream are the language that businesses like to speak), or if you prefer, continue with your entrepreneurial venture and maybe add new inventions to your product line. This is easier than you think, and certainly much easier and less frustrating than trying to gain product success through patents and the legal system.

Well, you ask, “what if someone copies my product?” So what if they do. This is the same problem that all businesses face. Now you are into the challenge of how to differentiate your product so you can claim to the world why your product is the better choice. You have now moved from being an inventor to an entrepreneur.

Rifle straps

My father once told me a great story of how he learned to be an entrepreneur. He was released from the army after World War II and an uncle of his had a business buying up army surplus junk at cheap prices. One of the things he purchased was a large container of rifle slings. Since the army didn’t want these used in weapons, they cut each of the slings in half. My father’s uncle said to him, “OK, I just bought this pile of useless half rifle slings. Your job is to invent something to do with them so we can sell them.” At that time my father lived in Brooklyn New York.  He gave some thought as to what he could do with cut-up rifle slings and then went down into the  New York subways to sell his "new" product. He approached the people who ran the shoe shine concessions and sold the cut-up slings as polishing straps for shoes.

The moral: give someone a problem, tell them to solve it, give them a kick in the rear and say, “go,” and innovation will result. This is where street smarts, necessity, and creative problems solving merge.

The success of 99% failure

When I ran the research laboratory for our company, I used to say (somewhat facetiously) that 99% of everything we did ended failure. And yet, I considered our efforts a great success. How can this be?

Failure is a word that has very negative connotations in our vocabulary. But if we look at what happens when we fail, we can see a different side to the story. First, all failure is not the same. Failure differs in magnitude, consequence, and information gained. If you bet a million dollars on a stock and the company goes bankrupt the next day – that is a failure of great magnitude (for most of us). However, if you only invested a dollar, you can probably live with the loss.  Either way, you learned something about the stock and the market. As inventors and researchers, we are always probing into the unknown. How will we know something if we don’t try it? Well, again, there is the question of magnitude and consequence. Jumping off a high cliff to test the theory of survivability after impact would constitute a high magnitude of risk and a great consequence of failure. You would certainly learn the answer, but at what cost? However, if you gauge the magnitude of the risk, the consequence of the failure, and what you might learn from the trial; failure can be transformed from a negative to a positive. Sometimes finding out what doesn’t work is as important as finding out what does. Probing to confirm direction is something that inventors and researchers do all the time. This not only puts theory to the test, but also provides new information to reformulate the theory. The key is to take controlled risks – risks that won’t “break the bank” or anything else of great value. The goal is to exceed what you lose in time, money, material, etc. with what you gain in knowledge.

As I said at the beginning of this post, we were extremely successful and yet experienced a “99% failure rate.” What made us successful was the ability to gauge risk as we probed into the unknown, and to learn valuable things that we could then apply to our next efforts. The failures were small but informative; the successes built on those trials were substantial.

The cracks between knowledge

As I say in my book, ‘Invention often sprouts from the cracks between areas of knowledge’. This means that creative ideas are often born at the intersection of two (or more) totally unrelated things.  Often when we try to bridge to seemingly unbridgeable ideas, our innate creativity springs into action. How does this work?

Let’s try an experiment. Go to your dictionary and choose two nouns at random. In other words, flip to a random page, choose the first noun you come across, and then flip to another page and do the same thing. I just did this and my nouns are cougar and magnet (you can do this with verbs as well). Now, write a paragraph relating these two words. There is no obvious relationship between cougar and magnet, but as I write and try to imagine some kind of way to bridge these two things, I will inevitably come up with a creative idea. This principle works in many realms and is one of the axioms of invention. We all know many things very well, but we don’t necessarily know how to relate things that don’t seem to have any bearing on one another. Let me give you a personal example. I have a strong interest in working with special needs children; I also have a passion for engineering, my field of study.  On the surface, there is no relationship between children with profound mental disabilities and the field of engineering. They are not two areas that one normally puts together in the same sentence or thought. However, I combined these two unrelated areas in a unique way: I created a program to teach robotics to special needs children. It turns out that this seemingly bizarre idea has produced very powerful results. The kids love the hands-on approach to learning and not only do they surpass what they thought they could accomplish, but their self-esteem increases as they solve problems that they thought they lacked the capability to unravel. This is an example from my life of creating something between the borders of two totally unrelated areas. Invention often follows this pattern. Creativity comes when you say, “hmm, how can I combine cougar and magnet ?” The beauty of this is that your creative solution might have nothing at all to do with cougar or magnet, but might be the result of those two words acting as a trigger for your inventive mind.

Below are two links to articles on my triple intersection of unrelated things: Robotics, special needs, and Jewish education:

The business of innovation (part 2)

Sustained innovation in a business is a rare thing. When large corporations such as IBM and AT&T were virtual monopolies, they could lavishly fund innovation at places like “Yorktown Heights” or “Bell Labs” which did not contribute to immediate profitability. When push comes to shove in tough economic times, that funding is the first to go. In a smaller business, a culture of innovation can be the result of the influence of the founding entrepreneur whose passion for innovation becomes the corporate culture. Or it can be the rare manager who sees the long term value in innovation and has the power within the company to create an environment for it. 

My former company, Texwipe, was one of those rare companies where constant innovation was not only our culture, but was the key to our success. Texwipe’s culture of innovation came from its founder, Edward Paley. Innovation was in his DNA so to speak; it was never a conscious, rational or planned decision to be “innovative”. It was just the way he was. This is true with many entrepreneurs.  Their success is a product of their innate desire and ability to create something new. The trick is to keep this going as the company matures. Texwipe was an innovative company from its beginnings in 1963 to its sale in 2001. That was a span of 38 years. How did we do it? Looking back, here are some of my thoughts:

It was who we were. Well, what can I say: We didn’t know any better. Innovation was the way we thought and worked. It was as if the business was solely a platform that enabled us to create.

We controlled the company. We had complete say in what the company did. After all, we were the owners. There were no outsiders to insist that we stay within standard business orthodoxies.

The marketplace. We served the high tech marketplace as it was rapidly developing during the 1970s through the end of the century. The need for better products was a constant.

We didn’t focus on profitability. This is a key idea. Profit is the result of creating something that someone sees value in and will therefore pay sufficient money to have. It should be an output, a result – not an input. In other words, we did not run our business to make a profit per se; we ran our business to create significant value in the mind of our customers. As a result, we made a profit. If, on the other hand, a business focuses solely on profit; it can readily be achieved in the short term, but often at the sacrifice of the longer term health of the company. You can cut cost to the bone or even past that until the company just disappears.

We did not have rigid time horizons for product development. To be truly innovative (or inventive) you often don’t know where you are going or what you are doing. There is no clear-cut path to go down; you have to feel your way. This is usually the case for great leaps forward. You get there when you get there. The upside to this is that once you get there, what you have created is usually something great.

We built our reputation as the industry leader in technology and innovation. We had a reputation as the industry leader for innovative new products. The marketplace expected this from us and it was closely identified with our brand. This, of course, is a chicken and egg problem. We simply did what we liked best, and it became an expectation in the marketplace. This in turn drove further innovation.

With a nod to Tolstoy, “Innovative companies are all innovative in their own way”. But what they share in common is a culture that enables them to continuously venture into uncharted territory. They are driven by a compulsion to create.

The business of innovation (part 1)

Business and innovation. Now there are two words that seem to go together. You would be hard-pressed to find a business that doesn’t preach innovation to its employees, customers, and shareholders. There is, however, a much different reality. While most businesses preach innovation, their actions belie their words. In truth, most well established businesses run away from innovation.

Here’s why.

Change is needed when someone or some entity wants to move from one place to another. In that case, there is a desire for the new which leads to creative or “innovative” approaches in order to effect that change. But what happens once you arrive there?  Most established companies have arrived and their job is stay there. In other words, their job is to manage their current situation in a predictable manner. Innovative approaches are generally unpredictable. Another way of looking at this is minimizing risk. Innovation most often has significant risk associated with it. Stockholders understandably thrive on predictability and want their investment to be “risk free” or at least “risk managed”, and it is management’s job to ensure that predictability. This often becomes the culture of a corporation and permeates throughout the company. Cost reduction, for instance is a controlled and predictable way to increase profitability. Innovating new products is a much more expensive gamble which might or might not succeed. Managers are not rewarded for taking risks but for achieving goals. There is a big difference. Often those goals are financial and wild innovation is not first on the list of techniques for achieving the financial goals of an established company. Now I’m not saying that large companies never innovate. Of course they do! But I am saying that the innovation is often mitigated by larger constraints. I am also saying that innovation plays a relatively small role in the management of most companies.

Companies often resort to innovation when they are in trouble. They might be in a downward spiral, or face an overwhelming competitive threat and they don’t know what to do.  As a last resort they innovate. An example of this (which I discuss in my book) is the invention of the dry copying process known as Xerography. The company, Haloid, was in deep trouble and needed a wild-card innovation to be able to sustain themselves into the future. They took a huge risk and bet the farm on the unproven technology of dry copying. The opposite can also be true. Businesses will innovate when there is little risk in doing so. They will reason that their “core” business is successful and going along nicely and that perhaps they can dabble in an innovative venture. If it fails, the risk is minimal to the overall health of the company, so they can experiment a little.

Businesses preach innovation but worship predictability. Most of the time these two things take you in opposite directions. It is a rare business where innovation is its core value, its raison d’être. Not only is innovation unpredictable but it is hard to sustain over time. The primary graduate degree granted if you want to study business is the M.B.A. or Master’s in Business Administration.  The last word, Administration, is key. The job of management is to administrate. The goal of administration is to reduce both risk and volatility, not produce it. Innovation at its heart is venturing into the unknown with unpredictable results. “On time and under budget” is a canon of management. It is also the killer of innovation.

Record players and treadmills

Way back when (actually, in the 1960's I think), a company called AR which stood for Acoustic Research came out with a turntable. As I remember it, their turntable was unique in that it had no automation. Other consumer turntables that were being marketed were full of features — you just needed to plop down the record, press a button, and everything moved automatically as the player spun up to speed. AR was completely manual. You needed to pick up the stylus arm and manually place it at the edge of the record. Instead of putting their money into fancy features, their selling point was the quality of the motor, belt, stylus arm, etc. I remember that there was great debate about whether this was a step backward or a step forward.

Recently, I was looking to buy a treadmill and I recalled the AR turntable. Treadmills these days come with an almost unimaginable host of features. Of course they are all computer driven and you can choose from 25 or 50 different workouts. The displays are snazzy and can hook up to both audio and video entertainment as you run. There are a myriad of programming options and treadmill manufacturers compete as to who can offer more features. Well, what I was looking for was none of that. The selling point for me was the quality of the build (the parts you can't see) and the simplicity of the interface. All I wanted was a speed and incline control that I could manage myself. Unfortunately for me, no such thing exists. High quality with minimal features at a decent price is not a selling point these days.

The values that I was looking for are simplicity and robustness. My ideals seem to be completely misaligned with those of the marketing folks. Today, products are filled with features that look great but that nobody will use. They are also commonly built, not to the highest quality, but to more or less self-destruct after the warranty period ends. This way, the consumer will have to buy a new one.

There is much to be argued on both sides. Most business people accept the orthodoxy of "loading it up with features" and of built-in obsolescence. I am on the other side of that argument. I believe there is a serious marketplace (yes it is a niche market) for those of us who put quality and simplicity first.  People will pay for something that just does what it is supposed to do and does it very well. The AR turntable, even though it lacked common features that were standard on other turntables at the time, was a great success. There is opportunity out there for manufacturers not to simply follow the herd, but be a little different. How about making simplicity and quality the selling points.

By the way, if anyone knows of a basic but high quality treadmill….

A unique robotic gripper

Imagine that you had the task of designing a robotic hand. Certainly the phrase "robotic hand" suggests modeling the human hand. After all, the human hand is incredibly dexterous and capable of grasping all kinds of objects. Most robotic hands are modeled in one way or another after the human hand.  That is the obvious place to begin. However, if we re-frame the problem statement to designing a method of grasping and picking up objects, the universe of solutions becomes greater. Your attention focuses more on the general problem of grasping an object.

There are many ways one can imagine to grip and hold onto something, but researchers at Cornell University, University of Chicago, and iRobot pushed the boundaries of creative thinking to come up with a very unique idea — and it works! Their creative breakthrough involved coffee grounds and a party balloon — hardly the stuff one imagines when thinking about hi-tech robotics. I can imagine a researcher on this project after a hard day in the lab (possibly with no results to speak of). On his way home, he stops at the supermarket to pick up groceries, wanders into the coffee isle, grabs a bag of freeze dried coffee, and Eureka! Can this possibly work???  Read about (and see a video) of this unique gripper by clicking on the links below.

What I want to emphasize is the process of creativity. Now the supermarket story probably did not happen as I described it, but I am certain that the insight that a gripping action could be made by shrinking something from a fluid state to a solid state was probably triggered by a similar incident. We often work on problems in a linear and rational manner. Then, if we don't solve them, we let go of them and move onto something else.

However, the problem is still being worked on in the unconscious mind. Something completely unrelated in the outside environment will often trigger the solution. My supermarket scenario is an example of how this could happen. However the researchers came up with this creative solution, my guess is that it was a moment of insight that occurred when they were "off duty."

The Stuxnet virus

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of innovative thinking in 2010 was the Stuxnet virus. Let me explain. I am not referring to the technical aspects of the virus, which I'm sure were brilliant as well. I am speaking about the idea of creating a computer virus to solve an otherwise intractable problem. The problem being Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. There were two obvious options on the table as ways to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Option 1 was to bomb their nuclear production facilities. While this might be successful, it would bring about tremendous repercussions. Iran would retaliate through waves of worldwide terror. While the objective of stopping Iran might be achieved, there would be a tremendous price to pay. Option 2, which was actually implemented, was international sanctions on Iran. While this option was a "safer" option in that it would not bring about immediate retaliation, the sanctions were not effective at all in slowing down Iran's drive toward its nuclear goals. If you read the newspapers during this past year, all discussion vacillated between these two options. These seemed to be the only alternatives out there.

What wasn't discussed (for good reason) in the papers was an ingenious third alternative that would significantly damage Iran's nuclear sites without acting as an obvious causus belli. This option was to create a computer virus that would infiltrate the computers that controlled the nuclear production facilities and damage the production equipment beyond repair. Nothing like this had ever been done before, and Stuxnet, as the virus is now called became the first use of a cyberweapon by one (or more) country against another. The Iranians were loathe to admit that their nuclear program had been infiltrated and compromised and therefore their reaction was very muted. The Iranian program was set back (although we don't know for how long), and there were minimal repercussions.

What I love about this approach is that it was so innovative, so out-of-the-box, so original that it shows creative thinking at its best. Most people viewing the Iranian situation were locked between two unappealing paradigms. This third approach is a beautiful example of stepping beyond the obvious to solve a problem in a masterfully unique way.