“Be on the Books” is a regular series in which Braithwaite staff explain what we found useful and what we think leaders can learn from the best marketing and business books.
Your creative ideas and your abdominal muscles are a lot alike. If you think you can hone them in only a few minutes, get used to dull results.
Kevin Ashton doesn’t exactly say that in his best-selling book “How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery,” released in January 2015, although he has so many turns of phrase in there we might have to double check.
Ashton has experience in marketing, entrepreneurship and innovation, and is best known for being very influential in the development of the Internet of Things. In fact, he is widely credited with coining the term. Suffice it to say he’s a creative person.
In “How to Fly a Horse,” his main message is something you don’t hear a lot today. While Twitter’s filled with headlines like “5 Simple Tricks to Improve Brainstorming” and “6 Secrets of Creative Geniuses,” Ashton’s saying that creating something great isn’t easy. There’s no quick fix. There aren’t sudden moments of brilliance that come out of nowhere to only certain people. In fact, the last chapter is called, “Good-Bye Genius.”
But that’s actually good news – it means anyone with the willpower and tenacity can create and innovate.
Here’s what our staff here at Braithwaite thought about the book.
Hugh Braithwaite, President
We’ve actually referenced this book a lot this year in the creativity bootcamps we organize for our clients. I read this when it first came out and the idea that still resonates with me is that just asking “What if?” is the simplest, most important step in the creative process, even if many people are afraid to ask it.
At one part he actually goes back 50,000 years, to what he calls “the most important moment in human history” – the day one member of our species first looked at a tool and thought, “I can make this better.” Then comes maybe my favorite line of the book: “The ability to change anything was the change that changed everything.”
That’s so relevant for business today. We so often see people who won’t even consider the idea that things don’t have to be the way they are. But all you need to go from a crude stone hammer to the Black + Decker Hammerdrill DR670 with a variable speed trigger and pistol grip design is that initial idea to make a change. That’s a powerful realization.
Alex Dalgliesh, Associate Vice President
I really enjoyed the stories about how many ideas we think of as genius in retrospect were once considered crazy. We’ve all heard, for instance, that Einstein was just a lowly patent clerk before he created the theory of relativity, and Ashton adds some fuel to that fire.
One example from the book was the world’s first stealth aircraft, which was jokingly called the “Hopeless Diamond” by engineers at Lockheed Martin because no one thought it could fly, but it eventually served as the basis for all future stealth technology. Another example was the South Park movie from 1999, because studio executives thought it was insane to make an R-rated, animated musical, but it was a box office success and even earned an Academy Award nomination.
The lesson I took away is that innovation can be scary at first. It’s hard to know an idea is a great one when you first encounter it, especially if it’s so different from what has existed before. Eventually, though, you just need to try.
Lee Procida, Senior Account Executive
This actually reminded me of a book called The Evolution of Technology, which I was assigned for an anthropology class in college. The main idea there, as you might guess, is that technology evolves just as animals do, with examples of inventions incrementally improving on previous developments rather than appearing out of nowhere. “How to Fly a Horse” similarly debunks that myth, showing that creativity most often comes from hard work and steady improvement, and hardly if ever by spontaneous brilliance.
Similarly, he shows that the popular conception of the lone genius is rarely accurate. People seem to be naturally biased in giving sole credit to famous people for ideas they either didn’t originate or co-developed with many others. My favorite part is when he breaks down the ironic fact that a famous phrase meant to convey this very idea is somehow often inaccurately attributed to one famous person. It’s true that Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” in 1676, and he is usually quoted as the owner of this phrase. But it’s also true that this phrase was somewhat of a cliche even then, and Ashton gives specific examples of at least five other people saying pretty much the same thing, dating back to the 12th Century.
We may be more guilty of this hero worship today than ever, now that seemingly anyone can brand themselves as an “influencer” or “thought leader,” which is why this book was so refreshing.