Good Ideas

This essay was written in January, 2011, inspired by the annual session of the Fielding Graduate University, where Susan was working on her doctorate, which she completed in December, 2011.

Good Ideas and Innovation

The first general session used as its starting point a book by Steven Johnson entitled:  Where do good ideas come from:  The Natural History of Innovation.  I had not read or heard of the book previously.  The discussion was conducted by a group of five or six Fielding professors and perhaps fifteen or so students seated in a circle and lasted three hours.

The title of the book begged many questions:  What is innovation?  What are the conditions that generate good ideas?  Do good ideas necessarily lead to innovation?  What is the best type of organization to accomplish innovation?  Is there a particular organizational structure that is more likely to create innovation?   Who are today’s innovators?  Is the Apple corporation truly innovative, or does Apple simply package and market (very successfully) previous innovations by others?

One amusing example was raised by a participant:  Wheels and boxes are timeless inventions.  Boxes, trunks, suitcases, and wheels have all coexisted for many years.  Why did it take centuries for someone (perhaps an airline stewardess?) to think of putting the wheels and suitcases together?  This innovation is only a couple of decades old, despite people having struggled for years, dragging their suitcases around the world.  Now, nobody would consider going on a long trip with a suitcase that does not have wheels.

Who are the innovators in today’s world? What causes someone to develop into an innovator?  What form of education best results in students developing into innovators?  Can innovators develop in isolation?  Does birth order have any influence?  How did revolutionary geniuses such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Igor Stravinsky arise out of their respective environments?

What’s the difference between Mozart and Salieri? (Antonio Solieri was better known and respected during their lifetimes.) Often, geniuses in music and  art are initially met with skepticism and rejection during their lifetimes, their innovative genius being recognized much later.  Many of the participants in the discussion were musicians themselves.  We asked each other, what makes the difference for the true musical innovators?  How important is improvisation?  What are the markers that constitute innovation in all forms of art?  It’s difficult to categorize innovative genius.  The only thing undisputable was that we know it when we see or hear it, even though that recognition sometimes becomes evident only from a historical perspective.

We want to nurture good ideas and innovation in our educational systems and by design of the environment in general.  What role do economics play in nurturing innovation?  Can someone growing up deprived of education and advantages of the rich nonetheless be innovative?  (For example, what if Mozart had not had access to the violin and piano?)  What is the responsibility of current innovators to nurture and support new innovators for the future well-being of the human race?  In what direction should we invest time and resources to inspire innovation?  Are certain key industries more deserving of financial support for innovation?  (e.g. companies dedicated to “save the world” from war, global warming, pollution, environmental destruction, etc.)  Is the funding for innovation better channeled through individuals, corporations, or public institutions (e.g. universities, public health agencies, grants, endowments, etc., i.e. organizations with a responsibility to the general population as opposed to corporate shareholders)?

After the seminar, the professor who had moderated the discussion confided that free-form abstract brain-storming sessions such as this one, which are for the high point of the Fielding gatherings, are in danger of being replaced by seminars/courses with more defined goals, that would lend themselves to easier documented results, more similar to most other universities.  Open discussions, such as this one, are wide-ranging and unpredictable.  As such, they are difficult to quantify, nor do they lend themselves to the post-course testing that typifies most contemporary college course procedures.

Creative Longevity and Wisdom

Another stimulating session was the Creative Longevity and Wisdom group meeting.  This group is dedicated to exploring issues affecting the aging, from continuous learning to the continuum of care.  Aging affects everyone on an individual basis.  Ultimately, the deleterious effects of time and gravity will take their toll on us all.  What is the best way to spend the time up until our unavoidable demise?  What are the unavoidable changes that occur late in life?  How can we best cope, intellectually, emotionally, financially, socially?

The group viewed a Powerpoint dissertation outline from one of the students who was graduating over the weekend.  She presented charts and graphs of the “baby boomer” generation, 1946-1964, showing a bulge in the birthrate population profile that looks like a snake that has swallowed a hippo.  The statistics are clear…more and more people, i.e. boomers, will be needing more medical and support services, this at a time when federal, state, and local government budgets are shrinking for public health, prevention services, and healthcare in general.

Though political discussions were generally avoided, I sensed a general liberal consensus among my fellow attendees. It wasn’t necessary to belabor current politics in which most of us probably agreed anyway.  Liberal, in the Fielding context, means that we want to examine global issues and explore potential solutions. Liberal, in the context of Creative Longevity, meant a discussion of potential pathways to improved public health.  The opposite of liberal as described above, whether named conservative, reactionary, strict-constructions, etc, refers to those who are advocating a continuation of our current insurance-based healthcare system, of which arguably the greatest weakness is that fifty million Americans don’t have health insurance.


Susan and I get to hang out with lots of interesting people and have interesting discussions.  There was a video shown at the Good Ideas-Innovation session of the author speaking at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design… conference.  The online video, which was shown on a coffee break and was intended to help those who hadn’t read the book, was mostly ignored, as most of us were engaged in animated small group conversations.  The two days of the Fielding national gathering that we attended were rich in discussions, good for renewing friendships with professors and students, resulting in an intensely wonderful educational experience.

Finally, for my readers who have made it this far, you will probably enjoy this four minute graphic representation of the correlation between income growth and life expectancy in 200 countries over the last 200 hundred years in an amazing animation. Take a look:

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