Creativity, “Mr. Patent,” Keith Richards, and me

Following up on yesterday’s post on “Creativity and the importance of routine,” here is a link to a Fast Company article I recall reading ten years ago. 

Titled “Mr. Patent,” it profiles Marvin Johnson, a research fellow at Phillips Petroleum who has 212 patents to his hame.  (Or “had,” anyway, back in 2002.)

Why do I still remember this article?  Because of Johnson’s approach to innovation and creativity.  He said he looked for small, focused, solvable problems:

What’s really important is finding solutions to problems.  If you find a unique solution, then you have a patent.

Johnson likened his work as a chemist/engineer to another pastime he also enjoyed, solving the coded word puzzles called “cryptoquips”:

You have to have the patience to return to it.  Play with it for a while, go do something else, then come back when you have a new idea.  Each time you return to the puzzle, you pick up the same threads and weave a different cloth.  Eventually you get it right.

It’s interesting that a scientist/engineer would do this with a word puzzle . . . because it’s exactly the same thing I do (Ph.D. in English) with Sudoko, a number puzzle.  I pull out the page of the newspaper containing that day’s puzzle, fold it into a convenient size, and then work on it in tiny chunks of time.  When I get stuck, I quit.  Maybe I don’t get back to it for a couple of days, but when I do pick it up again, I can immediately see something I missed before.  As soon as that new piece of the puzzle is completed, several other parts of the solution fall quickly into place before I get stuck again. 

This is also how I work on writing projects.  When I wrote my dissertation, it was the longest thing I had ever written, maybe ten times the length of any single course paper.  I didn’t know how to do it.  In some ways, for me at least, the most valuable part of that final academic experience was coming to understand myself as a writer and accept the fact that my work style is quite different from most people’s.

It was very disconcerting back then for me to talk with the other grad students and hear them saying things like, “Yeah, I’ve finished Chapters 1 and 2.  My advisor has Chapter 3, and I’m working on Chapter 4 now.”  Because I had NOTHING “finished” until the entire thing was finished, all at once. 

This was the only way I found I could write: a little bit here, a little bit there.  I’d get an idea about a tiny little chunk of material, so I’d write it up.  Maybe it would be three pages.  Eventually all of my chunks started to organize themselves into categories, so I created “chapter” files in my computer and moved the chunks into their new neighborhoods.  But each “chapter” was just a jumbled mess of chunks.  Nothing that could really be called “finished.”  I was embarrassed to share anything with my advisor, and I have to give him a lot of credit for working with me on my terms.  He looked at my disorganized pages and gave me feedback but never made me feel ashamed of my discursive, nonlinear writing process.

Finally, by the end of the project, the entire “whole” of my dissertation began to make itself clear.  I couldn’t type fast enough to keep up with my vision.  At the end of each day, I could see the path ahead of me so clearly that I could have written nonstop for days or weeks . . . if only I could have stayed awake long enough to do it. 

When I read Keith Richards’ memoir Life two years ago, I could totally identify with his reason for using heroin.  When he was producing the Exile on Main St. album during the Rolling Stones’ actual “exile” in the south of France, Richards said the heroin allowed him to stay awake for incredibly long periods so he could see his musical ideas through to completion.  (Interesting aside: I was just double-checking the spelling of “street” in the album title and discovered that a documentary film called Stones in Exile came out two years ago, just a few months before Richards’ book.  Sounds intriguing; I’m going to check it out 🙂 )

It never occurred to me to use something like heroin, thank God.  What I did instead was to take time at the end of each work day to write down what came next, just jotted notes that tried to capture the gap between where I was and the completed “whole” I was trying to reach.  Then when I sat down to work again the next day, all I had to do was read my notes from the night before – and I was mentally right back in the same place!  I could see the entire, completed whole again stretching out ahead of me in my mind’s eye.

I’m not sure how or even whether my experience has significance for anyone else. 

But if your working style is more linear, like the other graduate students who were able to move through their dissertations chapter by chapter, maybe you could try working my way if you ever get “stuck.” 

And if your working style is messy and indirect, like mine (and I suspect we are a distinct minority), know that you are not alone and that learning to work in the only way you can work will make you a lot happier and more productive than trying to be efficient and organized the way you think you “should” be.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
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