When I used to interview employees, one question I liked to ask was “What do you read”. Some answered that they didn’t read and that always shocked me. Others would tell me that they read technical information related to medical devices. In those cases I suspected that they were giving me an answer they thought I might want to hear. The reason I would ask that question was to find out if they were intellectually curious and enjoyed the mental stimulation and lessons that reading provides.
While I enjoy reading about science, I also like to read subjects like biography and history because they teach me valuable lessons. Although there are many self help manuals that tell you how to achieve success, none are as good as the real world examples of people who found ways to overcome significant odds. George Washington was a perfect example of a person who succeeded despite facing an overwhelming task. He had been given a small ragged, untrained and ill-equipped army by a young congress that was reluctant to provide financial support. At the same time he was facing the formidable British army the largest, most powerful and best trained army in the world. Under these circumstances, many people would have given up, but Washington, despite overwhelming odds, devised an innovative plan that defied the rules of conventional warfare and eventually would lead to victory.
The lesson is that no matter what the odds, if one is resourceful, it is almost always possible to find a way to get the job done. When I hear managers complain that they can’t get the job done because senior management either won’t let them, or won’t give them the necessary resources I wonder if they have tried alternatives. I wonder if they have thought to look beyond the limits of their profession and ask how others have used innovative approaches to solve problems. I wonder if they have read any of the lessons that history can teach us.
I doubt that anyone can teach us how to solve problems, but history provides wonderful insights into approaches that others have taken. One of my favorite stories is about Philo Farnsworth who solved the problem of transmitting television images while plowing his father’s potato fields. After finishing plowing a field, he gazed back over it and saw row after row of even parallel lines. It occurred to him that an electronic image could be sliced into rows and then each row could be transmitted in a continuous sequence. Thus the working picture tube was born.
The Wright brothers understood that that they needed to devise a means of control if they were to succeed with developing the airplane. Although many inventors including the prestigious Alexander Graham Bell had tried, none had been able to devise s suitable method. The answer came to Wilbur Wright one day when he was absentmindedly twisting a cardboard box that had contained a bicycle inner tube. He realized that when he twisted the left side of the box, the right side warped in the opposite direction. By applying this principle, which they called wing warping to the wings of their aircraft, they were able to control the direction of their airplane and were able to take their first flight at Kitty Hawk.
Stories like these give me inspiration and remind me that the solution to problems may not always come from studying technical literature or toiling long hours in sophisticated laboratories but by keeping an open mind and paying attention to the world around us.
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