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Profiles in Creativity

Published: August 24, 2009

What does it take to become a true innovator—to expand the borders of human knowledge to include new territory no one else thought existed? Natural talent is one variable, but it’s by no means the whole story. According to Boston College psychologist Ellen Winner, young prodigies—the types of kids who ace the SAT, for instance—often fail to develop into genuinely groundbreaking innovators. Because they’ve been so lavishly rewarded for mastering an existing domain, Winner’s theory goes, they may have less incentive to chart new territory.

Although the qualities that make a great innovator can’t be measured by standardized tests, they’re exemplified in the life stories of the foremost innovators in this country—inventors, composers, policymakers, and others who have beaten the odds to break new ground. The innovators we profile here hail from a wide variety of fields, but they have a few key attributes in common: a burning curiosity about the world; an unusual willingness to implement new concepts and ideas; and an unrelenting work ethic that enables them to turn mistakes into successes.

David Baker

David Baker knows a little something about thinking outside the box. As a high school student, he fell so deeply in love with music that he resolved to learn how to play the sousaphone, even though his school music department didn’t own one. “I took a cigar box, made holes in the top, put some springs and pieces of wood inside, and used that to learn the fingering for the tuba,” says Baker, now chair of the jazz department at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. “When the sousaphone finally became available, my band teacher, Russell Brown, was enamored that I was so serious about it.” Still, Baker remembers butting heads with Brown from time to time. “We were playing ‘Begin the Beguine,’ and I tried to play a boogie-woogie line. Mr. Brown said, ‘That’s not the way the line goes.’ I played the line again, and he was really getting angry. He said, ‘Boy, I don’t understand you. You run into a wall, and your solution is to run faster and hit harder.’ ”

Those early philosophies—pursue improvement at all costs and refuse to concede to an obstacle—would come to define Baker’s career as a musical innovator. An up-and-coming trombonist as a young man, he dreamed of achieving fame as a performer until a jaw injury sustained in an auto accident left him unable to play the instrument. “I thought it was the calamity of all calamities,” Baker says. But he now views this tragedy as a triumph: It forced him to find other ways to be creative, to give birth to the images in his mind. Following the injury, he learned to play a variety of other instruments and began experimenting with writing his own music. “If that [injury] hadn’t happened,” he says, “I wouldn’t have become a composer. No way.”

Baker’s professional reorientation jump-started a wild ride through the world of music, one that hasn’t yet come to a halt. In addition to writing scores for the New York Philharmonic and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Baker directs the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks

Orchestra and has won an Emmy Award. Part of his success comes from his willingness to entertain ideas that others may think are a little nutty. In his “Concertino for Cell Phones and Orchestra,” for instance, he incorporated ringtones into the score to harmonize with the orchestra, transforming orchestra-goers’ ultimate annoyance—a ringing cell phone—into an integral part of the music.

Although Baker’s original premieres have made a splash on many stages worldwide, he considers himself a teacher first and foremost. Interacting with students feeds his musical innovation, he says, because they encourage him to keep seeking out new ideas and new approaches. “To find something original, you take what you are and expand it to include all the new things that you know,” he says. “When I teach, I’m forever having to solve new problems. I’m so thrilled to be around young ideas.”

Peter Pronovost, M.D.

Dr. Peter Pronovost<br />Photo © Chris Hartlove

Dr. Peter Pronovost. Photo © Chris Hartlove.

Dr. Peter Pronovost has long been haunted by the story of a little girl named Josie King, who died at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 2001 from dehydration and an overdose of pain medicine. After Josie’s death, Pronovost, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, worked with her mother, Sorrel, to implement better safety programs at the hospital. “At one point,” recalls Pronovost, “she said, ‘Peter, can you tell me that Josie would be less likely to die today than she was four years ago? I want to know if care is safer.’ ”

Josie’s mother’s words have stayed with Pronovost, he says, because he believes all the well-meaning safety programs in the world mean nothing if they don’t make a measurable impact.

“The tragedy that befell Josie King had a devastating effect on our institution and was, and still is, a reminder of how
important patient safety and quality work is for Johns Hopkins and for every hospital in the world,” says Dr. Pronovost.

This keen focus on practicality, on quantifying and achieving results, has been the hallmark of Pronovost’s career. Determined to save patient lives that were being needlessly lost because of negligence and human error, he devised a concrete series of safety checklists for doctors and nurses to follow. To prevent a common cause of illness—bloodstream infections related to catheters inserted into a blood vessel with a direct line to the heart—doctors had to:

Wash hands using soap or alcohol prior to placing the catheter.

  • Wear a sterile hat, mask, gown, and gloves and completely cover the patient with sterile drapes.
  • Avoid placing the catheter in the groin.
  • Clean the insertion site on the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic and apply a sterile dressing over the insertion site once the catheter is in.
  • Remove the catheter when it is no longer needed.

The system was simple enough, but to implement it, Pronovost had to upend some of the prevailing tenets of health care culture. “I said, ‘Nurses, I want you to supervise the doctors to make sure they’re using the checklist.’ You would have thought it was World War III. The doctors said, ‘There’s no way you can have a nurse second-guess me in public.’ ” In hopes of forging a consensus, Pronovost brainstormed a way to appeal to the doctors’ and nurses’ shared interests. “I pulled everyone together and I said, ‘Is it tenable that we can harm patients in health care?’ They said, ‘No.’ I said to the doctors, ‘Unless it’s an emergency, the nurse is going to correct you.’ When it was framed that way, as a common goal, the conflict just melted away.” Pronovost’s unifying efforts paid off. When Michigan hospitals put his checklists in place, central line infection rates plummeted nearly 66 percent, saving about $175 million in health care costs. Other doctors and hospitals began following Pronovost’s example, and in 2008, he was named to Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

As impressive as his accolades are, Pronovost has never lost sight of the importance of getting other people on board to create a lasting transformation—a policy he’s put into practice in his own family as well. “I went to my kids and said, ‘How am I doing as a dad? What could I do better?’ ” he says. “Their insights were spot-on. My son said, ‘Dad, get on my level. Just put your BlackBerry away and play with me.’ ”

Dean Kamen

Dean Kamen<br />Photo © 2007 Nathaniel Wlech/Redux

Dean Kamen. Photo © 2007 Nathaniel Wlech/Redux.

Dean Kamen may be best known as the inventor of the Segway—the two-wheeled human transporter—but he’s far from a one-hit wonder in the world of innovation. The New Hampshire entrepreneur has amassed a formidable oeuvre of technological advances, from an all-terrain electric wheelchair to a water purification system for Third World villages that runs on a Stirling engine. But Kamen doesn’t invent just for the sake of creating new things. All of his ventures spring from his desire to make people’s lives better in a concrete way. “In order for an invention to become an innovation,” he says, “you have to have such a compelling story that people are willing to say, ‘Yesterday, this is what I did and how I did it, but this represents such a big improvement that I am willing to change.’ ”

Kamen’s obsession with change and innovation came gradually. He wasn’t a tinkerer as a child, but he did have one standout trait: an insatiable curiosity about the natural world. “I asked myself things like, ‘Why does hot chocolate cool off if you don’t drink it quickly?’ There were so many things that seemed so predictable and yet so inexplicable, and I wondered how all of this happened.”

Once Kamen realized that inventing new products involved understanding these laws of nature and applying them through engineering, he was off and running. He derived special pleasure in finding unexpected uses for existing technology. When his older brother was in medical school and designing drugs to help babies with leukemia, Kamen realized available drug delivery systems were too large and began devising a solution. “I went down to the basement and built him the equipment he needed: tiny pumps that would deliver a very small amount of drug,” he remembers. “Then one of the professors my brother was dealing with said, ‘That little pump is so small you could put it on your belt or put it in your pocket.’ ” Inspired, Kamen used the mini-pump technology he’d developed to create the first portable insulin pump—now used by diabetics around the world.

Aspiring innovators, Kamen believes, would do well to adopt this kind of flexible mind-set. It’s important for ambitious creators to get comfortable with end-arounds, unexpected eurekas, and periodic failures, he says, because the ride is bound to be a bumpy one. To that end, Kamen founded FIRST, a high school robotics competition designed to give students a firsthand taste of what the innovation process is like. “I think the public has this perception that inventors run around with great ideas, get the parts, and make the product. But the process of inventing couldn’t be further from that—it’s not a linear, straightforward process. You have to be willing to adapt your ideas quickly, no matter how passionate you are about them, and just keep chipping away.”

Esther Takeuchi

Esther Takeuchi<br />Photo © Doug Levere/University of Buffalo

Esther TakeuchiPhoto © Doug Levere/University of Buffalo

From an early age, Esther Takeuchi liked to get into just about everything—whether that meant peeling apart golf balls or exploring inside the walls. “My father was an electrical engineer, and I would follow him around the house,” she remembers. “Whatever he did, I would do.”

Takeuchi, now an engineer at the State University of New York at Buffalo, has parlayed her penchant for figuring out how things work into a wildly successful career. She holds over 120 patents—more than any other woman alive—and has received multiple regional Inventor of the Year awards. While working at the technology company Greatbatch, she developed the Lilliputian battery that powers implantable cardiac defibrillators, a scientific leap forward that has improved the lives of thousands of patients.

Perfecting her most famous invention, Takeuchi says, proved a long, slow slog. “The battery didn’t leap forward fully formed—a lot of steps led to the development and improvement of the technology.” She doesn’t discount the importance of split-second inspiration, but emphasizes that innovators need to lay an extensive groundwork of knowledge to pave the way for that eureka moment. “What was important was spending time thinking about the problem and reading about it. Sometimes I would set the problem aside, and at the strangest moment it would occur to me, ‘Hey, we could do it this way.’ But being diligent in exploring the problem—that part is a disciplined process.”

After a successful career in the industry, Takeuchi returned to academia in 2007 for two reasons: to pursue more freewheeling research on ways to improve battery performance and to help equip the next generation of innovators in a time of increasing global competitiveness. “The United States is just an unbelievable country—there’s such a tradition of innovation and great thought. But I do have concerns about how the United States is going to remain competitive, and I thought, ‘Well, maybe I can contribute to that.’ ”

Although Takeuchi believes inspiring teachers can help spur youthful creativity, she also thinks the government needs to pitch in by delivering sustained funding for science to help the country shift its focus toward innovation. “We have bright, diligent, motivated young people, but what fields are they
attracted to? We need to value, as a society, the contributions that scientists, engineers, and technical educators make.”

Van Jones

Van Jones<br />Photo courtesy Richard Hume/Experience Life Magazine

Van Jones. Photo courtesy Richard Hume/Experience Life Magazine.

Several years ago, Oakland, California, lawyer Van Jones found himself at a career crossroads. “As an attorney, I was focused on trying to keep kids out of trouble, and I just burned out,” he says. Discouraged and not knowing exactly what he was going to do next, Jones set out to learn more about cutting-edge environmental business. “I discovered a lot of really cool technology—solar companies, organic food companies. I said, ‘This is great stuff, but none of it’s happening in the neighborhoods where I’m doing my work.’ ”

That initial epiphany—that residents of cash-strapped urban areas could form the foundation of a future green-collar economy—launched Jones on a quest to make his vision come true. “It’s a tremendous asset, the pent-up desire for positive change in urban communities,” he says. “You have all these people that need work and all this work that needs to be done.” To that end, Jones founded Green for All, a non-profit organization designed to combat poverty and build a green economy at the same time. Word about Jones’ grassroots venture spread among national movers and shakers, and thanks in part to Green for All’s inspiring example, President Obama budgeted more than $4 billion for green job creation and training as part of his 2009 economic stimulus plan. In March, Obama also named Jones the White House Council on Environmental Quality’s special advisor on green jobs. In addition to providing urban residents with a much-needed livelihood, Jones says, Obama’s new program will help enable the United States to compete with the rest of the world in the green-jobs sector. “This is one of those moments where the United States gets to choose: Do we want to have these jobs in our country, or only see them in other countries?”

The experience of turning his career crisis into a national-scale coup has steeled Jones’ determination not to let negativity block his future path, a philosophy he’ll adhere closely to as the Obama administration attempts to turn its green-jobs plans into reality. “My biggest asset is my innocence, and I treasure it. I went down that whole cynical pathway—too cool for school—and it didn’t make a difference for anybody I cared about,” he says. “So I had to reclaim that innocence. When I started working in politics, it was because I thought we could make a better society. You’ll never get me to give up on what I want this country to be.”

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