Your Brain Is Open

Idea Hunters are interested in more than just a particular subject matter, or even a host of subject matters. It is hard to go very far with ideas unless you are also deeply interested in other people, especial y in what they know and in their potential as col aborators.

Some of the most stelar performers, in business or other calings, were masterful because of the attention they paid to others. Miles Davis was one of the pacesetting trumpeters and band leaders in the jazz world, known widely for his virtuosity. But he defined himself chiefly by the company he kept, the people with whom he surrounded himself, and to whom he listened. As the saxophonist Wayne Shorter once said, “Miles wanted to play with people who knew more about music than he did. . . . He wasn't afraid of it.” Even Miles Davis didn't think his musical brain was big enough to get al the ideas he wanted.

Paul Erdős was probably the most prolific mathematician of al time. An Eastern European émigré, he affixed his name to more scientific papers in the field than anyone else; he died in 1996 at age eighty-three. Mathematicians are by nature a solitary species, but Erdős traveled the planet in search of conversations about mathematical proofs, and was fond of declaring in his thick Hungarian accent, “My brain is open.”

For most of his life, Erdős had no place to cal home, no job to speak of, just a suitcase that could fit al his belongings. But he had an astounding 511 col aborators who coauthored most of his nearly 1,500 papers. He was so revered that mathematicians boasted of their Erdős Number, which represented their distance from the primary author of the papers. “Erdős # = 1” was the designation for those who col aborated directly with Erdős.

Then there are those who have coauthored a paper with someone who coauthored a paper with the man himself — “Erdős # = 2.” And so on.

Erdős made a point of remembering details about his colaborators, conversation partners, and hosts. “He knew everybody; what they were interested in; what they had conjectured, proved, or were in the midst of proving; their phone numbers; the names and ages of their wives, children, pets, and much more,” writes biographer Bruce Schechter. “He could tel off the top of his head on which page in which obscure Russian journal a theorem similar to the one you were working on was proved in 1922. When he met a mathematician . . . he would immediately take up the conversation where they had left it two years earlier.”

In other words, even for a mathematician as venerated as Erdős, idea work was not a solitary activity. It was unstintingly social. And he cultivated it.

Al the same, the myth of the solitary genius dies hard. Perhaps no one embodied that myth — in the eyes of many — more surely than the master tinkerer, Thomas Edison. And it must be said that for a time, early in his career, Edison did try to work alone in his laboratory, free of encumbrances by other human minds. He set up a one-man lab in Boston, where he invented and patented an electric vote-counting machine. It was designed to instantly tal y votes made by legislators at their desks in the statehouse.

The machine worked wel enough — which was part of the problem. The legislators did not want their votes instantly talied; they preferred to alow a bit of time between the initial casting and final counting of votes, so they could partake in last-minute lobbying and vote-trading. There was simply no market for this contraption.

The other part of the problem, with al of his work in Boston, was that Edison's brain wasn't wide open. He wasn't reaping the advantages of ideas batted around the laboratory floor by a broad mix of talented people. Al that changed when he set up shop in New Jersey and cobbled together a team that included, among others, a German glassblower, an African-American engineer, a Swiss watchmaker, an American mathematician, and a British textile machinist. That is when he became the Edison we know and admire, the “wizard of Menlo Park.”

At times Edison would backslide. He insisted, for example, on choosing by himself the music that he recorded in the fledgling days of the phonograph, an invention that Edison liked to cal “my baby.” As his great-grandniece, Sarah Mil er Caldicott, relates (together with coauthor Michael Gelb) in Innovate Like Edison, one member of his team complained to Edison about his presumption. “A one-man opinion on tunes is al wrong,” the wise associate said.

That was a smal reversion to old habits, though. The story ends as Edison wins with ideas gained in colaboration with his team. Gelb and Caldicott point out that most of his competitors were introverts who dwel ed on the technical aspects of their inventions, with little interest in the opinions of col eagues or potential customers. These inventors preferred “solitary and secret toil; they were either “incapable of team work, or jealous of any intrusion that could possibly bar them from a ful and complete claim” to the final product or discovery, the authors write. “Edison always stood shoulder to shoulder with his associates, but no one questioned the leadership, nor was it ever in doubt where the inspiration originated.”

Al managers and professionals would do wel to consider the power of “My brain is open.” This begins with taking an active interest in the work of others, rather than being narrowly concerned with your own work. It means sharing your thoughts with col eagues, rather than keeping ideas under wraps and staying focused entirely on the job at hand. It also means encouraging ideas, not quashing them. For example, if you're a manager, and an employee walks up to you with an idea, you don't immediately say, “It won't fly.” You say, “I'd like to hear more about it.” As we'l see further in Chapter Six, it's important to send the right signals to idea-bearers. It's best to continue the conversation.

The right signals, good conversations, steady encouragement — these are essential, if the goal is to get ideas from people. And it should be, because no one person can squirrel away al the necessary notions. One of the most reliable ways of coming up with ideas is to make sure the people around us are coming up with ideas. Lots of them.

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