Creativity is the recognition of an idea with potential for success. Of course, many ideas never show potential. They flow in and out of our minds like a swirl of butterflies—never landing and never fully capturing our imagination. It may be simply a moment’s notion, a surprising thought, a joke or a passing curiosity—fleeting ideas that drift away as we move on to other tasks. But, sometimes… a voice inside our heads, powered by curiosity, humor or mischief, says “what the hell, why not?”
John Chrystal was a respected and internationally known farmer and banker. Soviet leaders Mikhail Gorbachev and Nikita Khrushchev sought his counsel. He and his brother, Tom, farmed the family land, living in the house where they grew up outside of Coon Rapids, Iowa. For 24 years, John served as President of Iowa Savings Bank, driving the three miles into town every day.
By even the most conservative estimate, John made the ten-minute trip—farm to town—at least 12 to 15 thousand times in his bank tenure. And how many times had he driven into town as a young man and as a farmer? For John, the drive into town became routine, as familiar as the back of his hand.
At some point along the road, it occurred to John that he could drive into town blindfolded. John was brilliant and intensely curious. So, he tried it.
He had an idea. He wanted to test it. So, what the hell?
Ideas rattle around in our imagination as we play out the implementation scenarios. We see the risk in our new plan. We may draw on our senses of logic and, we hope, self-preservation. A moment’s notion usually drifts away, as your imagination moves on.
But, sometimes it’s “what the hell?”
Scrambled eggs look good after a long night. At Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park invention factory, the engineers and researchers often worked through the night testing materials for an improved Trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. After one frustrating night, they refueled with their usual coffee, bacon and eggs. Were the eggs a little tough that day? Or, were the scientists a little slap happy? Alongside the other materials, they purportedly saved the scrambled eggs to test egg conductivity. To date, no one has laid a scrambled egg cable across the Atlantic.
Perhaps they had the wrong recipe.
“Boil ten pounds of brandy to evaporate, but see that the room is completely closed, and throw up some powdered varnish among the fumes. Then enter the room suddenly with a lighted torch, and at once it will set ablaze.”
The only conductivity in this recipe is quick conduct to the afterlife. Leonardo Da Vinci wrote this in one of his notebooks. He also pasted a beard and wings on a lizard. He kept it in a box to scare his friends. Da Vinci predicted so many modern ideas—is it possible that he also anticipated air bags for cars?
The small intestine of a cow is 20 times longer than the cow itself; a six foot long cow will have about 131 feet of intestine. Da Vinci compressed the cow intestines until they fit in his hand. He then affixed one end to a bellows in an adjacent room. Cranking the bellows expanded the intestines like a huge air bag forcing anyone in the targeted room into a corner.
All for a laugh. Were Da Vinci’s cow intestines also the inspiration for the 20th century whoopee cushion?
Elagabalus became Roman Emperor in 218 C.E. at age 15. He converted animal bladders into whoopee cushions which he would slip under his guests. While Elagabalus never met a fart joke he didn’t like, his guests were not amused: he was assassinated at age 18.
Fifteen hundred years later, in the Age of Enlightenment, Benjamin Franklin decided to tease the Royal Academy of Brussels by petitioning them to conduct a “serious enquiry” into the “fetid air” released by human flatulence. He proposed research into drugs “that shall render the natural discharges of wind from bodies… agreeable as perfumes.” “This is worth the experiment…far more useful [than] those discoveries in science that have heretofore made philosophers famous… What comfort can the vortices of Descartes give to a man who has whirlwinds in his bowels.”
Franklin implied that a man isn’t truly free until he is free to pass wind. In short, he wrote all prior science was “scarcely worth a fart-hing.”
As for my friend, John Chrystal, he often told the story of his experiment. Blindfolded, he tried to drive to the bank in Coon Rapids. He started down his driveway and made it to the road. He stopped. Because the whole thing “scared the hell out of me.”
Science, banking, and innovation is serious business. But, sometimes… What the hell.