Kevin Ashton—a British-born writer, inventor and entrepreneur—has had a dizzying arc in the creative world, encompassing everything from noodles to sensor networks. He began his career as an assistant brand manager at Procter & Gamble (P&G), where his investigations into the mystery of their lipstick supply chain ultimately led him to pursue a collaboration with MIT. There, he helped start the Auto-ID Center with professors Sanjay Sarma, Sunny Siu and researcher David Brock. The center successfully created a global standard system for RFID (radio frequency identification) and other sensors — a network that Ashton famously named “The Internet of Things.”
Ashton went on to a number of high-tech start-ups, including ThingMagic, cleantech company EnerNOC, Zensi (an energy sensing company, which he cofounded) and to develop the Belkin WeMo home automation system. A firebrand and wry social critic who delights in disassembling social myths, he recently published a bestselling book: How to Fly A Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery.
ENTER: How to Fly a Horse opens by deconstructing a popular story about Mozart and creativity. How does this story, along with other myths about the creative process, hold people back from being more innovative?
KEVIN ASHTON: In this case, as in so many others, ‘myth’ is a polite word for ‘lie’. The lie is that Mozart’s compositions appeared complete in his mind, and all he had to do was write them down. It comes from a letter we have known to be fake for 150 years—yet authors and academics keep repeating it, trying to prove that creating is a magical process conjured up by a sort of rain dance. If you believe that, you’re going to waste a lot of time trying to learn the dance. You don’t need to: Creating is the result of work and tenacity, not magic.
ENTER: You’ve spoken of feeling like “a bit of a fraud…an imposter.” What story about yourself did you have to rewrite in order to make the transition you have made?
KA: Imposter syndrome is quite common at places like MIT, precisely because so many of us have been led—actually misled—to believe that people who succeed at creating are accessing magical powers. So, when we get results through trying, failing, and trying again, and by showing up early and going home late, it can feel like brute force and cheating. When you realize that everyone works the same way—including the people who get the most exceptional results—it’s quite affirming and liberating.
ENTER: So what you’re saying is that you redefined yourself based not on what you thought creativity was, but on how it actually works.
KA: More like I eventually figured out I wasn’t doing it wrong.
ENTER: You’ve said that while collaboration helps the creative process, “all creative work is done individually.” Can the process of collaboration or brainstorming actually retard the creative process?
KA: Probably. First, it’s a waste of time. Second, you end up with meetings where experts who put in the hours are forced to explain or defend things to non-experts who don’t. Third, false notions of collaboration and shared credit, which are common in organizations and corporations, can be soul-destroying for the people who actually do the creating. Example: If a young, poorly-paid black woman does the creative work and an older, overpaid white man takes credit, that’s bad because it’s unfair, bad because the creative woman is less inclined to create and more likely to leave, and bad because when she does leave, the person who took the credit is expected to create but doesn’t know how. The moment you recognize that creative collaboration means well-coordinated but individually executed work, it becomes much easier to see who is actually contributing, and to reward accordingly.
ENTER: How could this actually be implemented without being perceived as a threat to “overpaid white men?”
KA: It is a threat to overpaid white men. You cannot pursue equality unless you abandon privilege, because privilege is the epitome of inequality. And you cannot have the most creative organization possible unless you pursue equality. That is why most organizations are not as creative as they could be: not because of “disruption,” or dilemmas, or paradigm shifts, or any of that other MBA jargon, but because of the entrenched power of privilege and patriarchy. Yes, the price you pay for equality is privilege. But the benefits—the fruits of a more creative, more inventive world—far outweigh the costs.
False notions of collaboration and shared credit, which are common in organizations and corporations, can be soul-destroying for the people who actually do the creating.
ENTER: What kinds of long-perpetuated myths (or assumptions) hold companies back from being more innovative?
KA: In addition to the idea that everyone should sit in a room and create together, there’s the idea that creating can be organized to happen on some kind of schedule, through lots of meetings. And most of those meetings involve pre-meetings and post-meetings where subsets of attendees are expected to plan for the planning, and review the reviews.
ENTER: What drives that?
KA: Often, it’s people with various management titles, who don’t actually do creative work, trying to feel like they are in control, because—and I hear this one often—they “don’t like surprises.” But surprises are a natural, inevitable result of creating. If you burden your creative people with endless, pointless meetings, you can be sure you won’t get any surprises because nothing creative is likely to happen.
ENTER: There is a whole culture of “storytelling” around branding, marketing and corporate identity these days. Do you see this as a positive development, or do you think it’s an artifice?
KA: It’s generally bullshit. Most of what you see about “branding” these days is the business equivalent of literary criticism: word salad from people with little practical experience. The point of branding is to solve the problem of choice: to give a potential customer a way to feel confident about a purchase without having to review every option. Put simply, brand is another word for reputation. And who tells the stories that accompany reputation? Customers; not corporations. Sure, you can distill that, and package it some—but if the product or service doesn’t deliver, or what you say about yourself doesn’t resonate with what existing customers say about you, you are wasting your time.
ENTER: What’s the primary story we’re telling ourselves right now – as a civilization – that’s patently untrue?
KA: One untrue story is that we’re the worst, collectively. We have an uneasy relationship, for example, with our technology. We shouldn’t. Creating ever-improving tools is what makes us human. That causes a few problems, and always will (which is why everything can always be improved). But it offers far more solutions. The power to be creative is an amazing capability. We all have it to some degree, and we should cherish it.
Another untrue story is that, while many people seem to think the human race is the worst collectively, they think they are the best individually. This sense of superiority is extended (when convenient) to the groups to which they think they belong: races, for example, or regions, or nations.
These two things are connected. The basic summary is, “I am great, but look at all these other idiots.” The truth is that we are all equally amazing, equally unique and equally deserving of love and empathy, even though we have different aptitudes and tendencies and will make different contributions. That’s not just a moral position; it’s a scientific one—we see it when we look at the human genome. Civilization’s primary story should be, “We’re all amazing.”
Kevin Ashton’s Latest book How to Fly A Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery, can be purchased here: