99% Inspiration, 99% Perspiration, And 99% Collaboration

I was watching an oldish TEDx talk with Rodney Mullen, probably the most innovative street skater ever, but that’s not the point, and it’s not his best talk either. Along the way, he makes a claim that ideas — in particular the idea that a particular skateboard trick is even possible — are the most important thing.

His experience, travelling around the world on skateboard tours, is that there are millions of kids who are talented enough that when they see a video demonstrating that a particular trick idea is possible, they can replicate it in short order. Not because the video showed them how, but because it expanded their mind’s-eye view of what is possible. They were primed, and so what pushed them over the edge was the inspiration.

On the other side of the street, we’ve got Thomas Edison and his “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration” routine. Edison famously tried a bazillion filament recipes before settling on tungsten, and attributes his success to “putting his time in” or “good old-fashioned hard work” or similar. So who’s right?

The inventor of Casper Slide and the phonograph are both right. Rodney is taking it for granted that these kids have put their time in; they are skaters after all, they skate. He doesn’t see the 99% perspiration because it is the natural background, while the inspiration flashes out in Eureka moments.

Similarly, Thomas E. way underestimates inspiration. He’s already fixated on this novel idea to take an arc lamp and contain it in a glass envelope — that’s what he’s spending all of his perspiration on, after all. But without that key inspiration, all he’d be is sweaty.

And they’re also both wrong! They’re both missing a third ingredient: collaboration. Certainly Mullen, who spent his life hanging out with other skaters, teaching them what he knows, and learning from them in turn, wouldn’t say the community of skaters didn’t shape him. Even in the loner’s sport of skating, nobody is alone. And Edison? His company profited greatly from broader advances in science, and the scientific literature. Menlo Park existed to take bright, well-trained minds and put them all in one place, sharing, teaching, and working together. It embodied the idea of collaborative innovation, and that’s where some of his best work was done.

So I’m with Isaac Newton, “standing on the shoulders of giants“. Success is 99% collaboration. This leaves us with one problem: the percentages don’t add up. But that’s alright by me.

52 thoughts on “99% Inspiration, 99% Perspiration, And 99% Collaboration

    1. Roller skates were a solution to the problem of it being the wrong season to find ice to skate on, and skate boards were a solution to the problem of it being the wrong season to find surf to board on…. are the versions I’ve heard.

        1. Ah ha! Since then everything has been cooperative but nobody could have inspired the first wheelmaker. From this we must conclude that the skateboard is irreducibly complex. Once i have conclusion to jump to, eyes closed and smiling, i shall surely teach a controversy.

          1. Irreducibly complex? No, we don’t have to conclude that at all. Skateboards derived from both roller skates and surfboards, both of which had evolutionary paths from simpler forms. Modern skateboards, like roller skates, have trucks that turn when you lean them to the sides, putting the front and rear wheels on an arc, allowing them to turn without lifting any of the wheels. But they would work without this feature. Not as well, but this is a clearly reducible bit of complexity.

  1. I like the quote attributed to Pablo Picasso…

    “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

    Don’t get stopped when you have an idea of what you want to achieve, and you can only think of “the dumbest way possible” to do it, start with that, hash it out, go through the motions, get your head in the game, somewhere in the process, inspiration starts to happen.

    1. The best one I’ve heard is (paraphrased) that creativity and inspiration can’t run out, only serve to generate moreof themselves. Which it true. Once you get the ball rolling, there are usually more and more options and ideas popping up.

  2. Just to clarify, Thomas Edison developed a filament of carbonized bamboo fiber around 1880, and William Coolidge of GE developed the tungsten filament, patented in 1913.

      1. Edison had already seen working filament lightbulbs and was one of dozens to create them. Edison’s real accomplishment was building an entire electrical system including such simple changes as the screw base for the bulb, the fuse, and the switch, as well as putting it together with power plants and distribution wiring, but that is a lot to teach 3rd graders and the subject is not revisited.

        My observation is that it is a huge impediment to a researcher to not know if a task is possible and that seeing it done, even without knowing how, means that continued research can produce a useful result, providing motivation through certainty.

        Look at the expense and failure of Langley in developing his airplane and how “obvious” it became after he hired Curtis to spy on the Wright brothers. Seeing the pieces of propulsion and control working together dropped previously insurmountable barriers.

  3. Tesla commented that if Edison had spent just a little bit of time doing the math, he would have saved himself several years of experimenting. The point is that Edison’s approach was to just throw things at a wall and see what sticks instead of trying to figure out what makes it work in the first place.

      1. both ways have their merits. teslas maths for plain cheapness due to low material cost if you happen to have a genius around and edisons trial and error when you don’t understand the physics but are willing to use trial and error. edisons method has produced a lot of results in the search for superconductors in the present day.

    1. And if Tesla knew any math he could have skipped all that power tower transmission nonsense and a lot of other BS. And how would math have helped Edison find the best material to carbonize for filaments? (Carbon is self current limiting because the resistance increases with temperature.)

      1. The quote was relevant to when Edison hired Tesla to improve on the electric motor, and Tesla saw that Edison’s DC power system was pretty much built without any application of theory – just banging stuff together until it works.

      2. You have to remember that so much of the late 19th and early 20th century electrical theory was still people flying by the seat of their pants.

        Things like, imagining that magnetism is some sort of ether flow phenomenon, so obviously magnetic fields need some distance to “run up”, which is why they tried building electric motors and magnetos with very long U-shaped horseshoe magnets, which had the effect of making them weaker. Tesla was one of the guys who took Maxwell seriously and started by trying to solve what falls out of the fundamental theories, then experimenting on that.

        Tesla was able to get leaps and bounds ahead of everyone for a while, until he too succumbed to the same magical thinking and started building death rays. Tesla had his own crackpot theories. He for example believed that he had managed to split atoms using electricity, and that quite ironically, electrons and other sub-atomic particles didn’t exist.

        But people like Edison were much much worse. They went on wild goose chases trying every crackpot theory and generally acting in very non-scientific and non-rational ways. Egos and reputations were at stake, and inventors were constantly trying to produce a big “breakthrough” they could sell, so they were prone to self-deception as well as deceiving others with their rationalizations of why they’re still right even though their stuff obviously didn’t work.

        For example, one fellow who experimented with vacuum tubes was absolutely convinced that his tubes would work if he just kept _increasing_ the pressure. Why he didn’t try both increasing and decreasing the pressure to see which would make it work better is anyone’s guess. It’s such an obvious thing to do. It’s difficult to understand the mindset now, since we’re getting taught the falsifiability criteria to science in schools – back then it was more or less voodoo magic to most people, including the scientists themselves.

        1. In my youth I worked for a coupe of authentic inventor types who were mathematically challenged. There were things they just could not see. Like the light on a panel as the Sun traversed the sky is proportional to the cosine of a normal to the panel. One was convinced that if the panel was not set to point exactly at the Sun at noon, then there had to be a dip in intensity as Noon approached. He would draw the curve he imagined then task me with proving it! I didn’t last long there.

          I wish I could believe “Tesla was one of the guys who took Maxwell seriously..” but I have never seen even a trig function in any notes by Tesla, let alone the vector calculus of Gibbs that was used for E&M by Tesla’s time (the way Maxwell’s Equations are written today). Apparently it was the luminiferous ether and etheric vortices in some of Maxwell’s researches that attracted Tesla, not Div, Grad, Curl and all that.

          Tesla “Today’s scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality.” This is something I have heard many times from inventor types and people with perpetual motion machines that “almost work”

          “Attentive researchers can immediately notice that there are no infinitesimal or differentials in Tesla’s works.” He tried to map all modern physics to classical geometry and simulate and refine ideas mentally. Tesla had some sort of perfect memory and could call on anything he had read or seen and remember in detail anything he had thought about – he said. And that is why there are no written notes with math in them. He also apparently had something akin to epilepsy or severe migraine visions, but again there was no way to know if this was true.

          Some quotes from http://www.mathematicsmagazine.com/Articles/NicolaTesla.php#

          1. Invention and engineering have little to do with each other. I learned after spending four years earning an Electrical Engineering degree, that industry did NOT want me to invent anything; they wanted me to do exactly what was done in the past, applying well-established math as prescribed on well-established circuits. Innovation is discouraged because innovation means new things, and new things are untested things, and that means risk. And risk is something that is just not tolerated in the American technology industry.

          2. “Invention and engineering have little to do with each other. ” is certainly true. R&D needs engineers the same way it needs machinists and professions who use CAD design software. And in most States you can not sell your services as a Professional Engineer without a license. If you invent something to solve an engineering problem professionally you will be liable for any outcome and subject to prosecution. The discussion isn’t about Edison or Tesla’s competence as engineers.

    2. Ironically, the math and the hired helpers both come in at the “perspiration” stage. All the math in the world doesn’t replace the audacity to think about ways to e.g. record the human voice onto wax. It just shows you how to do it better, saving potential work in experimentation.

      1. On a related note, it appears that the ability to come up with novel ideas is not as effective for solving problems than the ability to eliminate ideas that don’t work. This is probably because people who are “imaginative” tend to get so invested in their ideas that they will spend too much time trying to force the solution when they should be trying something else instead.

        >”only the ability to “avoid” the worst options related to problem-solving success. There was no relation between one’s ability to recognize the best choice in the decision-making test, and to solve the puzzles effectively.”

  4. Everyone has ideas. Ideas are important, but there are a lot of good ideas and a lot of bad ideas, and it takes a lot of effort to find out which is which. The work put into proving out an idea and developing it into something useful is what makes them valuable. An inspiration that no one is willing to put the effort into proving out is a worthless inspiration.

    1. Only 1% 555s? Sad, but true! But also 72% Raspberry Pis. And 99% blinky LEDs.

      Seriously, I was thinking about this all through the writeup. I also take issue with Rodney Mullen’s selling short the value of the explanation of _how_ to do the tricks in the videos. I often think “how can I do X” and look it up on the net, or Hackaday. Heck, I’ve even looked up how-to videos for skateboard tricks!

      So add in another 99% explanation?

      1. Brief skateboard aside. My nephew chose UCSD over UCI, USC, and UCLA – mostly because he considered the SD campus more “interesting” to skate boards. Almost a decade later, he still gets into trouble skateboarding his neighborhood and his employer’s halls.

    1. The problem that Edison was trying to solve was not inventing the light bulb. He was trying to find a replacement for the use of combustible gas that was safe around people. He clearly understood that Tesla was telling him that A/C was going to transmit power in a way that was lethal and Edison was too focused on making his power distribution system as safe as he could that he (Edison) was willing to put up with the power distribution disadvantages of DC power.

      Even today NYC is the site of too many explosions – in Edison’s time most gas was used solely for lighting with coal used for heat. If a gas supply pump failed all the lighting flames would go out. If no one was there to relight them or shut off the valves resumption of gas flow would fill homes with explosive levels and, since this also predated the introduction of odorants, the first one to strike a match to put on the lights would blow the house to bits, unaware of the danger until then. I believe I read that at least one home in NYC exploded every day from gas leaks at the time Edison was inventing.

      1. The real reason why Edison backed DC was not the safety aspect, but because nobody had made a single-phase AC motor that would work properly. All the applications like lifts and pumps were running on DC power because it was easier to control using just switches and variable resistors (rheostats).

    2. What? I’m guessing you mean Tesla was frustrated by not understanding useful mathematics and did not have the vocabulary of pytsics to express his ideas, which may or may not have been valid. Since he could not express them well, we will never know. (Yes, I am determined to fight the Tesla Fever that ruins the thinking of so many teenagers. It is like reading Tom Swift books then devoting yourself to building a Repeletron.)

  5. The three phases of collaboration in academia:

    “It can’t work”
    “It works but isn’t necessary”
    “It’s incredibly necessary, and I thought of it first”

  6. Collaboration when everybody is pulling their weight is fine but rare. It often ends up with hardworking people doing the work so that lazy people can get the credit, especially when it is forced on the situation for artificial political or academic reasons (no collaboration? no funding!).

      1. This is the one thing where a military experience does little to prepare you for the corporate world. Generally, company and lower level stuff, is everybody working hard; where poor performers are quickly identified and set aside. And collaboration was inclusive and truly the literal meaning of “gung ho” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gung_ho).

        Post-military, my first experience at school and at my first employer indicated how few actually did stuff to accomplish the mission; where collaboration was nothing other than a jingoist catch phrase. And after over 35 years in the PC corporate world, I find it even less inclusive and see increasingly less collaboration.

  7. Collaboration is great, but it’s not the “be all and end all”. Especially for women in stem, if you have collaborators 80% of the time the attribution of the work will go to the guys on the team. The basis of this is just from my experience – others might have different experiences (also side note: our Hackaday Prize dream team was great and definitely an exception to this).

    It’s problematic because in order to advance to the next levels, when it comes time to show your portfolio, if there’s collaborators then people usually assume that you helped with the non-technical stuff. Also with collaboration, the progress is sloooooow, because you have to wait for people to do things, or explain things to people, and manage them, do recruitment, find resources, and make a timeline and any reports.

    Been actually thinking about my next projects and have been looking forward to them not being a collaboration. Lol – the exact opposite of what everyone tells people to do!

  8. First (of a few times) I met Rodney Mullen was a Powell & Peralta demo in Memphis in the mid 80s. Such a showman, he started his routine, rolling out of dozens of nose 360s into a long g-turn nose manual. Hit a pebble in the parking lot, wheel chirped and he did a cartwheel out of it. Got right back on his board and finished his routine.

    I saw him probably a dozen times afterwards and that was the only time I saw him miss a trick. But I don’t even count that as a bail, it was one of the most impressive non-slams I’ve ever seen.

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