The Gift, from ca 2000

2013 January 27

This is an old, old post that I thought to transfer to this blog from my now aging MIT site that I can no longer edit, but grateful that it's still around. -JM

At the recent Aspen Design Conference I met a talented young student from the University of Michigan. He exhibited a great deal of energy, as young people thankfully do. In essence, he asked me how could he combine his interests in technology with his love for design? He proceeded to show me a sketchbook of ideas for new kinds of computer interfaces. I immediately recognized these sketches! They were the sketches in my own sketchbook from many years ago. Some of them things I made, some I didn't. It's funny how everyone can have a similar sketchbook of the same ideas when it comes to their frustration with the computer. The student then asked, "Which one(s) should I build?" I told him he should build all of them. He said that he couldn't. But that he could come up with more ideas much easier than trying to build them.

The power of creativity amazes me. My once mentor Tadashi Sasaki told me while I was just starting out, "You have the gift." I was surprised, "The gift?" Sasaki said, "Yes, the gift of creativity. Did you know it is also a curse?" I wasn't sure what he meant until many years later. What Sasaki meant, I think, is that it is a real gift to think of all kinds of things you can possibly do. Unfortunately, it can be a curse because it prevents you from ever doing anything at all. You can get started on something, and then immediately derailed because you start to see something completely new elsewhere. And then when you branch off to that, you get off on another tangent. If you are not careful, all you leave is a massive trail of unfinished work with nothing to show for. So the gift of ideas, is the curse of doing nothing.

Whenever students start to think too much, I try to warn them not to think so much, and just do. I wish that was my own idea, but Horace came a long time before me. It is not easy to warn students that they are thinking too much. After all, we are taught in school that it is hard to think. The profession of professors exist because we are thought to be able to think a great deal. So why should the student not think? Maybe what I mean is that over-creative students should not think, because they already think too much. They can waste too much time in the fascinating world of thought. "Doing" is outright dirty in the land of pure academia. There is a saying that supports this mindset with negative connotations, "Those who do, do. Those who can't, teach." I would change this to, "Those who are young, should do. Those who teach, should do too." Do not waste your precious gift while young and able. Do. And do not fear the curse of "the gift."