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Get Ideas Out of Your Head & Into the World


“How would you feel if you were judged by the worst thing you had ever done?”

This is a question that one of the men at San Quentin State Prison asked my students when we visited last year. This visit was part of our course on creative problem solving, and the students’ challenge was to redesign the experience of going from captivity to freedom.

When I announced this project, the young people in the class were deeply curious and just as anxious about the field trip. None had been inside a prison before, and they were fearful that they would be in danger.

Despite their concerns, the students prepared themselves for the visit. Donning black clothing to make sure they were easily distinguishable from the “men in blue,” and carrying nothing but their driver’s license, car keys, and a clear water bottle, the students and I arrived at the prison. It took over an hour to make it through several security checks as large gates banged shut behind us. The entry process was slowed further because the men were being counted when we arrived. Counting the inmates takes place several times a day, and if even one man is unaccounted for, they start again.

We walked through a courtyard, described by the inmates as the pathway between heaven and hell. On one side was the chapel, and on the other was the building that housed the men in solitary confinement. We then crossed the large paved enclosure where the men went for fresh air and exercise; it was surrounded by high walls with armed guards in towers. Finally, we reached the room where we met the men in The Last Mile program.

Founded by successful entrepreneurs Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti, The Last Mile is designed to teach prison inmates business and technology skills that prepare them for life after incarceration. Along with other volunteers who provide expertise in a wide variety of fields, they meet with a group of forty prisoners twice a week for six months, teaching them about entrepreneurship and helping them develop competence in written communication, public speaking, and computer proficiency.

Participants in The Last Mile develop a business idea and build the technical skills needed to implement it. They’re also taught how to give a give a minute pitch that effectively communicates their plan. At the end of six months, they present their idea to an audience of business leaders and fellow inmates. Past projects developed by the men include: Fitness Monkey, a startup crafted to help addicts replace drugs with a healthy addiction to fitness; TechSage, which helps ex-cons become mobile app developers so they can get a job a after their incarceration; and the Funky Onion, which buys bruised fruits and vegetables cheaply and sells them to restaurants that don’t mind their “funky” appearance and will cook them. The most important thing these men learn is how to see themselves as entrepreneurs who can carve a path toward a better future.

Despite their initial concerns, the students’ fears melted away shortly after meeting the men in The Last Mile program, realizing that there were many more similarities than differences between them. Just like the students, the men were hungry to launch their lives and to fulfill their dreams. When asked how they would feel if they were only remembered for the worst thing they had ever done, the faces of the young people in the class showed that they understood.

The students spent several hours with the men, learning about the challenges they anticipated when released. They learned that over 60 percent of prison inmates in California end up back in prison within three years. This recidivism rate is a proxy for a lack of hope. Those who are released, often decades after they were first incarcerated, face a world with few options, piercing prejudice, and little guidance on how to rebuild their lives. Many look into their future and see nothing but fog, with no clear path ahead.

Each team picked a specific problem to tackle, ranging from finding work with a prison record to finding suitable housing after incarceration. They crafted hundreds of solutions for each of these problems and then tested their most promising ideas. The goal of this project was to provide the students with a chance to apply the tools they had learned in class and to see how those skills could be used to address meaningful, real-world problems.

Many of the ideas they generated were innovative, and some were immediately actionable. For example, one team designed a family exchange program so that newly released men could live in a home environment and learn skills of daily life. Once they develop the skills themselves, they become hosts for other recently released inmates. Another team developed the idea for a special job search website for former inmates so that they could tell their story to receptive employers. Another team suggested a physical marketplace connected to the prison, allowing the men who are close to parole to interact with the local community in order to build real connections with community members before they’re released.

It’s a crime not to teach people to be entrepreneurial.

We’re each responsible for building our own lives and for repairing the broader problems of the world. Skills related to innovation and entrepreneurship are the keys to seeing and seizing those opportunities. People should emerge from school with agency, feeling empowered to address the opportunities and challenges that await them.

Many people believe that you can’t teach those skills. They see innovation and entrepreneurship as inborn traits, such as eye or hair color, that can’t be changed. This is untrue — these skills can certainly be learned, and it behooves us to teach people of all ages to be entrepreneurial, enabling them to invent the world in which they want to live.

This begs the question, “Why do people think that you can’t teach creativity and entrepreneurship?

I believe that this view stems from the lack of a clear vocabulary and a process for moving from inspiration to execution. Other fields — such as physics, biology, math, and music — have a huge advantage when it comes to teaching those topics. They have defined terms and a taxonomy of relationships that provide a structured approach for mastering needed skills. For example, if we didn’t have definitions for force (F), mass (M), and acceleration (A), and a formula that describes their relationship (F = m×a), we wouldn’t have cars, airplanes, or rocket ships. The definitions and equations allow us to describe fundamental principles and then apply them in constructive ways.

Unfortunately, we’ve been complacent by using a loose vocabulary to define the creative process. When I ask people in any setting, from a classroom to a corporate office, to define creativity, I get a range of responses. Most people start with, “To me creativity is . . .” And the most common completion of this phrase is “thinking outside the box.” The use of this catchall phrase renders it meaningless.

In reality, creativity requires a complex set of skills, attitudes, and actions, intimately related to imagination, innovation, and entrepreneurship. To harness our creativity, we need a robust set of definitions for all parts of the creative and entrepreneurial process. A cliché tagline is woefully insufficient.

To be honest, I’ve been just as guilty as others in not clearly defining the terms related to innovation and entrepreneur- ship. I’ve taught a course called Creativity and Innovation for over a dozen years, and for most of that time I used the words imagination, creativity, and innovation almost interchangeably. I taught a set of skills and tools for reframing problems, challenging assumptions, and connecting ideas; however, I didn’t have a larger framework into which they fit.

After years immersed in this field, I’ve realized that this is a huge missing piece. Without a robust framework, we can’t teach or learn the skills needed to consistently move through the creative process. My goal in this book is to bring together what we know about creativity with what we know about entrepreneurship so that we can define, learn, teach, and practice these skills in a rigorous and reproducible manner.

Innovation and entrepreneurship are powerful instruments for individuals, teams, organizations, and entire communities. With these tools we gain personal empowerment, foster organizational change, and become prepared to address pressing problems that face the world.

There is a hierarchy of skills, starting with imagination:

  • Imagination leads to creativity.
  • Creativity leads to innovation.
  • Innovation leads to entrepreneurship.

This scaffolding of skills can be compared to those involved with reading and writing: Babies naturally babble, making noises to communicate. They learn how to harness those noises and combine them to form words. They then learn to connect words to compose sentences, and then combine those sentences to create stories. Those stories influence all those who hear them. Educators take great care to teach all the foundational skills along the way, including vocabulary, grammar, reading, and writing.

Noise ➞ Word ➞ Sentence ➞ Story

We are in desperate need of a complementary methodology for learning how to unlock creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Below are proposed definitions and relationships for moving from imagination to entrepreneurship. I call this the Invention Cycle. The cycle encapsulates the entire process and illustrates how the end leads back to the beginning.

Invention Cycle — From Inspiration to Implementation

  • Imagination is envisioning things that do not exist.
  • Creativity is applying imagination to address a challenge.
  • Innovation is applying creativity to generate unique solutions.
  • Entrepreneurship is applying innovation, scaling ideas, and thereby inspiring others’ imagination.

Most important, the Invention Cycle framework allows us to parse the pathway, describing the actions and attitudes that are required to teach and learn these skills. We can look at each stage and determine how to master its skills before moving on to the next stage.

With clear definitions for imagination, creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, and a taxonomy that illustrates their relationships, the Invention Cycle defines the pathway from inspiration to implementation.

By understanding the Invention Cycle and honing the attitudes and actions, you can identify more opportunities, challenge more assumptions, generate unique solutions, and bring more ideas to fruition. These powerful tools will help you chart a path toward the life you want to lead.


This us an edited excerpt from my new book, Creativity Rules, which will be released on September 26, 2017


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Tina Seelig

Tina Seelig

Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Stanford. Author, What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, inGenius, Creativity Rules http://www.tinaseelig.com/

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