Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Beware the Purple People Eaters: A personal look at leadership."
What do bank checks, package shipping, church bells, water, ballpoint pens, deodorant, computers, fashion, steering wheels, and a revolver have in common? Nothing…or perhaps everything. True discoveries seldom happen today by finding something new. Most often they are the result of “sticky thinking,” which occurs when people connect or stick things together in new ways for different or improved outcomes.
Born in 1944 with a bone socket hip disorder called Calve-Perthes disease, young Fredrick Smith had to walk with the aid of braces and crutches for most of his childhood. But through a high level of dedication and hard work, he was able to overcome the disease. In the early-1960s, Fredrick attended Yale University majoring in economics. For one of his classes, he wrote a paper detailing an idea he had after realizing that a future “automated society” required a completely different system of logistics. His professor didn’t like the idea since, at the time, it wasn’t economically feasible, but that didn’t stop him from thinking about its future possibilities.1
After graduation, Fredrick went on to serve two tours in Vietnam as a platoon leader and narrowly survived a Viet Cong ambush. Upon returning from war, he wanted “to do something productive after blowing so many things up.” Fredrick took an inheritance from his father, raised an additional $91 million in venture capital, and used the idea from his paper at Yale to create what is today known as “FedEx.”
Fred Smith’s story is arguably one of the greatest entrepreneurial successes of the last century. He’s currently worth over $2.3 billion, and FedEx now ships more than 10.2 million packages daily in 220 countries.2 But for me, the most amazing part of his story isn’t the outcome or even the incredible company he founded. It’s how he got to the idea in the first place.
I believe that Fred Smith’s idea represents the definition of creativity: the act of “sticking” one thing with another in new ways. By sticking how the Federal Reserve processed checks in the late 1960s (a clearing process for an enormous quantity of checks drawn on a large multitude of banks) to the logistics necessary to “automate society,” he created an entirely new way of shipping packages overnight that didn’t previously exist.
This process of sticky thinking has occurred throughout history. Sam Colt stuck the design of a ship’s wheel to the invention of the revolver; Helen Barnett Diserens stuck the concept of the ballpoint pen to a new method of applying deodorant (the Ban Roll-On); and Steve Jobs stuck fashion design to the boring world of personal computing.
Creativity (or sticky thinking) is like a sport, in that it requires hard work to perform at a high level. Mastering the necessary skills requires a dedication to practice, practice, and more practice. Becoming a creative thinker requires the same level of dedication.
In future articles, I will provide a number of tips, tricks, methods, and ideas about how to improve our creative thinking skills. Like anything, a person’s success is often tied to their level of commitment and effort.
So, are you ready to get sticky?
Practice Challenge: Over the next few weeks (whenever you have a “free” moment), select two completely random objects around you and attempt to force connections between them (like trying to jam a square peg in a round hole). Don’t judge the quality of the ideas; just have fun with it and bring out your inner “MacGyver.”
©2014 Anthony D. Paustian
1(2008, October 9) Fred Smith: An Overnight Success. Retrieved November 9, 2014, from the Entrepreneur website: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/197542
2Brown, Abram (2014, January 23) 10 Things You Might Not Know About FedEx Billionaire Fred Smith. Retrieved November 9, 2014, from the Forbes website: http://www.forbes.com/sites/abrambrown/2014/01/23/10-things-you-might-not-know-about-fedex-billionaire-fred-smith
Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of Beware the Purple People Eaters: A personal look at leadership. For more information, please visit his website at www.adpaustian.com