Becoming a Life-long Innovator


It may be hard to believe, but the conclusion of the 2018 Spark!Lab Dr. Inbae Yoon Invent It Challenge is approaching fast!  We are very excited to learn about your new inventions to help prepare for and address natural disasters.

As you finalize your new inventions, I would like you to stop and appreciate how much you have learned and accomplished in such a short amount of time.  You have identified a problem, proposed a solution, built and tested a prototype, and tweaked it and improved it.  You have successfully transformed an idea into something real and useful.  Congratulations! That is an amazing achievement!

At the Lemelson Center, we believe everyone is inventive.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone will choose to become an inventor as a career.  That’s fine!  Through this process, you have learned to be a critical thinker, an innovator, and a problem-solver.  These are essential and important skills that you will use throughout your life no matter where you go and what you do.

The Lemelson Center has studied the work of many, many inventors.  Each is unique and has their own way of doing things.  But successful inventors also share many common traits, behaviors, and practices.  Below, I have listed ten things that I think are common to successful inventors. I bet you share some of these skills and abilities as well.  See if you can learn from any or all of them.

1 See Things Differently. I have never met an inventor who wasn’t constantly thinking about how to improve the world around them. Inventors develop the knack of looking at the world and their immediate surroundings in different ways. Ask yourself:  how could I make something around me work better? How could I use something in a new way?  It’s a skill that anyone can learn.

Have a Process. Inventors need a good process to know if they are on track. Treat it like a map of how to get from point A to point B and check-in regularly to see how far you have come, or to ask for help if you are lost. It also helps you estimate how far you are from the end. Remember to stop and check your map from time to time.  It will help you get where you are going faster!

3 Find Good Sounding Boards. Successful inventors routinely talk and exchange ideas with other people who have different experiences and different sets of knowledge. This is an excellent way to see things from new perspectives and consider ideas you wouldn’t necessarily think of on your own. Successful inventors are excellent collaborators who are willing to share ideas and cooperate with others.  For something really challenging, seek out ideas from someone who disagrees with you or your idea.  Find out why.  The answers will give you a lot to think about.

4 Soundboard. This is a very powerful way for inventors to think of new ideas. Pick a subject or problem. Set a time limit — 15 minutes is good. Throw out ideas as fast as you can. All ideas have value and it’s very important not to criticize any idea. Take notes in a way that everyone can see them. E.g. whiteboard, flip chart, big screen, post it notes (one per idea) spread out on a table. Maybe use the camera on your phone to capture the final picture board. That’s it. Simple.

5 Make Rapid Prototypes. Inventors make simple models as soon as they have a good idea. It’s a great way to see if the invention works in the way you imagined. Sometimes we have to go back to our brainstorm notes and fall in love with our second best idea. Test that too. Then ask yourself, can anything in my design be combined, reduced or eliminated to make it faster, stronger, cheaper, safer, better or easier to use?

6 Surround Yourself with Curious Things. This may seem a little whacky, but it works. Inventors often surround themselves with curious objects when they are inventing. e.g. LEGO bricks, slinkies, silly putty, rubber bands, paper clips, magnets, Velcro, rubber balls, etc. Pick them up and play with them as you are thinking of cool ideas. Try it — it works.

7 Ask Questions … A Lot. Be curious and push yourself to really understand something. Remember Kipling’s six wise men: What? where?, why?, who?, how? and when? Just when you think you know everything – ask more questions. There is always more to learn.

8 Never Be Satisfied. Inventors are rarely satisfied. They are always tinkering with their ideas. Tweak, test, probe and try to get a better result each time. Once you have your main idea, don’t get hung up on being perfect or exactly right. Focus instead on small changes that make your ideas just that little bit better every time. Ask yourself: how can I make this better than it already is right now?

9 Develop a Thick Skin. Resilience, or the ability to keep trying and push forward when things get tough, is essential to any successful inventor. Problems can be difficult to solve and you will discover that many of your ideas do not work as well as you’d like them to. That can be discouraging, but don’t let it get you down! Such is the life of an inventor. Or maybe, you think that you have a great idea, but no one else shares your passion.  Just keep going and believe that you might be the only person in the world that gets the idea right now — and that’s okay.

10 Sell Your Ideas and Give Credit Where It Is Due. Inventors sell the uniqueness of their idea. They try and help people understand it. Explain the problem it solves and why it’s the best way to solve it. Be a passionate champion and create excitement. But no inventor stands completely alone. Give credit to others that helped you on your journey including other inventors. It’s the right thing to do!

Use and share these ideas in your daily activities. Share your knowledge and skills to encourage others to become critical thinkers, innovators, and problem-solvers as well. Our world, our society, and our community will all be better for it.

On behalf of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, we wish everyone the best of luck in the 2018 Spark!Lab Dr.InBae Yoon Challenge.  We can’t wait to see your inventions and how you are going to change our world. What’s next?  Now that you have submitted your invention for judging, what are you going to invent next?  What challenges do you see in your home, your school, or your community that needs your critical thinking and inventing skills?  Who are you going to collaborate with to get the job done?  Think about it and post your thoughts below!

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