Amanda Erickson is a deputy editor of PostEverything.
By Kevin Ashton
Doubleday. 314 pp. $27.95
Who hasn’t heard stories of the “Aha!” moment, that instant when genius struck and the world changed? Consider the lives of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who heard entire original compositions in his head; Albert Einstein, who cracked the theory of relativity while chatting with a friend; and Wassily Kandinsky, who walked up to a canvas and created “Painting With White Border” in one afternoon.
These are alluring myths but, as Kevin Ashton tells us, totally wrong. In his new book, “How to Fly a Horse,” Ashton takes on creation’s most pernicious cliches. Great ideas don’t come as sudden gifts, he says. Creation is a grueling process, one that involves long nights, missteps and building slowly on what’s come before. To make his case, he sifts through social science and history to debunk the aha stories behind the creation of the iPhone, the discovery of a popular cancer cure and the magic of Woody Allen’s humor. Along the way, Ashton also throws cold water on some management tropes. Brainstorming doesn’t work. Financial rewards don’t lead to inspired results. Teamwork isn’t as creative as a two-person effort.
Ashton, a professor at MIT and a tech investor, arrives at his theories by dint of his own hard work. While employed at Procter & Gamble years ago, he was tasked with figuring out why stores kept running out of certain shades of lipstick. After much research, he uncovered the problem: Shopkeepers were slow to fill out stock reports. So Ashton put a microchip in each lipstick and an antenna on a nearby shelf. When the items disappeared, the technology alerted Procter & Gamble to ship more of that shade. The “Internet of things” was born.
At times, Ashton’s book feels like a self-help guide, weighed down with trite insights and sayings that could just as well appear on your HR rep’s calendar. Take this smattering, all from a single page: “Everything arises from steps, not leaps.” “Creation is execution, not inspiration.” “Ideas are like deeds; they are abundant, and most of them never grow into anything.” Still, I found it reassuring to know that Mozart struggled with his compositions, toiling over them for weeks. Einstein worked for years on his most famous theory. And Kandinsky labored for five months to plan his apparently spontaneous painting, drawing 20 almost identical sketches.
Being a genius is hard work. But that spark is in all of us. Or, as Ashton writes, “we are more like Leonardo, Mozart, and Einstein than not.”