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Posted on: Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The idea for this post happened when a few of us sat at a local cafeteria and discussed where most ideas come from. We talked about random dreams; deja vu and other creepy things.

Some of us believed that solutions to most complex problems happen in the strangest and least expected situations; for example, when we are either asleep or about to fall asleep; having a shower or exercising.

Turns out, the funniest and the creepiest one of them all was the one factor that was common to some quite a few people in that cafeteria. Believe it or not; some of us, weird programmers; thought that we think better on a toilet seat; much more than we do when we were at our desk in those noisy crappy cubicles at offices around the world.

Now you might be knitting your brows at the mere thought of most thoughts emerging out of rest-rooms; but think about it. Quite a few ideas that you may have had; may have actually started or originated there. Quite a bit of what you read on this blog definitely does originate there.

I've grown so used to the concept of getting sudden light bulbs going on in the middle of the night, when I am about to head off to sleep, that I often keep my PDA handy so that I can email the idea to myself before I fall asleep; I like to capture the thought the next day when I get to checking my email.

We like to think that innovation and creative software development happens when people in their suits sit around in meeting rooms projecting serious power-point presentations on the wall.

Beautiful personal toys like suites and ties or professional toys like projectors in meeting rooms make us 'feel' important and gives us a 'perception' of being productive or innovative.

If you think about it though, these tools, in the real world where we live, have nothing to do with genuine innovation or for that matter being productive.

Paul Graham, in his forward for Founders At Work by Jessica Livingston, describes how successful startups work and what sets them apart from the stupid-out-sourcing-consulting-body-shops:

The effort that goes into looking productive is not merely wasted, but actually makes organization less productive. Suits, for example, do not help people to think better. I bet most executives at big companies do their best thinking when they wake up on Sunday morning and go downstairs in their bathrobe to make a cup of coffee.

That’s when you have ideas. Just imagine what a company would be like if people could think that well at work. People do in startups, at least some of the time. (Half the time they’re in a panic because their servers are on fire, but the other half they’re thinking as deeply as most people only get to sitting alone on a Sunday morning.)

Ditto for most of the other differences between startups and what passes for productivity in big companies. And yet conventional ideas of “professionalism” have such an iron grip on our minds that even startup founders are affected by them. In our startup, when outsiders came to visit we tried hard to seem “professional.”  We’d clean up our offices, wear better clothes, and try to arrange a lot of people to be there during conventional office hours.

In fact, programming didn’t get done by well-dressed people at clean desks during office hours. It got done by badly dressed people (I was notorious for programming wearing just a towel) in offices strewn with junk at 2:00 in the morning. But no visitor would understand that. Not even investors, who are supposed to be able to recognize real productivity when they see it.

Even we were affected by the conventional wisdom. We thought of ourselves as impostors, succeeding despite being totally unprofessional. It was as if we’d created a Formula 1 car but felt sheepish because it didn’t look like a car was supposed to look.   

Scott Berkun in his presentation on how progress happens and 'tools for innovation' also talks about the most important tool of innovation: people. 

People who can genuinely innovate tend to use the most basic and fundamental tools at hand to come up with genuine innovation. Most of the times these tools are crude and at times they are even down right ugly. Pack a bunch of genuinely innovative developers in noisy cubicles, for example, and they will put the rest-rooms of their own homes to good use.

When we see a beautiful application we tend to glamorize its build and development process and draw our own conclusions on how the teams must have had regular status meetings and how well defined their process may have been.  What we often miss out on, is that Innovation happens in-spite of these these regular status meetings and their well defined processes; not because of these things.

When we see a product that is remarkable; We tend to visualize, guess and talk about how smart everyone in the development team may have been. Hardly do we tend to think about innovators as normal human beings, who were willing to take up countless nights of head-aches, the countless days of self-discipline and the countless small self-scarifies that any form of creativity and innovation demands.

We tend to turn a convenient blind eye to inherent ugliness and pain associated with creativity and innovation; ranging from birth of a life form to shaping of a new idea into something concrete and truly remarkable. creativity, Innovation and success usually involve a decent amount hard work and usually has a decent amount of ugliness associated with it.

Of-course in a world where most developers, bloggers and managers can't even stick to one thing for more than a couple of weeks; glamorizing innovation as something that only the super smart people can do because of their smartness which manifest itself only during work hours, sounds like a convenient way to think about innovation. There is only one problem to this approach however: innovation and creativity does not happen to be that systematic and 'beautiful'.  

The next time you see a beautiful user interface in an application; see if you can picture a programmer in the middle of the night in a towel or someone seated alone in his quite dark office, pulling his hairs out of his scalp, coding away to glory. The next time you see a decently average blog, picture a person passionate about writing, seated on his toilet seat, deeply immersed in writing; working away at his keyboard at four in the morning.

When it comes to innovation, things more often than not, get ugly.

Not a whole lot of us seem to get that though. We read inspirational posts; think of changing the world and when the ugliness starts to kick in; we chicken out; or move to something else; which; more often than not, turns out to be something that makes us feel 'safe'.

Innovation is by it's nature, is inherently ugly; It is accepting this ugliness, seeing the beauty of it and ultimately loving this ugliness that makes you innovative. Glamorizing innovativeness and taking a 'we-are-going-to-be-the-next-bill-gates' path turns you into an idiot with wishful thinking.

Honestly, co-incidentally and almost creepily, I happened to bump into this video after I had finished writing this post; but if you think my being hit with ideas or solutions, on my toilet seat or when I am just about to sleep and then working at them for hours without being able to sleep is weird, go watch and listen to Elizabeth Gilbert to see how beautiful the ugliness associated with creativity or innovation can be.