nancy gibbs (oft-quoted…here and here and here and here , for example) is an elegant and insightful writer that i love. in a recent issue of time magazine (which highlighted the 50 greatest inventions of 2010), she wrote another fascinating piece about innovation vs. influence entitled “eureka!” i urge you to read the entire article, but please indulge me while i share a portion here…
There’s no shortage of ideas in circulation; the number of patent applications in the U.S. has doubled since just 1997, to close to half a million a year. Still, I suspect that many of us are too busy keeping up to pause for tinkering, conceiving, concocting or devising. Technology, that bullying child of progress and prosperity, gives us ever finer tools of invention even as it denies us the time to use them. We are so wired, so networked and so well equipped that one person now does the job five people used to, thus hoisting productivity while precluding creativity.
It seems we’re on the verge of getting our jet packs–but no one has yet managed the time machine. Or better yet, the time expander. So we’ve got to play tricks on ourselves: schedule free time, however counterintuitive that may seem. Deep immersion in a task–no distractions, no interruptions–can give the illusion that time itself is receding. We feel lighter, braver, our brains more nimble; we free ourselves to try and fail and try again.
Creativity can be an admirable end in itself–but it’s also a route to power. The great designer, architect and innovator Buckminster Fuller once marveled at the workings of a tiny piece at the edge of the rudder of a great steamship, like the Queen Mary, called the trimtab. “Just moving the little trimtab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all,” he said. “The little individual can be a trimtab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go.”
You see this at work every day, maybe not always world-changing interventions but life-changing ones, unremarkable at the time but transformative nonetheless. Some people, some moments, like some inventions, arrive in our lives with a flourish of trumpets. Some slide in shyly, unannounced, and set about changing everything. I had many great teachers and professors and mentors over the years, but it was a young first-grade teacher who saw a crushed little girl, told by the grizzled senior teacher that I had used the word then too often in the first piece of writing I’d ever attempted, who swooped in with her gold star, stuck it atop the page and told me to keep writing. Call me Trimtab, she might have said, as she set me sailing off into second grade, and a whole new world. She didn’t invent me. But she invented a writer.
i had the rare and wonderful opportunity to spend some time recently with my good friend, brian webster, a brother who has had a profound impact on my life. brian is more than an advisor to me, he is my muse. every time we speak, he “reads my mail” and helps me find the track when i’ve inadvertently gotten off. during our visit, i complained relentlessly (as i usually do) about the problems/trends in the church. brian sent me an email containing a word of warning lightly disguised as advice. he said, “We cannot fix the American church.”
my friend is certainly correct. fixing the american church is beyond the scope of my calling, and a job much too big for my skill set. i don’t want to be an innovator, i want to be a trimtab–that one who “builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around.” i want to give others permission (by my example) to question conventional wisdom where the church is concerned. as gibbs suggests, though, trimtabs find no effectiveness in innovation and creativity and energy–only through relationship. in the church, that happens first with god, and then with people who love him.
i sincerely believe that as sincere, passionate kingdom subjects turn away from innovation and toward each other, we will find the answers we’re all seeking.