Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Tag: curiosity

Exploring the Creative Process – Michael Wolff

What’s the creative process all about? That’s the question designer and creative thinker Michael Wolff has been exploring. After a long and luminous career, he appears in a number of videos talking about inspiration, creativity and making an impact. I’d like to share some of his insights about the creative process – his ideas speak directly to anyone trying to find an innovative way to meet a challenge or solve a problem. As he comments at


Michael Wolff from

The task of designing has too often become one of persuading people to absorb some facts and think positively about them, rather than to evoke feelings of interest, pleasure, empathy, delight or inspiration. If we could move our clients into story telling, we’d be able to tell their unique stories and trust people to decide if it’s an interesting story to them or not. 

In other words, building empathy and forging an emotional bond are key to communicating with your audience. It’s not just about ideas or information – if you don’t create a personal connection, you’ll quickly loose their attention. In making a video, for example, one of your primary goals is to help the viewer build an emotional bond with your subject. The same is true in documentaries, commercials or political spots. Once you like or feel good about the person, then you’re ready to learn more or hear what they have to say. When I work on video projects, I put a lot of effort into making that first impression a good one.

Life-Times photo

Life-Times photo

I recently watched a video profile of Michael Wolff from Intel’s Visual Life series that I’d like to share with you. By hanging out with Michael as he wanders his townhouse, makes tea, peruses his wardrobe of colorful shirts and prepares a meal, we get a sense of how everyday moments of life are a reflection of his way of looking at the world, and thinking about design and the creative process. Produced by m ss ng p eces, the video shows great attention to detail, with lots of well-chosen closeups to ponder as you accompany him through his day.

I like the video’s unhurried pace. As Michael talks about paying close attention to the world around you, the video’s style – lingering on closeup images that echo his words – works elegantly with what you’re seeing and hearing, and gives you time to absorb and reflect upon his thoughts.

Some Observations on the Creative Process

Michael Wolff talks about the value of a holistic education. I’ve found that useful too, in this age of specialization. Often, something I’ve learned in one area aides my ability to explore and understand another. Also, creative people need variety to grow and flourish. Once you master something it no longer holds the same fascination and seduction that first drew you to it. Specialization easily leads to boredom – and boredom dulls the creative process.


from the website

Michael goes on to describe “three muscles of seeing” – curiosity, appreciation (what I would call mindfulness) and imagination. In Michael’s view, creativity underpins innovative solutions to problems – that’s one reason we should value the creative process. If we hope to develop creative solutions to meet our challenges, how do we get there? That’s where Michael’s three muscles come in.


Curiosity – asking “Why?” – is the first step on the path to understanding. Being curious allows you to dig more deeply, challenge conventional wisdom and discover underlying issues or facts that can clear the way to more elegant solutions. Instead of making assumptions based on what you already know, asking “Why?” can lead you to surprising answers and insight. Michael Wolff likes to clear his mind of assumptions, start out fresh and ask questions. Asking “Why?” can help you uncover information that might otherwise be overlooked or ignored. As Michael said in the video:


from the website


“Everybody knows that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What few people realize is it’s only through the parts that the whole gets delivered. I see “seeing” as a muscular exercise, like I see curiosity. It’s a kind of being open, really: if you walk around with a head full of preoccupation, you’re not going to notice anything…”

 Appreciation (Mindfulness)

I live in a cornucopia of sight, smell and sound we call the city, but most people passing by focus their attention on a little electronic device and shut out everything else. In a sea of sensation it’s difficult to practice mindfulness and be open to the ever-shifting environment.

I speak from experience. For years, each weekday morning I would leave home, earbuds in place, and let my music provide a bouncy soundtrack for my morning walk to the metro. One day I realized I was so intent on the music powering me to my destination, I was blocking out everything. No birds, no wind rustling the leaves, no footsteps, no traffic, no rush of everyone else scurrying to work. So I reversed course, left my iPod at home and began to observe the day.

There was so much to take in. Now I often pause to watch the little dramas playing out around me, like the time I saw a robin chase a squirrel up and down a tree, across a lawn and into a hedge – and then strut back like some mini-macho cowboy who just rode the rodeo bull.

Mindfulness lets you be open to experience without preconception or judgement. The less you prejudge, the more likely you can find an innovative response to the problem at hand. Steve Jobs liked to take walks to mull over problems. Walking gave him a quiet space to explore, consider and ponder. Also, being mindful leaves you open to receive what others have to offer.


Curiosity and mindfulness spark the imagination. Giving your imagination full flight can lead to break-through solutions. The three together are the wellspring of creativity. Michael Wolff would also encourage you to give up your ideas. As he puts it, if you don’t hang on, if you let them go, then you create the space for new ideas to bubble up. Your first idea may not necessarily be your best, it may just be the first step on the way to getting your creative juices flowing.

On Michael Wolff’s website you’ll see some pithy thoughts about design and the creative process along with a series of favorite cartoons. It’s well worth a visit. Two thoughts in particular stand out: MichaelWolff


Goodbye to letting the data decide. And a warm welcome back to reflection, intuition and judgement. Great leaps forward come from asking the right ‘big’ questions. That’s why I always start thinking with not knowing any answers.

If you want more, Michael explores creativity and his approach to his work here and gives a slide show of his past designs and a talk about branding and dealing with clients here.

I like his reminder to keep an open mind, to question assumptions, to give yourself time to explore and then delve deeply for answers. To all of that I would add this – be quick to listen and slow to speak.

So what’s your experience with the creative process? Do you find Michael Wolff’s ideas useful? Do you like what he has to say? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

Curiosity+Innovation=Elana Simon

“Curiosity killed the cat.” I heard that a lot growing up.


photo from cutest paw website

Here’s another phrase that stuck with me- “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.” That, from The Charge of the Light Brigadecelebrating valiant soldiersIt made an impression, all those messages to mind your own business, just follow along and don’t ask questions. Curiosity seemed to be dangerous, or at least something to be discouraged. Some people behaved as if your curiosity confronted their sense of competence or authority. Others saw “why?” as a challenge instead of a catalyst for discovery.

Of course, scientists embrace curiosity. It fuels their passion and carries them over the months and years it takes to do their work. Even so, I think it takes a certain amount of self-confidence and tenacity to pursue those questions you’re trying to answer. That may sound strange, but given the tendency for your “why?” to be answered by “because…” you need a certain amount of drive and inner strength to empower your curiosity.

Elana Simon has those qualities – she was born into a family of scientists. But she also had a difficult time growing up – she suffered from a mysterious, debilitating stomach pain that just wouldn’t go away.

With all their training and scientific background, her parents and numerous doctors were unable to determine what was ailing her. Finally, after years of doctors and tests, false steps and mis-diagnoses, they discovered she had a very rare form of cancer that afflicts children and young adults. Even though it was not good news, when she was diagnosed with fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma, at least she knew what was causing all that pain. This extremely rare cancer attacks about 200 adolescents and young adults each year. With no cure, only surgery could save her life. At 12 years old she went into the hospital and her pediatric surgeon removed most of her liver. Fortunately the cancer was caught in time.


Elana Simon at 12, family photo

Children are resilient and Elana recovered. Now what would you do after an experience like that? Some kids would just want to be a kid again. Others might feel damaged or be caught in a web of emotion. But Elana was curious. What caused this mysterious illness? How could it be detected in others before it wreaked havoc? What else could she learn about it?


Elana Simon, Rockefeller University photo

She went online to see what she could discover. She found:

“The more I found the less encouraging things became. People didn’t know that much about it and people didn’t seem to be doing much about it.”


With so few people afflicted by the disease, there was almost no available data. She became determined to find out more and she did. For Elana, curiosity opened a door to a key scientific discovery – a genetic abnormality that may ultimately be the source of her own life-threatening illness. In four years she went from cancer victim to cancer survivor to cancer researcher. Elana initiated a research project to discover the cause of her rare cancer. She also developed a website for sharing data and co-authored a research paper published in Science to report the results of her genetic study. She’s now at work on a second paper describing her research findings. All of this, she accomplished while still a student in high school.


Dalton School photo

Using time after school and during summer vacations, her curiosity and skill with computers led to an internship at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Her initial project was to hunt for genetic mutations in elderly pancreatic cancer patients. But, she soon encountered a major stumbling block – as people age they acquire thousands of harmless genetic mutations. With so many genetic variations in each elderly person, how could she find which genetic changes were meaningful?


New Yorker photo

As she thought about it, she realized that young people have very few genetic mutations, so perhaps similar research on young fibrolamellar patients would yield better results. She proposed that idea to her surgeon at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. He agreed to help and began collecting tumor tissue from patients. Finally they had samples from 15 people. Would that be enough to find meaningful results?


Elana and her father Dr. Sanford Simon, Rockefeller University photo


Elana set up a lab at Rockefeller University where her father is a biologist. With the help of other researchers from Sloan-Kettering and the New York Genome Center they went to work searching for genetic anomalies. The results were more than surprising. In every case, in every tumor, a piece of DNA had broken off and rejoined to create a new, mutated gene. From the Rockefeller University news release, Elana explains:


Rockefeller University photo

“Because of the deletion and rejoining of the DNA, a new gene that was a mixture of two previous genes was created, called a chimera. A number of other types of tumors have been shown to be driven by chimeras, but this one is unique – it codes for a kinase, an enzyme that modifies other proteins, that has not been identified in cancers.”

The researchers found that the kinase enzyme was made only in tumor cells and it was “constantly active,” which may explain the tumor’s rapid growth. With Elana’s research, they now have a potential genetic marker for the disease and a promising path to explore for possible treatments and a cure.

Rockefeller Uelana-simon-her-father-dr-sanford-simon-doing-research-together

Rockefeller University photo

Her father added, “Genomics is allowing us to classify cancers based not on the organ they originate in, but on the molecular changes they trigger. Now that we know about this new chimera kinase, we can look for it in other cancers and work to develop new tools that will someday radically improve our ability to fight disease.”

With NIH support, Elana developed an online registry where fibrolamellar patients share medical records. It will also serve as a tool to collect data from patients in other hospitals, cities and countries to support further research.  The registry has the potential to become a model for a system to track other diseases. Here’s a short, well-made video exploring Elana’s story from the American Association for Cancer Research:

With the help of her father and other researchers, Elana was able to transform her personal misfortune into what may be a significant scientific discovery. Yes, she was fortunate to have family connections to state-of-the-art research facilities. She also was highly motivated and had a feeling for the science. But I think there’s more to it than that.

nbc newscurry_elana_140416

NBC photo

Elana doesn’t see herself as a victim of her cancer. Rather, there’s a self confidence and determination to search for answers. It’s easy to believe her success at such a young age is only the beginning of what she’ll accomplish, guided by that powerful quest to understand the “why.” Curiosity is a catalyst. As it launches us on a journey, there’s no telling where it might take us. What are your thoughts about curiosity? Does it play an important role in your pursuits? Leave a comment, let me know what you think.


Elana and her father, Wall Street Journal photo

Curiosity+Determination=Sara Volz

DNA structure from NIH

DNA structure from NIH

Children are naturally curious about the world around them. They’re always asking how does this work and why does that happen? I once heard Buckminister Fuller comment that curiosity makes all children natural scientists. Science and curiosity are entwined like a DNA double helix, but you also need vision – to see what’s possible – and a deep determination to keep going, especially when so many obstacles pop up along the way. And then, add to the equation the three Ps – patience, persistence and passion.


Sara Volz from the Davidson Institute site

Sara Volz has all of those qualities:

I found my passion in seventh grade—alternative energy—and it simply hasn’t left me alone. I’ve spent a good portion of my high school career begging, borrowing, and stealing saving for the materials to convert my room into a homespun laboratory. I’m fairly proud of the result: it comes complete with an appallingly clattery old centrifuge, glassware I got for my birthday, a microscope I got for Christmas, a rather handsome set of micropipettes, and, of course, the requisite bubbling flasks of green goo!


photo via Sara Volz

If Sara Volz sounds young, she is. But at age 17, she’s spent the past four years running experiments to create a better biofuel using biochemistry and algae – aka pond scum.  She grows the algae in her room in a mini-lab below her loft bed. To manage her experiments, she put her algae on a schedule – 16 hours of light and eight of darkness – and did the same for herself, “I sleep on my algae’s light cycle.”


from the Davidson Institute site

Why algae?  It could lead us down the road to energy independence.  Algae thrives in areas that can’t support other crops and grows on wastewater. I’m sure you’ve seen ponds by the side of the road turned bright green by the organisms. As a fuel, algae is environmentally friendly, as much as 60% of the organism is oil (think vegetable oil), and algae can yield 10 to 100 times more than other biofuels.  What’s left can be used to feed animals or to fertilize plants.


photo via Sara Volz

Sara isn’t the first to see the potential of algae as a biofuel. Exxon, partnering with genetic scientist Craig Venter, has put up $600 million towards that pursuit. Just this month Venter said they’ll need to force their algae to produce more oil, noting that the solution is still 25 years away. Working on her own, high school student Sara Volz has pointed the way to making it commercially viable.

How did she do it? Starting with Charles Darwin’s concept of natural selection, Sara used a process called “artificial selection” with an herbicide that forces algae cells to adapt, by producing more oil, or die.

It’s like a weed acquiring resistance to herbicide. But in this case, I designed the selection pressure so the resulting population will produce something we want — oil.

Like any scientific effort, there were obstacles:

I always felt like my work wasn’t coming together—I wasn’t getting the answers, or the experiment didn’t work out right, or the analysis still had one or three or ten kinks to be worked out—but I kept plugging away…  This doggedness, more than anything else, has paid off.


from the Intel site

It paid off by growing algae that produces seven times more oil than untreated organisms. Her work won first place and $100,000 in the Intel Science Talent Search.  Next year she’ll be a freshman at MIT.

Too often our high school girls do not feel welcome in the halls of science, which makes Sara a great role model. More impressively, she worked alone when most of the other finalists worked with a school or lab. Her passion to find answers led her to ask other scientists for help and support. And while some turned her down, others were impressed by her maturity, knowledge and commitment.

When I needed the resources or equipment of an actual laboratory setting, I would contact researchers about working in their labs to analyze some of my samples… Some of it was begging and e-mailing lots of people, saying that I’m doing a research project and I’d love you to give me some advice, or let me use some of your neat equipment. You get some closed doors and some wonderful people willing to help.

If you want more, there’s an excellent interview with her here. I like Sara’s story because it’s so inspirational. Armed with curiosity and enthusiasm, she found success because she dedicated herself to her work, understood what she needed to do to make it happen and wasn’t intimidated to ask for help when she needed it. She’s a great example of  what can happen when you transform “why?” into “why not?”


Chris Ayers Photography/Society for Science & the Public

Essentially, I am trying to hijack natural evolutionary processes in order to produce a cell line with… high rates of oil synthesis. So far, it is all going fairly well…