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On the Contrary: Creativity 101

From the spotless workshop of a life-long inventor comes the secret of true creativity.

June 20, 2002
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Don Kesinger’s favorite adjective is "slick." As in, "This hereself-cleaning, self-extinguishing ashtray is the slickest thing you ever saw."Or "It was a slick little device that turned a bicycle’s hand brake into aparking brake."

Don Kesinger is a 70-year-old inventor who’s spent his life coming up withslick little contraptions. He’s earned 22 patents, four more are pending, andproduct royalties have supported him for 20 years. He has invented corn pickers,bike suspension seat posts, smokeless ashtrays, shock-absorbing crutches, andseveral tools specific to the cable industry, including his baby, a round cable-crimperthat generates $2 million in annual sales.

His first invention was the wagon he built when he was six. His latest is anice cream scoop that glides effortlessly through hard-packed mocha almond fudge."But I ain’t gonna show you how it works," he says, "because the patent’snot yet filed."


Clearly, this isn’t a man used to probing the psychology of creativity. He is Paul the Pragmatist. Carl the Concrete Thinker.

I met with Don on a sunny January morning, hoping to discover how someone canbecome more inventive. I’d imagined him working inside a Back to the Futurekind of laboratory with bubbling beakers, coiled yellow electrical wire, and asuffocating atmosphere of disarray.

But Don’s hotbed of invention, as he calls it, is a spotless garage in asmall townhouse in a new development south of Denver. He lives on a street thatis excessively bright because the sidewalks are new and the trees are too smallto provide any shade. It’s a youthful neighborhood without any ruts orhistory, which in essence makes it the perfect place for Don to invent. It’sas if the tidy gutters of his subdivision are metaphors for the useful but asyet unused devices he creates.

So how does he do it? How does he get up morning after morning and design,make, market, and capitalize on devices that he alone envisions? Whatpsychological tricks can he teach others who hope to become more creative? Thisis what I’m here to find out.

I ring the doorbell and Don opens the door wearing a red flannel shirt, bluejeans, and worn brown leather work boots. He doesn’t waste time onpleasantries. He doesn’t comment on the weather or ask if I had troublefinding the place. Instead, he tells me to remove my coat, set it on "thatchair," and follow him downstairs.

"This is my shop," he says, opening the door to a garage with shinyconcrete floors. He points to a hulking piece of metal in the corner. "That’sa lathe," he says. "There’s a milling machine. And there’s a grinder,sander, and saw." He must realize that I’m a girly girl who knows as muchabout machinery as I do federal accounting guidelines. "Now let’s go to myoffice," he orders. We’ve been together four minutes, and I’ve alreadylost control of the interview.

We sit down in a small, orderly office next to the living room, and for thenext hour and a half, I do my best to unravel the mysteries of continuouscreativity. I ask Don how he comes up with new ideas. "I always have ’em,"he says, his eyebrows raised in a doesn’t everybody? look of surprise.

I ask if neatness is important, searching for a clean-environment, clear-mindsort of analogy. "I dunno," he says. "It’s just how I work."

I ask how he has the faith and confidence to spend time on ideas that have nopredictable future. He answers by detailing the importance of such things asconfidential-disclosure agreements and patent applications.

Clearly, this isn’t a man used to probing the psychology of creativity. Heis Paul the Pragmatist. Carl the Concrete Thinker.

I should have known: Don Kesinger is a mechanical engineer by training. Hisapproach, unlike mine, is to solve problems, not waste time thinking abouthow they got to be problems in the first place.

Although Don isn’t partial to talking about himself, he does show me photosof his inventions. He pulls out CAD drawings and opens his inventor’snotebook. He describes his involvement with a successful line of cable toolsmounted on a nearby display board. And gradually, by listening for the messagesembedded in his words, I get a sense of how someone can be more creative on anongoing basis.

It wasn’t what I’d expected.

I’d expected some insight into the mysteries of lightning-bolt ideas. I’dhoped for some tips on how to open my mind to the golden rays of inspiration.What I get instead is Don Kesinger’s highly logical and straightforward recipefor outside-the-box thinking. A recipe I’d call: "There Ain’t No Box."

You see, Don doesn’t believe there is any great mystery to what he does."It starts with wanting to be creative," he says. "Then, once you have thedesire, you get to work." And Don’s work process is the same with everyinvention.

First, he identifies a problem that needs solving.

Second, he generates solutions, and if those solutions don’t work, he comesup with more.

Third, he doesn’t have any expectations about how long the process willtake. It took him five minutes to come up with the design for his patentedshock-absorbing crutches. He’s been working on the ice cream scoop for 15years.

Finally, he knows that his creations may not pay off overnight, and he’swilling to wait. Remember the wagon he built when he was six years old? Well, itwas too heavy for him to lift at that age. "But I knew I’d grow up and beable to pull it."

It strikes me that Don’s approach to creativity is a lot like the approachI used to solve high school algebra problems. Which is to say, it involves a lotof diligence and hard work and probably more than a few cuss words. This issomething I’ll try to remember the next time the creative juices stop flowing.Instead of putting down my pen and opening a crisp new bag of Pepperidge FarmChocolate Chunk cookies, I’ll keep at it. And if hard work and diligence don’tpay the creative dividends I’m looking for, I can always clean my office.

Workforce, March 2002, pp. 20,24 -- Subscribe Now!


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