September 20, 2015


I know what it’s like to be both driven and limited by my own vision. In 1991, after my first book was released, I saw a need for a better way to help readers find books of interest, including mine. My book, The Epicurean Laboratory, was on the chemistry of cooking. Unfortunately, it ended up in the cookbook aisle of the bookstore, as opposed to the science aisle, where most of those who would consider this book interesting would find it. 

This problem inspired me to start a multimedia company that helped match books with buyers. I developed an interactive kiosk for use in bookstores that allowed shoppers to look for books by subject, author, or title, and called the product BookBrowser. (Note that this was 1991, several years before web browsers were invented.) Though I had no experience running a technology company, my goal was to develop and deliver the product, and build an organization that was successful enough to be sold in two years. 

That’s exactly what happened: I built the business and sold it two years later. In retrospect, there was substantially more potential for this business than I had imagined. My limited goal, however, limited the opportunities I saw. If my goal had been to build a large, sustainable business, I would have been much more likely to create new opportunities, hire people who were able to help me scale the venture, and push through the challenges that precipitated the sale of the company. All founders face obstacles. However, only those founders who envision a future where those challenges have been resolved have a high probability of successfully addressing them. As Henry Ford said, “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.” 
Those who can’t visualize a path to success are doomed to give up long before those who know that they will find a solution. My colleague Steve Blank, who has been on the founding team of eight companies, says that he creates a vision for what he wants to accomplish and then methodi- cally removes all the obstacles in the way. When I look back on BookBrowser, I recognize that there were many ways I could have removed the challenges I faced before I sold my firm. Back then, though, I was limited by my view of what I could accomplish. My vision for the company and for myself framed the scope of the opportunity for me. 

The great news is that what we envision for ourselves is completely malleable and can be altered in an instant. That’s what happened to Ann Miura Ko. Ann grew up in Palo Alto, California, the daughter of a scientist, and assumed that she would become a doctor or a research scientist. She studied electrical engineering at Yale, and while there, she took a po- sition in the dean’s office, doing administrative work to help pay for college. 

On a winter day in 1992, the dean asked Ann if she would give a tour of the engineering school to a visitor. During the tour, her guest learned that Ann was from Palo Alto and offered her a chance to shadow him at work when she returned home over spring break. Ann asked him what he did, and he said that he was the president of Hewlett Packard. Intrigued, she accepted Lew Platt’s invitation.
While shadowing Platt at Hewlett Packard, Ann got to see him in action, running meetings, and making decisions. At one point, Lew suggested that they get a picture together in his office, with Ann sitting across from him on a white couch. A few weeks later, a letter arrived in the mail with the photo of Ann and Lew, plus another photo taken the same week in the same room. This time, instead of Ann, Lew Platt was sitting across from Bill Gates, president of Microsoft as they signed a joint agreement. 

Ann looked at the two photographs taken from the same angle in the same room, with both guests sitting on the same couch. At that moment she saw her life differently. The walls of her future opened up, and she visualized herself as the leader of a global company. She was bright and driven, but had never considered that she could play out her life on a global stage. Everything changed in that instant.
Flash forward to 2015. Ann is now a partner at Floodgate Fund in Palo Alto, which she cofounded with Mike Maples in 2010 after earning a Ph.D. in engineering at Stanford. She spends her days guiding early-stage startups that are having a global impact, and has been recognized as one of the most influential leaders in Silicon Valley. 

As Ann’s story illustrates, most people don’t question the stage on which they live, or don’t feel comfortable expanding the scope of their impact. Yet a single instant can change their view. A conversation, a book, a movie, or even a photograph can shift your perspective on how you envision your life unfolding. 
All great ventures and adventures begin with imagination!

August 21, 2015


Our education system is responsible for preparing young people to build successful lives. They should be ready for the wide range of possibilities ahead of them, including working for others, starting their own ventures, and contributing to their communities. All of these options require a depth of knowledge in their chosen discipline, as well as creative problem solving skills, leadership abilities, experience working on effective teams, and adaptability in an ever-changing environment. It’s no coincidence that these are the same capabilities that employers say they want in college graduates. According to research conducted by National Association of Colleges and Employers, they are also the deciding factors when employers compare candidates with equivalent backgrounds.

These skills are the cornerstones of entrepreneurship education, which explicitly prepares students to identify and address challenges and opportunities. Therefore, along with teaching traditional subjects, such as science, grammar, and history, that provide foundational knowledge, it’s imperative that we teach students to be entrepreneurial.

There are many who believe that entrepreneurship is an inborn trait that can’t be taught. This is simply not true. As with all skills, from math to music, learning to be entrepreneurial builds upon inborn traits. For example, learning to read and write taps in a baby’s natural ability to babble. Each baby learns to harness those noises to form words, connect words to compose sentences, and combine sentences to craft stories.

Entrepreneurship can be taught using a similar scaffolding of skills, building upon our natural ability to imagine:

- Imagination is envisioning things that don’t exist.
- Creativity is applying imagination to address a challenge.
- Innovation is applying creativity to generate unique solutions.
- Entrepreneurship is applying innovations, scaling the ideas by inspiring others’ imagination.

Using this framework, educators at all levels can help young people engage with the world around them and envision what might be different; experiment with creative solutions to the problems they encounter; hone their ability to reframe problems in order to come up with unique ideas; and then work persistently to scale their ideas by inspiring others to support their effort.

After years teaching innovation and entrepreneurship at Stanford University School of Engineering, I can confidently assert that these skills can be learned and mastered. I’ve seen thousands of students at Stanford, and at schools around the world, transformed by courses and extracurricular programs. These include classes on creative problem solving and entrepreneurial leadership, as well as cross-campus innovation tournaments and new-venture competitions.

We can all agree that these skills are much more difficult to measure than determining if a student knows all the state capitals or how to diagram a sentence. However, the fact that they are hard to measure doesn’t mean they aren’t equally important to teach. We shouldn’t shape the curriculum solely around subjects that can be easily evaluated on a standardized exam. As a quote attributed to William Bruce Cameron elegantly states, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” We shouldn’t be dissuaded from teaching entrepreneurship just because it is difficult to measure the impact in the short term.

From my experience, it often takes years before the seeds of entrepreneurship education grow into projects or programs that are manifest in the world. In fact, most of the successful ventures started by our graduates are launched years after they complete their formal schooling. Yet, they credit their entrepreneurship education for preparing them to launch and lead those endeavors.

There are compelling examples of educators who are successfully incorporating entrepreneurship education into traditional learning environments. Consider Don Wettrick, who teaches high school in Indiana. He gives his students a full class period each day to work on a project of their own choice, allowing them to master all the above skills. Students submit a proposal for their project, collaborate with outside experts to get input and feedback, keep a blog to document their progress, and present their project at the end of the course. Projects have included helping special needs students launch a coffee shop at the school, crafting an environmentally friendly plan for maintaining the school grounds, and building a transparent solar cell. No matter what project they choose, the students develop a valuable set of skills, which they’re able to apply to all aspects of their lives.

Another example comes from our classroom at Stanford this past quarter where we challenged our students to redesign the experience of going from prison to freedom. Working with The Last Mile, an organization that teaches entrepreneurship at San Quentin State Prison, the students learned about the problems that former inmates face when they’re released. As part of the project, the students taught a class at the prison, interviewed dozens of people in the criminal justice system to understand their points of view, brainstormed to generate hundreds of ideas, and presented the most compelling solutions to a room full of stakeholders. This experience provided meaningful insights. For example, several teams realized that for many of the men, this was not a reentry process at all, but an entry process — they were much more like immigrants, entering a new world rather than returning to a world they once knew. This led to a variety of innovative and actionable solutions, several of which have already been implemented.

These examples demonstrate that we can indeed teach entrepreneurship, preparing young people to see and seize opportunities around them. The skills they gain are critical for the organizations they will join in the future and for society at large. Most important, entrepreneurship education empowers young people to see the world as opportunity rich, and to craft the lives they dream to live.

August 18, 2015


It’s a crime not to teach young people to be creative and entrepreneurial. We’re each responsible for building our own lives and for repairing the broader problems of the world, and the only way to do so is with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes required to bring ideas to fruition.

Unfortunately, most formal education deals with memorization as opposed to innovation. It focuses on learning about heroes as opposed to teaching students to be heroic. And it presents problems with one right answer as opposed to real-life challenges with an endless number of viable solutions.
Many people believe that you can’t teach those skills, and define themselves and others as “not creative.” They see the skills related to innovation and entrepreneurship as inborn traits, such as eye or hair color, that can’t be changed. This is untrue! These skills can certainly be learned, and it behooves us to teach people of all ages to be entrepreneurial, enabling them to invent the world in which they want to live.

Why do people think that you can’t teach creativity and entrepreneurship? It stems from the lack of a clear vocabulary and a process for moving from inspiration to execution.

When I ask people in any setting, from a classroom to a corporate office, to define creativity, I get a range of responses. Most people start with “To me creativity is . . .” And the most common completion of this phrase is “thinking outside the box.” This cliché phrase is meaningless.
In reality, creativity requires a complex set of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and actions, just like other domains, including math, science, music, and baseball. In order to harness our creativity, we need a robust set of definitions for all parts of the creative process.

After years immersed in this field, teaching courses on creativity and entrepreneurship at Stanford School of Engineering, I’ve crafted a framework to help anyone learn the skills needed to consistently move through the creative process.

To begin, there is a hierarchy of skills, starting with imagination:

Imagination leads to creativity.
Creativity leads to innovation.
Innovation leads to entrepreneurship.

This scaffolding of skills can be compared to those involved with reading and writing: Babies naturally babble, making noises to communicate. They learn how to harness those noises and combine them to form words. They then learn to connect words to compose sentences, and then combine those sentences to craft stories. Educators take great care to teach all the foundational skills along the way, including vocabulary, grammar, reading, and writing.

Below is a parallel set of definitions and relationships for moving from imagination to entrepreneurship. I call this the Invention Cycle.

The Invention Cycle
  • Imagination is envisioning things that do not exist.
  • Creativity is applying imagination to address a challenge.
  • Innovation is applying creativity to generate unique solutions.
  • Entrepreneurship is applying innovation, to bring unique ideas to fruition, inspiring others’ imagination.
This framework is relevant to start ups and established firms, as well as innovators of all types where the realization of a new idea — whether a product, service, or work of art — results in a collective increase in imagination. Consider how platforms such as the iPhone, crayons, and even the kitchen stove have unleashed the imagination and creativity of millions of people who have been inspired by the possibilities they unlock; and how leaders of any organization, from a football team to a research team, can inspire the imagination of compatriots. An entrepreneurial spirit infects others, leading to wave upon wave of imagination, creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

By learning how to harness your own Invention Cycle, you identify more opportunities, challenge more assumptions, generate unique solutions, and bring more ideas to fruition. These powerful tools will help you chart a path toward the life you want to lead.

August 6, 2015


I often meet individuals who are desperately looking deep inside themselves to find something that will spark their passions. They miss the fact that, for most of us, our actions lead to our passions, not the other way around. Passion is not innate, but grows from your experiences. For example, if you never heard a violin, kicked a ball, or cracked an egg, you’d never know that you enjoy classical music, soccer, or cooking, respectively.

The first step toward developing a passion need not be glamorous. If you took a job as a waiter in a restaurant, for instance, you’d have the chance to interact with hundreds of people each day, to learn something new from each interaction, and to tap into that new knowledge to spark your passions.

For example, as a waiter you might discover the secrets to effective customer service and dive into learning how to help others improve their hospitality skills. You might become fascinated with the dietary requirements of some of your customers and decide to open a unique restaurant that addresses their needs. Or you discover that a customer has an illness and, after learning about her challenges, take on that cause.

Just as there are almost infinite passions you could develop, so too are there wide-ranging directions you could take your new passion once it grips you. If you decide to focus on customer service, for example, you might develop a guide for best practices in the hospitality industry, launch a consulting business, make a documentary, or launch a chain of restaurants. Without your initial experience as a waiter, you’d never have found this new calling. In each case, once you open the door to a particular destination, you reveal a set of paths that you probably didn’t know existed. In fact, before it’s your cause, it’s likely something about which you knew nothing.

Love at first sight is rare in most aspects of life. The more experience you have with a person, a profession, or a problem, the more passionate and engaged you become. Let’s take this comparison further: If you want to get married, the last thing you should do is sit alone, waiting for the phone to ring, or for Prince or Princess Charming to show up at your door. The best chance to find a compatible match is to meet lots of people. Your attitude (affection) follows your actions (dating), not the other way around. Yes, the dating process can be filled with false starts and disappointments, but you will never be successful unless you embrace the process of discovery.


August 4, 2015

From Inspiration to Implementation

There is an insatiable demand for innovation and entrepreneurship. These skills are required to help individuals and ventures thrive in a competitive and dynamic marketplace. However, many people don’t know where to start.

There isn’t a well-charted course from inspiration to implementation. Other fields — such as physics, biology, math, and music — have a huge advantage when it comes to teaching those topics. They have clearly defined terms and a taxonomy of relationships that provide a structured approach for mastering these skills. That’s exactly what we need in entrepreneurship. Without it, there’s dogged belief that these skills can’t be taught or learned.

Below is a proposal for definitions and relationships for the process of bringing ideas to life, which I call the Invention Cycle. This model provides a scaffolding of skills, beginning with imagination, leading to a collective increase in entrepreneurial activity.

Invention Cycle

  • Imagination is envisioning things that do not exist.
  • Creativity is applying imagination to address a challenge.
  • Innovation is applying creativity to generate unique solutions.
  • Entrepreneurship is applying innovation, bringing ideas to fruition, by inspiring others’ imagination.

This is a virtuous cycle: Entrepreneurs manifest their ideas by inspiring others’ imagination, including those who join the effort, fund the venture, and purchase the products. This model is relevant to startups and established firms, as well as innovators of all types where the realization of a new idea — whether a product, service, or work of art — results in a collective increase in imagination, creativity, and entrepreneurship.

This framework allows us to parse the pathway, describing the actions and attitudes required at each step along the way.
  • Imagination requires engagement and the ability to envision alternatives.
  • Creativity requires motivation and experimentation to address challenges.
  • Innovation requires focusing and reframing to generate unique solutions.
  • Entrepreneurship requires persistence and the ability to inspire others.
Not every person in an entrepreneurial venture needs to have every skill in the cycle. However, every venture needs to cover every base. Without imaginers who engage and envision, there aren’t compelling opportunities to address. Without creators who are motivated to experiment, routine problems don’t get solved. Without innovators who focus on challenging assumptions, there are no fresh ideas. And, without entrepreneurs who persistently inspire others, innovations sit on the shelf.

Let’s look at an example to see these principles at work:

As a Biodesign Innovation Fellow at Stanford University, Kate Rosenbluth spent months in the hospital shadowing neurologists and neurosurgeons in order to understand the biggest unmet needs of physicians and their patients.

In the imagination stage, Kate worked with a team of engineers and physicians to make lists of hundreds of problems that needed solving, from outpatient issues to surgical challenges. By being immersed in the hospital with a watchful eye, she was able to see opportunities for improvement that had been overlooked. This stage required engagement and envisioning.

In the creativity stage, the team was struck by how many people struggle with debilitating hand tremors that keep them from holding a coffee cup or buttoning a shirt. They learned that as many as six million people in the United States are stricken with Parkinson’s disease, and other conditions that cause tremors. The most effective treatment is deep brain stimulation, an onerous and expensive intervention that requires permanently implanting wires in the brain and a battery pack in the chest wall. Alternatively, patients can take drugs that often have disabling side effects. The team was driven to help these patients and began meeting with experts, combing the literature, and testing alternative treatments. This stage required motivation and experimentation.

In the innovation stage, Kate had an insight that changed the way that she thought about treating tremors. She challenged the assumption that the treatment had to focus on the root cause in the brain and instead focused on the peripheral nervous system in the hand, where the symptoms occur. She partnered with Stanford professor Scott Delp to develop and test a relatively inexpensive, noninvasive, and effective treatment. This stage required focus and reframing.

In the entrepreneurship stage, Kate recently launched a company, Cala Health, to develop and deliver new treatments for tremors. There will be innumerable challenges along the way to bringing the products to market, including hiring a team, getting FDA approval, raising subsequent rounds of funding, and manufacturing and marketing the device. These tasks require persistence and inspiring others. While developing the first product, Kate has had additional insights, which have stimulated new ideas for treating other diseases with a similar approach, coming full circle to imagination!

This model underpins related frameworks for innovation and entrepreneurship, such as design thinking and the lean startup methodology. Both of these models focus on defining problems, generating solutions, building prototypes, and iterating on the ideas based on feedback. 

The Invention Cycle describes foundational skills that are mandatory for those methods to work. Just as we must master arithmetic before we dive into algebra or calculus, it behooves us to develop an entrepreneurial mindset and methodology before we design products and launch ventures. By understanding the Invention Cycle and honing the necessary skills, we identify more opportunities, challenge more assumptions, generate unique solutions, and bring more ideas to fruition.

With clear definitions and a taxonomy that illustrates their relationships, the Invention Cycle defines the pathway from inspiration to implementation. This framework captures the skills, attitudes, and actions that are necessary to foster innovation and to bring breakthrough ideas to the world.


April 6, 2012

Unpacking Your Creative "Suitcase"

Yesterday was the first day of our spring quarter course on creativity at Stanford dschool and we jumped right in! I told the class that I really hate my suitcase... I travel a lot and find my carry-on bag to be quite a pain. After I spend the time packing it, I have to unpack it again in the security line at the airport; there often isn't room for it in the luggage rack; and since I pack it so densely it is really hard for me to lift into the rack... Please help! I ask them to design a new suitcase for me.

Within 10 minutes they have created a long list of really cool new ideas, including a suitcase that unrolls, a suitcase built into your coat, and a suitcase with expandable inserts.

After we discuss their really cool ideas, and they are very proud of the results, I challenge them to push even further. Why do we use suitcases in the first place? We all agree that we use suitcases to make sure that we have what we need at our destination. How might you do that without a suitcase? With this new perspective, the students go back to the drawing board and start again. In ten minutes, they have a wealth of new ideas!

What about a service that allows you can rent high fashion clothes at your destination? What about having one packed suitcase that knows where you will be and arrives before you do? Or, what about creating a high resolution virtual reality setting that allows you to meet in a virtual world without packing a bag? 

This exercise is designed to demonstrate that the questions you ask are the frames into which the answers fall. When trying to come up with truly innovative ideas, you need to spend as much time crafting the question you ask as you do generating creative solutions.

April 3, 2012

The Magic of Observation

Creative problem solving requires acute observation. Without it, you miss incredible opportunities and important clues on the pathway to a solution. As children, we are naturally curious and intensely observant as we try to figure out how the world works. As we get older, many of us shut down our natural curiosity and observation skills. We think we understand the world and look for the patterns that we already recognize. We become skilled at predicting what we will experience, and then we experience the things we predict.

It takes considerable effort to focus our attention beyond what we anticipate, especially when we are dealing with familiar experiences. For example, we literally tune out when we’re performing repetitive activities, such as driving or walking on routine paths. We also focus predominantly on things that are at our eye level rather than looking around more broadly. In addition, we pay attention to objects that we expect to find and ignore those things that don’t fit.

Magicians know that we believe we are fully aware of our environment and are paying careful attention to everything that is going on. They understand that almost anything can distract us, including a good story, a joke, or pointing to someone across the room, which draws our gaze away from what is really happening in front of us. Most magic tricks rely upon magicians’ ability to distract us while they perform their sleight of hand.

For example, a magician puts six cards face-up on a table and asks you to select one from the lineup, but not to pick it up. she asks you to memorize that card, keeping this information to yourself. She then tells you that she will read your mind to determine the one card that you selected. She picks up all six cards, looks at them carefully, and puts five cards back down on the table, telling you that the card you selected will be missing from the lineup. she’s right. your card is gone! How did she know?

If you were really paying careful attention, you would see that all five of the cards she placed on the table had changed. The magician didn’t need to know which card was yours. She just had to count on the fact that while you were focusing on one card, you wouldn’t notice the difference between cards that look similar, such as a king of hearts and a king of diamonds; or between a queen of spades and a queen of clubs. Magicians take full advantage of our lack of focus and our ability to be distracted as they make objects appear to disappear, as they cut people in half, and when they pull rabbits out of hats.

 On the flip side, humorists draw our attention to the things in our environment that we usually ignore. By focusing our attention on seemingly mundane acts, such as parking a car, brushing our teeth, or waiting in line, we become aware of actions and objects that we don’t normally notice, and they become funny under such focused scrutiny. Jerry Seinfeld is known for his standup comedy about "nothing". The subjects of his humor are funny, because he focuses on experiences that don’t normally grab our attention. They are the little things that we don’t usually notice in our daily life. Here is a short example of a Seinfeld routine on visiting the doctor:  

"I hate the waiting room because it’s called the waiting room, so there’s no chance of not waiting. it’s built, designed, and intended for waiting. Why would they take you right away when they’ve got this room all set up? And you sit there with your little magazine. you pretend you’re reading it but you’re really looking at the other people. “i wonder what he’s got.” Then they finally call you, and you think you’re going to see the doctor, but you’re not. you’re going into the next smaller waiting room. now you don’t even have your magazine, and you’ve got no pants on."

This is an excerpt from inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity

March 18, 2012

Ideas aren't Cheap, They're Free

Provocative. Just one word... Provocative.

Until recently, prospective students at All Soul’s College, at Oxford University, took a “one-word exam.” The Essay, as it was called, was both anticipated and feared by applicants. They each flipped over a piece of paper at the same time to reveal a single word. The word might have been “innocence” or “miracles” or “water” or “provocative.” Their challenge was to craft an essay in three hours inspired by that single word.

There were no right answers to this exam. However, each applicant’s response provided insights into the student’s wealth of knowledge and ability to generate creative connections. The New York Times quotes one Oxford professor as saying, “The unveiling of the word was once an event of such excitement that even nonapplicants reportedly gathered outside the college each year, waiting for news to waft out.” This challenge reinforces the fact that everything—every single word—provides an opportunity to leverage what you know to stretch your imagination.

For so many of us, this type of creativity hasn’t been fostered. We don’t look at everything in our environment as an opportunity for ingenuity. In fact, creativity should be an imperative. Creativity allows you to thrive in an ever changing world and unlocks a universe of possibilities. With enhanced creativity, instead of problems you see potential, instead of obstacles you see opportunities, and instead of challenges you see a chance to create breakthrough solutions. Look around and it becomes clear that the innovators among us are the ones succeeding in every arena, from science and technology to education and the arts. Nevertheless, creative problem solving is rarely taught in school, or even considered a skill you can learn.

Sadly, there is also a common and often-repeated saying, “Ideas are cheap.” This statement discounts the value of creativity and is utterly wrong. Ideas aren’t cheap at all—they’re free. And they’re amazingly valuable. Ideas lead to innovations that fuel the economies of the world, and they prevent our lives from becoming repetitive and stagnant. They are the cranes that pull us out of well-worn ruts and put us on a path toward progress. Without creativity we are not just condemned to a life of repetition, but to a life that slips backward. In fact, the biggest failures of our lives are not those of execution, but failures of imagination. As the renowned American inventor Alan Kay famously said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” We are all inventors of our own future. And creativity is at the heart of invention.

As demonstrated so beautifully by the “one-word exam,” every utterance, every object, every decision, and every action is an opportunity for creativity. This challenge, one of many tests given over several days at All Soul’s College, has been called the hardest exam in the world. It required both a breadth of knowledge and a healthy dose of imagination. Matthew Edward Harris, who took the exam in 2007, was assigned the word “harmony.” He wrote in the Daily Telegraph that he felt “like a chef rummaging through the recesses of his refrigerator for unlikely soup ingredients.” This homey simile is a wonderful reminder that these are skills that we have an opportunity to call upon every day as we face challenges as simple as making soup and as monumental as solving the massive problems that face the world.


After a dozen years teaching courses on creativity and innovation at Stanford, I can confidently assert that creativity can be enhanced. My new book inGenius is filled with details about specific tools and techniques that work well, along with stories that bring them to life. We will look at ways to increase your ability to see opportunities around you, to connect and combine ideas, to challenge assumptions, and to reframe problems. We will explore ways you can modify your physical and social environment to enhance your creativity and the creativity of those with whom you live and work. In addition, we will look at the ways your motivation and mind-set influence your creative output, including your willingness to experiment, your ability to push through barriers to find creative solutions to daunting challenges, and your skill at turning off premature judgment of new ideas.

It is important to understand that these factors fit together and profoundly influence one another. Therefore, none can be viewed in isolation. I’ve created a new model—the Innovation Engine—that illustrates how all these factors work together to enhance creativity. I chose the word “engine” because it, like the word “ingenious,” is derived from the Latin word for innate talent and is a reminder that these traits come naturally to all of us. My goal is to provide a model, a shared vocabulary, and a set of tools that you can use right away to evaluate and increase your own creativity and that of your team, organization, and community.

In inGenius, you will learn how to jump-start your Innovation Engine, and you will fully appreciate that every word, every object, every idea, and every moment provides an opportunity for creativity. It costs nothing to generate amazing ideas, and the results are priceless.

Adapted from INGENIUS by Tina Seelig. Copyright © 2012 by Tina L. Seelig. Used with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.

March 10, 2012

Introducing the Innovation Engine

After two years of writing, my new book, inGenius, will be released on April 17. It isn't a long book, but it certainly took me a long time to write. In fact, I started over and over again as I tried to make sense of all the factors that influence and enhance creativity in individuals, teams, and organizations. I began with the material I used to teach courses on creativity and innovation at Stanford, and soon realized that my view was much too narrow.

It became clear that although creativity is generated internally and can be stimulated by mastering skills such as reframing problems, challenging assumptions, and connecting and combining ideas, creativity is also deeply influenced by what we know, the spaces in which we work, the people on our team, the rules, rewards, and constraints in our environment, and by our own attitude and the culture of our community.

I’ve created a new model—the Innovation Engine— that illustrates how all these factors work in concert to enhance creativity. I chose the word “engine” because it, like the word “ingenious,” is derived from the Latin word for innate talent and is a reminder that these traits come naturally to all of us.

The 3 parts on the inside of the Innovation Engine are knowledge, imagination, and attitude:
  • Your knowledge provides the fuel for your imagination.
  • Your imagination is the catalyst for transforming knowledge into ideas.
  • Your attitude is the spark that sets the Innovation Engine in motion.

The 3 parts on the outside of your Innovation Engine are resources, habitat, and culture.
  • Resources are all the assets available to you.
  • Habitat includes the space, rules, constraints, and people around you.
  • Culture is the collective beliefs, values, & behaviors of your community.

Like creativity, at first glance the Innovation Engine might look complex. Over the course of the book, I take apart the Innovation Engine and examine its six components. I then put it back together and show how all the parts work in concert and influence one another to enhance creativity. Below is a prezi that introduces inGenius and the concept of the Innovation Engine. You can also click on the link below it to see the full size version.

March 4, 2012

All the World's a Frame

I have been teaching courses at Stanford University on creativity for the past decade, and gained great insights from this experience. Over the past two years, I decided to capture what I learned in a new book, called, inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity. The process of thinking and writing about creativity led me to a surprising collection of new insights, most important of which is that we all tend to look at creativity through different lenses and each of these lenses leads to a different set of conclusions about what is needed to unleash creativity. Some people study creativity in individuals, some focus on building creative teams, some are interested in innovation in organizations, and others frame the problem much more broadly by looking at creativity across entire communities. To really understand creativity we need to consider each of these frames and how they are related to one another.

Here is a short video clip from a talk I gave for Stanford Parent's Weekend last year about the impact of framing problems on the types of solutions we find.

July 13, 2010

It's All In Your Head

It’s all in your head... That is, the way we each see the world around us is determined by how we engage with it. This message was driven home to me in an unexpected way. A few years ago I took a creative writing class in which the professor asked us to describe the same scene twice, the first time from the perspective of someone who has just fallen in love, the second from the point of view of someone who has just lost a child at war. You were not allowed to mention falling in love nor the child. This simple assignment revealed how completely different the world looks depending on your emotional state. When I imagined walking through a crowded city in a state of bliss, my mind was focused on the colors and sounds and my view was expansive. When strolling through a similar scene in a depressed state, everything looked gray and all the imperfections, such as cracks in the sidewalk, jumped into focus. I couldn’t see beyond my own feet, and the city seemed daunting, as opposed to stimulating. This is what I wrote for that assignment a dozen years ago:

Sara leaned over to admire the bouquet of peach-colored roses she had just bought. Her mind wandered fancifully from the flowers to the wonderful smell of fresh bread coming from the bakery next door. Standing to the side of the entrance was an amateur juggler. With his wildly colored costume, he attracted an audience of children who giggled each time he made a mistake. She watched a few minutes, and found herself giggling too. He finished his performance with a foppish bow towards Sara. She took a deep bow in return, and handed him a rose.


Joe walked with his head down, protecting himself from the icy fog, as wind-whipped newspapers sailed through the air, slapping against the buildings before taking off again. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back. Step on a line, break your mother’s spine.” These words kept running through Joe’s mind as he passed each crack that disrupted the rhythmic pattern of the sidewalk. The childhood taunt became a low drone in the back of his brain as he focused on the uneven path that stretched in front of him.

This was a valuable assignment not just for practicing my writing skills, but also for life in general - a poignant reminder that we choose how we view the world around us. The environment is filled with flaws and flowers, and we each decide which to embrace.

This blog post is an edited excerpt from What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, published by HarperCollins in April 2009.

What's Your Risk Profile?

Trying new things requires a willingness to take risks. However, risk taking not binary. You probably feel comfortable taking some types of risks and find other types quite uncomfortable. In fact, you might not even see the risks that are comfortable for you to take, discounting their riskiness, but are likely to amplify the risk of things that make you more anxious. For example, you might love flying down a ski slope at lightning speed or jumping out of airplanes, and don’t view these activities as risky. If so, you’re blind to the fact that you’re taking on significant physical risk. Others, like me, who are not physical risk takers, would rather sip hot chocolate in the ski lodge or buckle themselves tightly into their airplane seats than strap on a pair of ski boots or a parachute. Alternatively, you might feel perfectly comfortable with social risks, such as giving a speech to a large crowd. This doesn’t seem risky at all to me. But others, who might be perfectly happy jumping out of a plane, would never think to give a toast at a party.

On reflection, there appear to be five primary types of risks: physical, social, emotional, financial, and intellectual. For example, I know that I’m comfortable taking social risks but not physical risks. In short, I will readily start a conversation with a stranger, but please don’t ask me to bungee jump off a bridge. I will also happily take intellectual risks that stretch my analytical abilities, but I’m not a big financial risk taker. On a trip to Las Vegas I would bring only a small amount of cash, to make sure I didn’t lose too much.

I often ask people to map their own risk profile. With only a little bit of reflection, each person knows which types of risks he or she is willing to take. They realize pretty quickly that risk taking isn’t uniform. It’s interesting to note that most entrepreneurs don’t see themselves as big risk takers. After analyzing the landscape, building a great team, and putting together a detailed plan, they feel as though they have squeezed as much risk out of the venture as they can. In fact, they spend most of their efforts working to reduce the risks for their business.

September 20, 2009

Time is More Valuable than Money

Most people look at their bank accounts with great attention and assess how much money they have to spend, to invest, and to give away… But, they don’t look at their time the same way, and end up wasting this incredibly valuable resource. In fact, time is much more valuable than money because you can use your time to make money, but you can’t use money to purchase more time.

Time is the great equalizer… Each day has only 24 hours - nobody has any more than anyone else. Everyone, from poets to presidents, fills those hours, one after the other, until they are all filled up. Every single minute is unique, and once gone, can never be regained.

When you look at someone who has accomplished a lot, you can be pretty sure that he or she has spent considerable amounts of time mastering the required skills, filling hours upon hours with hard work. There are those who look at others’ accomplishments and say, “I had that idea, “ or “I could have done that.” But ideas are cheap and intentions are just that. If you don’t invest the time needed to achieve those goals then all you have are empty ambitions.

People often say, “I don’t have the time to…” Fill in the blank with whatever you like: exercise, make dinner, write a book, start a company, run for political office. What makes these people think that they have less time than anyone else? Of course they don’t. We all have the same 24 hours in each day and make real decisions about how we spend them. If you really want to get in shape, then carve out time to exercise. If you want to write a book, then pick up a pen and do it. And, if you want to run for president, then get started. It isn’t going to happen if you plan your day around your favorite TV shows or spend hours updating your Facebook page. These are entertaining distractions that eat up your irreplaceable time.

I teach a course on creativity and innovation at Stanford University. During a workshop on how to brainstorm I often give the following prompt: There aren’t enough hours in a day. Come up with creative solutions to this dilemma. The brainstorming results in a an endless list of solutions – from the practical to the preposterous – demonstrating that there are lots of ways to extract more from each hour, each day, and each year. Some of the most interesting solutions involve figuring out how to do two things at once. I know many people who have successfully incorporated this approach into their own lives.

For instance, I met a woman named Audrey Carlson several years ago who was struggling to figure out how to spend time with her friends and take care of her growing family. She started a group called “Chop and Chat.” Every Sunday six friends got together to cook at a member’s home. Each member brought the ingredients to make a different recipe that was then split into six portions. Members took home six different main courses for the week. Chop and Chat was an inventive way for the women to cook together, socialize, and prepare meals for their families.

Another example is venture capitalist Fern Mandelbaum. You would assume that meetings with Fern take place in her office… and you’d be wrong. Fern is an avid athlete and her meetings take place on hiking paths. Everyone who knows Fern knows to wear walking shoes and carry a bottle of water to their meetings in anticipation of a strenuous hike. Fern finds that this strategy is a great way to get to know each entrepreneur while also getting exercise.

There is an oft-quoted saying that "time is money." You can interpret this to mean that time is a valuable currency. In fact, each day another 24 hours is deposited into each of our “bank accounts.” We get a choice about how to spend these hours. We decide how much we spend right away, how much gets invested for the future, and how much we give away. The worst choice is to waste these hours by letting them slip away.

It is almost noon, and I have 12 more hours to invest today!

August 21, 2009

Life is an the Ultimate Open Book Exam

In most schools, students are evaluated as individuals and graded on a curve relative to their classmates. In short, when they win someone else loses. Not only is this stressful, but it isn’t how most organizations work in the real world. Outside of school, people usually work on a team with a shared goal, and when they win so does everyone else. In fact, in the business world there are usually small teams embedded inside larger teams, and at every level the goal is to make everyone successful.

The typical classroom also has a teacher who views his or her job as pouring information into the students’ brains. The door to the room is closed and the chairs are bolted to the floor, facing the teacher. Students take careful notes, knowing they will be tested on the material later. For homework they are asked to read assigned material from a textbook and quietly absorb it on their own. This couldn’t be any more different from life after college, where you are your own teacher, charged with figuring out what you need to know, where to find the information, and how to absorb it. In fact, real life is the ultimate open book exam. The doors are thrown wide open, allowing you to draw on endless resources around you as you tackle open-ended problems related to work, family, friends, and the world at large. Carlos Vignolo, a masterful professor at the University of Chile, told me that he provocatively suggests that students take classes from the worst teachers in their school because this will prepare them for life, where they won’t have talented educators leading the way.

Additionally, in large classes, students are typically given multiple-choice tests with one right answer for every question, and the bubbles must be carefully filled in with number two pencils to make for easy grading. In sharp contrast, in most situations outside of school there are a multitude of answers to every question, many of which are correct in some way. And, even more important, it is acceptable to fail. In fact, failure is an important part of life’s learning process. Just as evolution is a series of trial-and-error experiments, life is full of false starts and inevitable stumbling. The key to success is the ability to extract the lessons out of each of these experiences and to move on with that new knowledge.

For most people, the world is quite different than a typical classroom. There isn’t one right answer that leads to a clear reward, and facing the wall of choices in front of each of us can be quite overwhelming. Although family, friends, and neighbors will happily give us pointed advice about what to do, it is essentially our responsibility to pick our own direction. But it is helpful to know that we don’t have to be right the first time. Life beyond school presents each of us with many opportunities to experiment and recombine our skills and passions in new and surprising ways.

July 28, 2009

FAIL in order to SUCCEED

I require my students to write a failure résumé. That is, to craft a résumé that summarizes all their biggest screw ups — personal, professional, and academic. For every failure, each student must describe what he or she learned from that experience. Just imagine the looks of surprise this assignment inspires in students who are so used to showcasing their successes. However, after they finish their résumé, they realize that viewing their experiences through the lens of failure forced them to come to terms with the mistakes they have made along the way and to extract important lessons from them. In fact, as the years go by, many former students continue to keep their failure résumé up-to-date, in parallel with their traditional résumé of successes.

A failure resume is a quick way to demonstrate that failure is an important part of our learning process, especially when you’re stretching your abilities, doing things the first time, or taking risks. We hire people who have experience not just because of their successes but also because of their failures. Failures increase the chance that you won’t make the same mistake again. Failures are also a sign that you have taken on challenges that expand your skills. In fact, many successful people believe that if you aren’t failing sometimes then you aren’t taking enough risks. Additionally, it is pretty clear that the ratio of our successes and failure is pretty constant. So, if you want more successes, you are going to have to tolerate more failure along the way.

This is a great video clip of Randy Komisar talking about the role of failure in success... It is a favorite on the ECorner web site.

July 26, 2009

Brainstorming Rules: What TO DO and What NOT TO DO...

These two short videos are priceless! They were created by students at the Stanford Design Institute. The first one shows how NOT to brainstorm and the second one shows HOW to do it effectively. They picked a fanciful problem to solve - saving your chewing gum when you go to class.

The worst case example happens all the time. In fact, I was at a meeting last week with people with whom I don't normally work, and we were "brainstorming" about a new program. One person made a suggestion, and someone else literally responded with, "Go shoot yourself." For anyone who has spent any time polishing their brainstorming skills, they know that the FIRST rule is to defer judgment. This was a great, real life example of how NOT to do it.

Here is a video summary of what NOT to do:

Here is a video summary of what TO DO:


- Defer judgment
- Capture all the ideas
- Encourage wild ideas
- One conversation at a time
- Build on other people's ideas
- Be visual - use words and pictures
- Use headlines to summarize ideas
- Go for volume - the more ideas the better!

July 24, 2009

The "Rule Breakers" Career Guide

The is an interview from the new BNET blog, Entry-Level Rebel. Enjoy...

Tina, what’s one widely held belief about career progress that you think young people would do well to disregard?

Most young people believe that their career path should progress at a predictable rate, with ever increasing responsibilities and compensation. That usually isn’t — and shouldn’t be — the case. I like the analogy that Carol Bartz, CEO of Yahoo!, used when she spoke at Stanford a few years ago. She said that you should look at the progress of your career as moving around and up a three dimensional pyramid as opposed to up a two dimensional ladder. Lateral moves along the side of the pyramid allow you to build a base of experience. It may not look as though you are moving up quickly, but you are gaining a foundation of skills, experience, and contacts that will prove extremely valuable later. Additionally, there are often times when you slide backward. Don’t despair: Your recovery after a failure often propels you forward more quickly than if you stayed on a linear, predictable path.

What advice would you give to a young person who has discovered that what they studied, or what they thought they wanted to do, isn’t really for them? How should they approach shifting direction?

It is both exciting and scary to make right angle turns in your career. The good news is that you continue to build your base of experience as you shift between different disciplines. I started out as a neuroscientist and assumed that I would build a career doing research. I soon learned that I was not cut out for a career behind a lab bench. During my job search I ended up getting an informational interview with a management consulting firm. My hope was that they would introduce me to some of their life-science clients. When I walked in the room I was asked how a background in neuroscience prepared me for a job in consulting. I could have told them the truth — that I hadn’t considered a job as a consultant — but decided to wing it. I outlined all the similarities between management consulting and brain research … and was offered a job later that day! I have learned again and again that the core skills needed to be successful are consistent between fields and that the more you polish those basic skills — such as communication, leadership, analysis, and creative problem-solving — the more successful you will be.

Any suggestions for young people who don’t know what they want to do or what their true passion is?

I have heard this from many young people. I believe that it is really hard to find your passions when you have always followed “the rules.” That is, when you have been programmed to do exactly what others want you to so. It makes sense that after years of responding to what others expect, that you have no idea what really drives you. This happened to me, too. In fact, I was so frustrated by always doing what others wanted me to do that soon after I started graduate school, I chose to take some time off…. I moved across the country to Santa Cruz, California, and decided to be a leaf in the wind for a while. My family was shocked and disappointed. But, in retrospect, it was one of the best things I have ever done. I was finally able to see what I wanted to do when I got up in the morning. I was able to uncover my own skills and interests. And, I was able to experiment with new things that weren’t on the prescribed path. By giving myself the space to figure out what I was passionate about, I became internally motivated — as opposed to externally motivated — and have never looked back.

What’s one practical thing the low man (or woman) on the office totem pole can do at work tomorrow to make their lives easier or better?

When you get to the office tomorrow, take a few minutes to figure out what you can do to make other people successful. Ask someone what you can do for them? It is easy to do and pays off a hundred times over. By making other people successful, you inspire them to want to make you succeed. You never know when you will need a small — or big — favor, and by paving the way by helping others, it is much more likely that others will help you when you need it most.

Your latest book is entitled What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World. So the inevitable question: if you could go back and give your 20-year-old self just one piece of advice, what would it be?

I would tell myself that the uncertainty of life never goes away. There are always choices in front of you, challenges to overcome, and failures from which you need to recover. If you embrace the challenges and view them through the lens of possibilities, then you will not only be happier, but will be much more likely to turn the inevitable obstacles into opportunities. The world is always changing, and it is up to you to be flexible and optimistic. With a positive attitude and creative thinking, most problems can be viewed as opportunities in disguise.

July 21, 2009

What do YOU wish you knew when you were 20?

Four years ago, when he turned sixteen, it dawned on me that my son, Josh would be heading to college in only two years. I wanted to share with him what I wished I had known when I left home and when I started my career. So, I created a growing list of things I now know are critically important in making one’s place in the world. This document resided on the desktop of my computer and whenever I remembered another lesson, I added it to the list. A few months after I started this project, I was asked to give a talk to students in a business leadership program at Stanford and decided to use these insights for inspiration. I crafted a talk called “What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20,” in which I wove together these concepts with short video clips of entrepreneurial thought leaders who amplified these ideas. This talk eventually turned into a book by the same name.

My original list included things such as turn problems into opportunities, make your own luck, try lots of things and keep what works, and don't burn bridges. I invite you to add your own lessons to the list... What do YOU wish you knew when you were 20?

July 16, 2009

What is Creativity?

This six minute video clip of Stanford Professor Bob Sutton is one of the most popular on the STVP ECorner web site. Bob gives fabulous examples of the power of looking at old things in new ways, and recombining existing ideas, when trying come up with something completely new.

Five Minutes of Fame

This is a short segment from View from the Bay on ABC TV. The best part was meeting all the interesting folks in the green room.

July 15, 2009

The Art of Teaching Entrepreneurship and Innovation

If you can't find a way to come to one of my talks, or if you want a preview, you can watch the video of a talk I gave at Stanford this past May as part of our Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders seminar series. I am usually one of the hosts, but my colleagues indulged me by letting give a talk about my new book. I hope you enjoy it!

Talks coming up...

For those who are interested in the multimedia version of my book, I have a few speaking gigs coming up in San Francisco... Tomorrow night (July 16) I will be presenting a multimedia talk at an event that is co-hosted by Girls in Tech and Bay Area Women in Film and Media. The doors open at 6:30 and the event starts at 7:00 PM. Here is a link to the program information.

Also, next week (July 21) I will be speaking at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. The doors open at 5:30 and the talk starts at 6:00 PM. Details can be found here.

If you want a preview, I will be on TV on Thursday, July 16. Check out View From The Bay (ABC-7) from 3 - 4 PM. To see the entire program for that day, check out this site.

June 27, 2009

Radio Time... on

On Monday, June 29 at 2PMET/11AMPT, I will be on the live internet radio show, The show is called Positive Living and is hosted by Patricia Raskin.

Here is the press release....

Join nationally recognized, multi-media radio talk show host and award-winning producer Patricia Raskin, host of the Positive Living radio show on on Monday June 29 at 2PMET/11AMPT, when she interviews Tina Seelig, author, winner of the 2009 Gordon Prize from the National Academy of Engineering, and executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP). STVP is the entrepreneurship center at Stanford’s School of Engineering dedicated to accelerating high-technology entrepreneurship education and creating scholarly research on technology-based firms. She will discuss her newest book, What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World, which focuses on challenging assumptions, breaking the "rules", leveraging limited resources, and creatively tapping into one's entrepreneurial spirit to make things happen.

Don't miss this live interview with Tina Seelig, on Monday, June 29 at 2PMET/11AMPT on or on-demand any time and anywhere at

Visit Patricia Raskin - the national powerhouse of Positive Living talk radio at