If necessity is the mother of invention, irritation is the father.
People can be motivated to make changes based on so-called positive emotions, but I would argue that anger is more often the spark for fueling innovation. Some people live by the credo
Don't get mad, get even.
But as Mohandas Gandhi so adroitly observed,
An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
Aristotle offers additional insight into the challenges of channeling irritation:
Anyone can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way - that is not within everyone's power and that is not easy.
When the wronged can transform their anger in constructive ways, they produce benefits that often outweigh and outlast the instigating incidents.
I've been thinking about the inspirational power of irritation for a while now. The numerous clips I've seen and heard over the past several days from the late director Sidney Lumet's 1976 film, Network, have inspired me to compile some examples of irritation being a factor in empowering people to take action. The famous line repeated by the late actor Peter Finch as newscaster Howard Beale - and many of his viewers - is particularly on-point:
I have often described my own work as irritation-based research: don't [just] get mad about something, create a research project and/or prototype to solve it! MusicFX was born out of irritation with music playing in a fitness center; ActiveMap grew out of frustration with colleagues being chronically late to meetings; Ticket2Talk was a response to a newcomer's awkwardness of meeting people and initiating conversations at a conference
I believe we are all productive - or potentially productive - but differences in our personalities, training and experiences lead us to contribute in different ways in different realms. When irritation strikes, we naturally gravitate toward the channels through which we are best able to express or transform our frustration. Research happens to be a channel that has proven useful for me, but over the years, I've encountered numerous variations on this theme, applied to a broad range of domains. For the purposes of this post, I'll focus on a subset, exploring examples of people demonstrating how to constructively channel irritation to
- write a book
- write a program
- create a company
Write a book
One of the most inspiring convocation keynotes I've ever seen was Jonah Lehrer's Metacognitive Guide to College, delivered at Willamette University last fall. After presenting a fun and fascinating whirlwind tour of neuroscience, psychology and sociology, in the context of a 5-point guide to how to succeed in (and through) college, the 27 year-old author of How We Decide entertained questions from the audience. My favorite question was asked by a student who wanted to know how Lehrer decides which questions to ask (or pursue). He answered that he wrote a book about decisions primarily because he is pathologically indecisive, and generally tends to begin with his own frustrations. [Update, 2012-Apr-01: A Brain Pickings review of Lehrer's new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, includes his observation that "the act of feeling frustrated is an essential part of the creative process."]
More recently, in preparing slides for a guest lecture on human-robotic interaction, I highlighted the irritation that prompted Sherry Turkle to write her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Turkle experienced a robotic moment several years ago while viewing live Galapagos tortoises at the Darwin exhibit showing at the American Museum of Natural History, when her 14 year-old daughter, Rebecca, commented "they could have used a robot". While Turkle had been growing increasingly concerned about the ways that robots and other technologies were changing our perspectives and expectations, this moment provided the spark that led her to take on the daunting challenge of writing a book. And this constructive channeling of irritation has sparked numerous conversations about the relative costs and benefits of online vs. offline interactions.
Write a program
One of the earliest articulations of irritation-based software development I encountered as by Eric Raymond, author of the 2001 book, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, in which he states the first rule of open source software:
Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer's personal itch.
Later in the book, he begins the chapter on The Social Context of Open Source Software with the following elaboration of this principle:
It is truly written: the best hacks start out as personal solutions to the author's everyday problems, and spread because the problem turns out to be typical for a large class of users. This takes us back to the matter of rule 1, restated in a perhaps more useful way:
To solve an interesting problem, start by finding a problem that is interesting to you.
More recently, in a March 2008 blog post articulating 37signals' response to a critique by Don Norman, Jason Fried invoked a principle and rationale to support designing for ourselves (a fabulous post which also includes related insights about editing, software feature curation and not trying to please everyone):
Designing for ourselves first yields better initial results because it lets us design what we know. It lets us assess quality quickly and directly, instead of by proxy. And it lets us fall in love with our products and feel passionate about what we make. There’s simply no substitute for that. ...
We listen to customers but we also listen to our own guts and hearts. We believe great companies don’t blindly follow customers, they blaze a path for them. ...
Solutions to our own problems are solutions to other people’s problems too [emphasis mine]. By building products we want to use, we’re also building products that millions of other small businesses want to use. Not all businesses, not all customers, not everyone, but a healthy, sustainable, growing, and profitable segment of the market.
Interestingly, Don Norman's perspective on design innovation appears to have evolved since that exchange: a view articulated in a controversial essay on Technology First, Needs Last: the research-product gulf, which appeared in the March 2010 issue of ACM Interactions. Although he does not cite irritation as a prime mover, Norman does call into question the influence of necessity on innovative breakthroughs:
I've come to a disconcerting conclusion: design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs. ... Although we would prefer to believe that conceptual breakthroughs occur because of a detailed consideration of human needs, especially fundamental but unspoken hidden needs so beloved by the design research community, the fact is that it simply doesn't happen. ... grand conceptual inventions happen because technology has finally made them possible.
Create a company
One recent articulator of irritation as inspiration is Martin Tobias, a serial entrepreneur and currently CEO of Tippr, who was profiled in a December 2010 Fast Company article on Innovation Agents:
The one common thread throughout Tobias' entrepreneurial journey: a healthy dose of anger. With Imperium Renewables, Tobias was "personally pissed at the climate damage that oil companies were doing,” he says. “When I started Kashless, I was personally pissed that my friends in the local bar and restaurant business didn’t have effective ways to use the Internet to get people to walk in the door to their businesses. I’m saving small businesses that are run by my friends. That’s an incredibly personal thing.”
That kind of righteous fury, according to Tobias, is the secret to any startup. “Find a problem that personally pisses you off and solve it, and you’ll be a good entrepreneur," he says. "The day that I wake up and I don’t have a hard problem to solve, I will stop being an entrepreneur."
The personal problem that motivated Jamie Heywood, Benjamin Heywood and their friend Jeff Cole to create PatientsLikeMe was the the struggle of their brother, Stephen Heywood, who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 1998. They developed a company and web platform to enable patients to share and learn from each others' experiences, and track the course of their condition and treatment(s), enabling them to tell their stories in data and words. The company recently expanded from its initial focus on 22 chronic conditions (including ALS, Parkinson's disease, HIV, depression, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis and organ transplants) to support patients suffering from any condition(s).
The story of the family's frustration - and response - also provided the inspiration for a movie, So Much, So Fast:
Made over 5 years, So Much So Fast tracks one family's ferocious response to an orphan disease: the kind of disease drug companies ignore because not there's not enough profit in curing it. In reaction, and with no medical background, Stephen's brother Jamie creates a research group and in two years builds it from three people in a basement to a multi-million dollar ALS mouse facility. Finding a drug in time becomes Jamie's all-consuming obsession.
As I get to know more Health 2.0 activists, advocates and platforms - some of whom I profiled in previous posts on social media and computer supported cooperative health care and platform thinking - and encounter more examples of their blessing, wounding, longing, loss, pain and transformation, I increasingly appreciate the innovative power of irritation ... especially when the source of the irritation is a matter of life and death.
In reviewing these examples, I am repeatedly reminded of the wisdom of Carl Rogers' profound observation:
There are, of course, many other ways that people channel their personal frustrations in innovative ways that benefit a more general population, and I would welcome the contribution of other inspiring examples in the comments below.
I will finish off with a video clip of the scene from the movie, Network, that I mentioned at the outset. It's interesting to note how many of the problems that contributed to Howard Beale's madness in 1976 are still - or again - prominent in today's world ... providing plenty of fodder for future innovation.