Today, we ask about cooperation. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The other day my wife said,
"John, you say so much about individuality. What
about cooperation?" She caught me short. I am sure
to my bones about invention, about the pure
creative act, about the leap in the dark. I have no
doubt at all that creating something new is a joy
we can share only after we've done it.
So where does cooperation fit? It's such a basic
virtue among civilized people. It has to play a
part in the primary human enterprise of invention.
It does play a major role. Look back through the
history of invention. James Watt always kept up
running conversations with circles of inventive
friends. So did Newton, Edison, and Aristotle. Ben
Franklin's early work came out of a group that grew
into the American Philosophical Society.
The great creative people have always moved into
orbits with each other. Some deep-seated certainty
tells us that we give each other ideas. And we do.
Have you ever said something dull and ordinary,
only to have your listener hear a great truth?
Invention often comes out of reprocessings like
that. Collective invention is more of a norm than a
rarity. In fact it leads to terrible acrimony when
people fret over the useless question, "Who thought
of it first?"
Cooperation means joining our efforts toward common
goals. Deny the worth of that, and you can be
labled insane. Yet our minds are solitary places.
Students often ask why they shouldn't do homework
cooperatively. The answer is that cooperation to
get the homework finished will do only that -- and
not a jot more.
Inventive people do cooperate, but in odd ways.
They know how to move out of another person's
mental orbit as well as into it. After all:
cooperation has a slavish side. Pecking orders of
authority too often arise when we work together.
That's where the hard edges of a truly inventive
person have to change the conventional shape of
Just as St. Augustine saw God in a beggar, the
inventive person can see wisdom in a fool. Creative
people are quick to scorn intellectual authority. A
friend of mine once came back from his first trip
to Hollywood. He'd been shown a movie star's house.
"It's ugly!" he said. His guide replied, "What do
you mean it's ugly! It cost ten million dollars."
The real inventor has to be able to see the
ugliness in an accepted idea, or the beauty of a
good idea in the wrong place. That's the kind of
thing that looks like uncooperation. It is, in
fact, the way cooperation can be transformed into a
genuinely noble human activity.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds