“All the good ideas for computers have been thought of.” said a veteran IBM employee soon after I joined the firm in 1966 when I asked about potential improvements to computers.
“You see how brilliant most of the people here are,” the man said with condescension in his voice, as he looked at me like I was stupid. “We have smart people like them all over the country. Don’t you think if there were better ideas, they’d have thought of them?”
Then he laughed out loud at me for even raising such a question. And he happily shared this joke with others at my expense. After all who was I to ask such a question when it was obvious brilliant people had developed computers as far as they could go.
He made me feel like 2-cents and it hurt my feelings. But he also taught me a valuable lesson in perception I’ll share with you today.
At that time, a computer and its peripheral equipment occupied a room larger than many houses; while under the costly, special raised flooring it set on were large cables connecting everything.
And in a nearby room almost as large as the computer room was massive air conditioning to cool that computer equipment. The electrical bills alone were phenomenal.
Those computers were extremely complex to program, requiring extensive and ongoing training and costly personnel. Just to program and run the machines required an entire department.
And to buy computer equipment was extremely expensive. Even a basic computer system cost a million dollars in 1960’s dollars, which adjusted for inflation would be about $5 million now. That was why virtually all computers were installed in large companies or governmental organizations.
Of course there was no such thing as the Internet nor were there microchips to operate your car, your appliances, your cellphone and other devices you depend on.
Today on your laptop, you have thousands of times the computing power of those machines and your laptop requires no special air conditioning, no extensive heavy duty cabling. It’s easy to run and it’s so lightweight, you can lift it up and carry it off.
That’s because people like Bill Gates and Michael Dell, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak didn’t know that computers and programming had been developed to their maximum capability. They were just kids with little money and little formal education working on computers in their garages or dorm rooms and they took those computers way beyond where IBM, Bell Labs and others had.
We’ve seen that phenomena again in recent years as young people with computers who didn’t know any better developed Google, Yahoo, YouTube, MySpace and many other concepts that continue to revolutionize how you and I function. And they built giant companies as a result.
I’m not critical of what that man told me in 1966 because to some extent most of us think like that. We get used to the way things are and close our minds as to what could be.
And we also believe only “brilliant people,” far smarter than us can develop new ideas and that it takes big corporate or government funding to act on it. Many an idea requires no outside funding, but of those that do, venture capitalists are always looking to finance the next outstanding idea.
And the concept of keeping an open mind goes far beyond high tech. Also in the 1960’s a high school kid was trying to master the high jump. Everyone told him the right way to jump was a facedown, sideways roll over the bar. But this defied his reasoning and despite their skepticism and laughter, he developed his own technique flopping over the bar flat on his back.
With his technique, he could build momentum by running up to the bar to thrust his body over and could more easily clear the bar because his center of gravity was more efficient.
Coaches and most other high jumpers scoffed. But no-other high school high jumper cleared 7 feet more consistently than he did.
And when this kid, Dick Fosbury with his “Fosbury Flop” won the Gold Medal at the 1968 Olympic Games, people from all over the world watched his unorthodox technique on TV and were greatly impressed. Young high jumpers began using his technique and today it is the one that dominates that sport.
So the valuable lesson in perception I share with you today, I learned from this man’s comment in 1966 is to be open to new ideas including your own. What seemed impossible yesterday might be accomplished today if only you believed in it.
If you have an idea that could improve computers, computer usage, a sport or some other field of endeavor, give it a chance. In the worst case, your idea may fail, but you’ll be wiser for having tried it. Or your idea may revolutionize the world or it may simply be the idea that lets you build a successful and enjoyable business.