“At the height of laughter, the universe is flung into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities.” —Jean Houston
I wonder, when this coronavirus pandemic is finally behind us, if we will have seen a pause in the technological and social progress that had been happening at such a breakneck pace before the illness had spread throughout the world. I wonder if the attention that we have been forced to place on our own survival has stolen from our ability to innovate and create. This, despite the extra time that many of us have had to endure away from our jobs and normal activities, and the time that we would now have to dream up new possibilities.
Optimism opens the mind to curiosity and creativity, both of which are necessary for innovation to occur. New technologies, new techniques, and new approaches to societal needs are not likely to happen unless someone somewhere believes in their merits strongly enough to persist and bring them to fruition. The ability to focus enough on the subject at hand to create something new or to improve something already existing requires a sense that everything else is at least satisfactory, even good, and does not require extensive attention. These are hallmarks of an optimistic outlook.
Innovation is more than an essential element of our society; it is the warp and woof of humankind; innovation has been the fire that made possible steady progress in the time that we have existed as a species, and was instrumental to keep the U.S. as an independent country in its earliest days . Innovation is the fundamental part of the genetic code of our society, and the health of our society depends on maintaining this element.
American society allows almost anyone to be an innovator; one does not need to be among the privileged classes to have the dream of innovation; one does not need to be highly educated to be an innovator; one does not need to be a genius to innovate. All one needs to have is the ability to perceive a need, an idea about how to meet that need, and some thoughts and actions leading to the adoption of the new creation. One of the best modern examples of the diffused natures of innovators is the creation and adoption of many cell phone apps by a broad range of phone users, including creative young teenagers as well as more experienced information technology specialists.
The optimism that leads to innovation is not equated with happiness. One can be morose in outlook and still be optimistic about the ultimate success of one’s efforts. Optimism is a sense of purpose, of a self-confidence that the outcome will be worth the effort that is invested in it.
We have a saying that “ignorance is bliss,” bliss being a state of happiness accompanied by a carefree state of mind. This, however, is not the same as optimism. A key difference is that optimism is a positive state of mind while still knowing all the relative information about the situation at hand. Optimism persists almost despite knowing the worst.
Abraham Maslow ,  presented a theory of human motivation that is relevant here. He introduced the idea that human motivation begins at the elementary level with physiological needs, such as food, drink, and air. Once these basic needs are satisfied, there are safety and security needs, then social needs, esteem needs, aesthetic needs, and, finally, once all the lower needs have been met, there is the need for self-actualization. It is at this pinnacle of needs that creativity and innovation can be made possible.
Optimism is a high order state of mind that is easily trumped by the emotions of fear, anxiety, loneliness, and anger. For many, the pandemic has brought these basic emotions back into our consciousness, precluding the freedom of thought that is needed to consider notions of better solutions to existing problems.
Some might be familiar with the quote by Thomas Edison, one of the greatest of all inventors, when describing his often unsuccessful search for the best material to use as a filament in his electric light bulb. He said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” He had to have had a strong sense of confident optimism to persist in the search for the right material for his use .
Edison’s doggedness, however, was not as impressive as that of physicist and inventor Chester Carlson, the creator of the photocopier . He used static electricity created with a handkerchief, light, and dry powder to demonstrate the principle in 1938, but the copier didn’t get on to the market until 1959, more than 20 years later. In his search for improvements that would make his discovery practical, he was extremely single-minded and had little external support in his pursuit. His sense of determination had to be borne from the optimistic assurance that he would ultimately succeed.
There is, in our history, a cautionary incident about the influence of fear and anxiety on innovation. It happened shortly after the U.S. Civil War. Newly freed from the curse of slavery, African Americans at the time were probably cheerful and hopeful of a better life for themselves and others like them. Their energies were released to spend to prosper and grow. Their lives were now more in control of their own selves, and they responded by building and creating. Patent activity among Black people rose steadily from the end of the Civil War until a precipitous decline in the year 1900; on the other hand, patents issued to White people remained, with some variation, roughly at a constant level throughout the period from 1870 to 1940. The sharp drop in innovative activity among Blacks appears to be related to increases in black lynchings and rioting just prior . The optimism that was endemic in Black Americans immediately after the Civil War was replaced with insecurity, with the result that innovation among these people fell to a very low level.
Harold Evans, journalist, historian, and author, describes innovation as more than invention . Innovation is more than the creation of new ideas, methods, and things; it is truly innovation when the improvement comes into use. Alexander Graham Bell is credited (perhaps wrongly) with the invention of the telephone, but it was work by Thomas Edison that made the telephone into a truly useful device. Innovations may take the form of new hardware, such as barbed wire, the moldboard plow, railroads, automobiles, jet airplanes, personal computers, and cell phones; innovation may take more ethereal forms, such as internet search engines, cell phone apps, social media forms, and on-line encyclopedias; innovation may take the form of new medical procedures and techniques that promise better health for all; innovation may also include new business ventures, new modes of commercial operation, and new means to promote existing products; innovation also comprises composing or arranging new music, writing new poetry, painting new masterpieces, or originating new creative or cultural endeavors. All of these innovation modes include the word “new,” and, along with the word “improved” are paramount concepts of innovation.
Research, of course, will continue during a pandemic, although perhaps hampered by restrictions meant to protect against spread of disease. Themes of research projects come in times of inspiration, usually before the pandemic occurs. Continuing research through a pandemic follows a course set before the pandemic was evident. Entirely new research ideas are not anymore likely to appear during a pandemic than are other innovations.
If it is true that an optimistic outlook is needed for innovation to occur, and if it is also true that optimism is sadly deficient during a pandemic such as the one that we are now experiencing, then one conclusion that can be reached from all this is that planning to deal with a pandemic should not be expected to happen while the pandemic is in place. The best time to create new approaches to deal with a pandemic is either before or after, but not while the pandemic is running its course and survival is paramount.
Climate change, human incursions into previous wild areas, and an increasing and more densely packed human population are likely ingredients for the occurrence of more pandemics happening more frequently in the near future . We cannot wait for them to occur before we figure out how to deal with them. While they are with us, we will likely be preoccupied with our own survivals, and public health planning is not likely to be as clever and innovative as it would be without the pressure of endurance.
It may be difficult these days to maintain a sense of optimism, with the current concomitant challenges of a politically divided nation and world, a pandemic, and gross inequality among peoples. There is, nevertheless, hope, as exemplified by an interview with a young member of the next generation of Americans. Asked what she would do if she were president of the United States, 5-year-old Parker Curry, quoted in Parade magazine (Oct. 18, 2020, p. 8), said, “If I were president, I would dance. I would dance 14 times a day. Everybody else would, too. We’d all be happy and strong. I would write stories, too. I’d write stories about happy things about my family. I’d have parties in the White House to celebrate Chinese New Year with a big dragon and some red lanterns hanging up.” Now, that is pure optimism.
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- A. T. Johnson, Biology for Engineers, 2nd ed. Boca Raton, FL, USA: CRC Press, 2019.
- A. H. Maslow, “A theory of human motivation,’’ Psychol. Rev., vol. 50, no. 4, pp. 370–96, 1943.