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No. 386:

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 created them.

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 cooperation.

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 work.

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