What’s your problem? This guiding question of the Charles C. Gates Invention and Innovation Program has inspired Graland students for two decades. Admittedly, the query can contain an edge of accusation, as if one was just jostled on a busy New York City sidewalk, but for the students participating in Gates, it is asked in earnest. It requires young inventors to identify a problem impacting others and go solve it. It both launches and fuels the inventive process.
Interestingly, that process also relies on elements of the social-emotional learning (SEL) framework that Daniel Goleman introduced in his book, “Emotional Intelligence,” and refined in his collaboration with Peter Senge, “The Triple Focus.” According to Goleman and Senge, the keys to social-emotional growth are an understanding of self, of others, and of the world. These keys also unlock innovation.
To recognize and comprehend a problem, one needs to be aware of one’s own experience of that problem, and then, more importantly, delve deeply into others’ experience of that same problem. This second element relies on empathy, the ability to envision a perspective beyond one’s own. In “The Triple Focus,” Goleman states that “SEL concerns a focus on other people. This is the basis of empathy—understanding how other people feel and how they think about the world—along with social skills, cooperation, and teamwork. In the working world these abilities are seen in the best team members, good organizational citizens, and effective leaders.” The capacity to understand others is essential for successful innovators and more comprehensively, successful people.
Henry Ford, arguably one of America’s great inventors, said, “If there is any one secret to success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle, as well as your own.” From Ford’s time until today, many have refined his insight and legitimized empathy’s role in innovation. Specifically, IDEO, a global design firm featured in Tony Wagner’s “Creating Innovators,” initially developed the term, “design thinking,” and then Stanford University expanded on the concept, once again giving empathy an essential position in that framework. Stanford’s Design Thinking Process originates with Empathy, including interviews, shadowing, seeking to understand, and being non-judgmental, and then progresses from there to Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. Though each stage is as important as the next, empathy is the catalyst.
Wagner also recounts how IDEO’s former CEO Tim Brown defines the characteristics of a design thinker and includes empathy as “the ability to imagine the world from multiple perspectives and having an attitude that puts people first.” This trait also influences two of the other attributes of an inventor—integrative thinking, the ability to see all dimensions of a dilemma, and collaboration. Wagner specifically acknowledges empathy’s important role in one of “the most essential qualities of a successful innovator […]: collaboration, which begins with listening to and learning from others who have perspectives and expertise that are very different from your own” and deems empathy one of the most significant character traits for us to nurture in our future entrepreneurs and innovators.
Throughout “Creating Innovators,” Wagner explores what traits connect the impactful innovators of our time and discovers three essential themes—play, passion, and purpose—that motivate their inventive journey. This final element—purpose—is the one most closely linked to empathy, as it relates to the inventors’ need to make a difference in the world. They are not just creating inventions for themselves, out of some sense of whimsy. They are creating with others, for others. Empathy is at the heart of their collaboration and innovation. Because of the incredible importance of these humanitarian endeavors, Goleman also urges educators and parents to prioritize the teaching of empathy. Though he discusses how cognitive empathy (understanding how other people experience the world) and emotional empathy (having an intuitive sense of how others feel) help us create strong relationships, he specifically stresses the need to foster empathic concern in students so that they can take empathic action in the service of others.
Over the years, many Gates projects reveal this type of empathic engagement. I specifically remember two from the 2014 Expo and Competition, the Grav-WASH-ity and the Hugs of Hope Blanket. Sophie Goldberg ‘16, then a sixth grader, invented the former, a washing machine that was powered by gravity, not electricity, for people in rural areas of developing countries. The latter, invented by Rachel Colson ‘16 and Sofia Palumbo ‘16, also sixth graders at the time, was a blanket that contained survival supplies for those stranded in refugee camps. Both of these award-winning creations showed the inventiveness that defines the work of all Gates participants and demonstrated the social-emotional understanding of self, of others and of the world that Goleman stresses. They displayed the impactful synthesis of empathy and creativity.
As we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Gates Invention and Innovation Program, I stand in awe of Charles C. Gates’s expansive vision. It was about much more than invention. It was about humanity, because by inspiring young inventors to think beyond themselves and to create for the sake of others, Mr. Gates was not only cultivating the next innovators, he was cultivating the next leaders. Though the ability to empathize is the starting point of the design process, it is also very much the genesis of compassionate leadership. As I look to the future, we will rely on this convergence of invention and compassion to solve the dilemmas that are most threatening to our society. Then the simple question, “What’s your problem?”, will truly reveal its profound significance.