One of the unexpected findings we had researching BIG IDEAS, was the discovery that every great innovation, creation, or invention has its genesis in a problem. When there’s plenty of money in the bank, food in the pantry, and everyone is getting along, that’s great – for a little while anyway, but homeostasis is an abysmal environment for improvement. It’s after the house blows down, or the floods come, or a business fails, that we look for better ways. Problems serve as catalysts for progress. Generally, our lives are enriched as a result. The search for solutions is how big ideas come about. And big ideas can change you, and the world as well.
One of the best examples of a problem that changed the world comes from the life of Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the movable-type printing press.
At the beginning of the fifteenth century, only thirty thousand books existed in all of Europe, roughly one book for every twelve hundred people on the continent. Books were assembled by hand, each book requiring approximately two years to produce. Such painstaking construction rendered each book prohibitively expensive. In today’s currency, the average European made fifteen cents a day, and a book cost about two hundred dollars, roughly two to three years’ income. Only the Church or the very wealthy could afford to own books. To Johannes Gutenberg, the rarity of books was an enormous problem begging for a solution.
As a metallurgist and inventor, Gutenberg often had more ideas than he had money. Cash to fund his business and his ideas was always in short supply. Gutenberg also had a passion for reading and was deeply troubled by the expense and rarity of books. Literacy was expanding from the clergy to the wider population, but what good was literacy when there was little to read?
These problems dominated Gutenberg’s thoughts. Possible solutions captivated his imagination. For over three years, Gutenberg struggled for answers. How could he produce books faster and more inexpensively? Was it possible to open the floodgates of knowledge for the masses and not just the wealthy few?
Gutenberg was running short on funds and ready to give up when, in an instant, an answer came. In Gutenberg’s own words, the solution manifested itself to his mind, “like a ray of light.” Printing with a press using movable type was his inspired, revolutionary idea.
It took Gutenberg ten years to raise the money, but once his printing press was operational, book production exploded. Within fifty years, there were over one thousand movable type printing presses in Europe and forty million books available on more than 14,000 subjects. Instead of two to three years of salary, a book could be purchased for a day’s pay. By 1600, there were over two hundred million new books in existence. Information and learning exploded, and in one generation the world was changed forever. Gutenberg’s press is arguably the most important invention in the history of the world.
What happened in Gutenberg’s brain when he had his big idea, and can such creativity be replicated? Can the average person have big ideas like Gutenberg? The answer is yes. But too often we settle for mediocre, uninspired solutions to our problems that deliver marginal results. Gutenberg’s solution could have been to hire more people to copy books by hand, or to carve more blocks of wood. Such solutions to the problem of too-few books had been used for hundreds of years. They were largely ineffective. Gutenberg’s insight was a much better way, a quantum leap forward.
The need for higher-grade answers to life’s endless array of distinctive challenges is ever-present. We all have problems that beg for better solutions. Whether we want to compose a symphony, feed a starving population, cure a disease, balance a budget, write a book, or heal a flailing relationship, we all need more inspiration and big ideas. Usually, our most pressing problems don’t have simple answers. Better solutions require thought, hard work, and inspiration.
In the book, BIG IDEAS, you can learn how to harness the power of your mind to access creativity, innovation, and big ideas, like Johannes Gutenberg was able to do. The book is for anyone trying to solve problems—creative, business, personal, or academic. It is a book for those who have puzzling difficulties but few answers.