The Accidential Genius

The accidental genius - image for article by Greg Alder

Francis Bacon said that all painting is an accident. There are people who’d point to Jackson Pollock’s paintings as evidence of art by accident.

But this isn’t what Bacon meant. It wasn’t the act of painting, but the inspiration that he called an accident. Acknowledging the wilful act of painting, he added, “one must select what part of the accident to preserve”.

He’s right, of course. The ideas for most paintings come accidentally. Ideas are the result of a collision between two existing ideas – often unrelated and unconnected. Artists channel these accidents for inspiration.

The reason few of us will ever create great art isn’t because we’ve never learnt the technique of painting. It’s because we’re preconditioned to view accidents as something to be avoided.

As kids, we were told to hold the glass tightly, not to run, to watch where we’re going, not to climb trees – in case of accidents.

We drive cars designed to minimise the risk of accidents. We insure our possessions and lives in case of accidents.

Our subconscious minds don’t discern between the accidents that hurt us and the ones that inspire us.

As a result, accidental ideas have a hard time of it. Most of us would be reluctant to admit our big idea came about by accident.

Imagine the embarrassment of 3M scientist Dr Spencer Silver who, whilst trying to create a strong glue, accidentally created a really weak one that was then used to create Post-It Notes.

Imagine engineer Percy Spencer, who invented microwave cooking when the chocolate bar in his shirt pocket melted whilst he was inspecting a magnetron. Or electrical engineer Wilson Greatbatch who invented the pacemaker when he accidentally picked up the wrong resistor.

Imagine the Pfizer chemists who were trying to create a drug to treat angina – and instead created one that gave men erections. (Ironically, one of the side-effects of Viagra is possible heart attack.)

Or William Perkin who was seeking to produce artificial quinine to treat malaria and instead came up with the world’s first synthetic dye. The colour was mauve.

Or the unfortunate 9th century Chinese alchemists who were trying to create an elixir for life and instead created gunpowder. Kaboom.

Or Harry Coover, who was trying to create a new material for gun sights and instead came up with superglue – probably the worst material for something you hold up to your eye.

Each of these scientists and engineers was performing rigorously disciplined experiments. And now they must explain to their superiors that their big idea happened by accident!
We need to change our attitude to accidents. We need to encourage them. Sure, minimise the damage if we must. But encourage them all the same.

Every accidental idea that has led to an innovation has also increased the chance of more accidents.

Superglue was a failure in gun sights but a success in repairing broken items. However, it gave rise to accidents in which people stuck things together that they didn’t want stuck together. Fingers, for example. As a result, people needed to come up with ideas of ways to remove the super glue – and more than likely some of these solutions were the result of accidents.

Your next accident might be the catalyst for your stroke of genius. Then again, it might simply be a failure. But don’t be dismayed by failure. Remember Thomas Edison’s words: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Edison accumulated 2,332 patents for his inventions.

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