Charles "Chic" Thompson went from a college dropout to working for some of the most iconic brands in the world. How did he do it? He believed--he believed in the value of his ideas. Using his love of learning, curiosity and his singularly creative mind, Chic ended up becoming a chemist, starting a cartoon company, and teaching at schools that would never have accepted him as a student.
But he wasn't always so creative. As a boy, Chic was afraid to express himself at home and school. But as he grew up and into his self-confidence, he turned his ideas into a career that's spanned everything from stints at Gore-Tex and Disney to penning two books. Today, Chic teaches creative leadership at The Brookings Institution and the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. I spoke with a man I'm proud to call my friend, and got his views on how to turn your ideas into an actionable business.
Name / Position / Company
Charles "Chic" Thompson
Batten Entrepreneurship Fellow, University of Virginia Darden School of Business
Founding Fellow, University of Virginia OpenGrounds
Author "What a Great Idea!" and "Yes, BUT!"
How has innovation changed the way you do business?
I love to reframe my client's challenge by asking: "What would you never do to achieve your desired result?" and then flip the never into a big, new possibility. My goal has always been to look for second and third "right answers" that aren't in the back of any teacher's edition. As a kid, I took really long showers and would jump out verbalizing my shower ideas. One day, my dad deflated my enthusiasm by saying, "Chic, ideas are a dime a dozen!" As a student, I spent hours battling the fears of expressing my ideas in class. I barely passed high school courses. I drew cartoons about the assignment for extra credit. This strategy didn't work in college. I only passed chemistry, art and economics classes. I dropped out three times. Over 50 years since my dad's warning, my "shower ideas" are the currency of my life. How did I go from dropping out of college to working as a chemist, to drawing cartoons, to now teaching? My answer is simple: I see in opposites, I look for what's right about every failure, I reverse words, and I connect adjacent, unrelated possibilities. This opposite strategy comes naturally because I have the gift of dyslexia and I see and take a lot of supposed missteps. To capitalize on this tendency to see in different directions, whenever something goes wrong or when I hear a wild idea, I instinctively ask, "What's right about it?"
What lesson do you have for young entrepreneurs?
My goal is to teach how to generate big ideas that can become a life strategy for solving challenges and creating futures. I call this creative strategy "opposite thinking." Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that creative adults tended to grow up in families embodying opposites. Parents encouraged uniqueness yet provided stability. They were highly responsive to kids' needs yet challenged kids to develop skills. This resulted in a sort of adaptability in times of anxiousness and in this age of paradox. To help my audience understand and embody opposites, I have created some rules of thumb. The rules are divided into three steps based on the experience that they will hopefully create: Imagine Opposites, Ignite Opposites, and Inspire Opposites.
Can you elaborate on those rules?
Step One: Imagine Opposites
1. Begin with the End in Mind
2. The Question is the Answer
3. Yes, and... vs. Yes, but!
4. Fail Forward
5. Expect the Unexpected
6. Cheap is Expensive
Step Two: Ignite Opposites
Look for a Second Right Answer
Create an Atypical Analogy
Break Your Patterns
Less is More
Step Three: Inspire Opposites
First Minute Makes a Lasting Impression
Elevator vs. Theater Pitch
When You're Stuck... Smile
Become the Change
What do you wish you knew when you were first starting that you now know?
Your creative success will be determined by what you know and by what you can forget. Unlearning those rules we grew up with may be the quickest way to a breakthrough idea. Some rules of school that hold us back:
There is only one right answer.
The teacher is always right.
The right answer is in the back of the Teacher's Edition.
Don't pass notes.
The answer is not on the ceiling.
To create an environment for idea harvesting, the rules definitely have changed. They are the exact opposite of those from school:
Look for second and third right answers.
Challenge management and look for answers from all levels.
Constantly revise policy manuals.
Pass notes, collaborate, and appreciate diversity.
The answers still aren't on the ceiling, but if you look with creative eyes, the questions might be.
What's the biggest hurdle every creator must tackle?
At five years of age, most people score higher on creativity tests than at any other time in their lives. At age 44, they score the lowest. Fortunately, there's a magic day in your life when you start scoring higher again. It's called retirement. When a child thinks up or hears a new idea, their initial thoughts are all about the possibilities, the fun they could have. But mature, educated minds usually first see what is wrong with a new idea. Many times their inner voice puts them down for thinking up the idea. Once we see only a serious world, devoid of curiosity, we lose hope, health, and happiness.
How has change helped foster a better work culture, and improve peoples' lives?
Muhammad Ali said: "A person who views the world at 50 the same as they did at 20 has wasted 30 years of their life." In a world without change, without new ideas, each day is the last day of your life. Open your arms to change, to new ideas, but don't let go of your values. Plato said that all humans strive for immortality. There are three ways to achieve this: by having children, planting trees, and creating an idea and making it happen. Go forth, become the change. And, along the way, ask questions, fail forward, find second right answers, and stare at ceilings.
How did you overcome self-doubt?
Once I gave up on my studies at the University of Delaware and realized that DuPont would never hire me as a chemist, I said, who would hire an A/F student? A in Chemistry, A in Art, A in Economics but F's in everything else. Maybe a startup chemical company that was all about new ideas and liked that I communicated visually with cartoons and interesting charts. I found a local chemical company that extruded Teflon (PTFE) and the PTFE uniquely allowed air to pass through it. The company was called W.L. Gore & Associates. I knew that I did not have the typical academic resume to apply so I wanted to meet Bill Gore on a level playing field. Tennis was my sport and luckily one of my tennis partners worked for Gore. He got me invited to play in a men's doubles tennis game that included Bill. After the game Bill asked me about college and I told him about my passion for product development. A call was made to confirm my A's in Chemistry. One month later they offered me a position for $9,000 per year. My job was to work in the lab and run brainstorming sessions on new uses for their product called Gore-Tex.
Is failure a myth, or does it really help you grow?
A person open to creativity accepts failure. Indeed, the person who is open to creativity expects failure. They want failure. For without failure, there's no innovation going on. At first, "expecting failure" might sound counterintuitive. After all, failure means a loss of money, self-esteem, and status. However, thinking in opposites, we validate the wonderful words of wisdom, we learn through trial and error not trial and rightness. My first business failure was in 1970 as a new products chemist at Gore. I designed a prototype hospital bed sheet out of Gore-Tex. Great idea, smooth so no bedsores, repeals liquids so just wipe off, breathable. What's not to like? Well, the bed sheet was so slippery that the patients started slipping off the bed when the nurses were giving them sponge baths. Oops, low coefficient of friction. So if I can't put the Gore-Tex on the bed what if I did the opposite and put it on the health care provider? I came up with Gore-Tex operating room face masks, surgical gowns and burn dressings. I've heard that there are now over 1,000 uses for Gore-Tex in the medical market, but I believe the hospital bed sheet was our first medical application. If my idea is going to fail, I want it to fail fast so that time and money are not unnecessarily wasted. To speed up the failures, I always initiate small-scale tests of new ideas, conduct personal surveys to determine the effectiveness of ideas, and remain open to critical feedback. Even if my idea is an abysmal failure, I become aware of the potential and apply its strengths to another challenge. My favorite question to ask about a failure is "what's right about it?"
What's your motivation?
Seeing the impact of using creativity in everyday personal situations. I truly believe that the answers to our challenges already exist, we just haven't asked the right questions. One of my greatest ideas came in the last year of my father's life when I was trying to think of the perfect Christmas gift for my parents. When I asked what they might like, they simply said: "Nothing. Just come home." My brother suggested the family go on a cruise, but my mother blocked the idea saying they didn't travel because "Dad gets constipated." Under pressure, mom said she could use a new meat thermometer--hardly the meaningful gift I was hoping for. Out of love, I used the opposite technique and asked my mother what she would "never" want for Christmas. She immediately said a bikini. We all laughed so hard that tears came to our eyes. Then she said a computer and then a new car and then she was on a roll. When my brother heard her say computer, he flipped the "never" into all of the things an 82-year-old could do with a computer. When we told my mother about e-mail and genealogy software, she became intrigued. This was 1991, so social networks hadn't been created yet. We bought my parents the computer, but the computer wasn't the best part of the gift. It was the arrival of all the neighborhood kids to see the first computer on the block. As the kids were playing with the computer they were teaching my parents how to use it. My parents' language changed, their stimuli changed: Eight-year-olds were teaching 80-year-olds. See the opposites?
What's next for you?
The "What a Great Idea!" MicroFund's goal is to empower kids to help achieve their dreams one idea at a time. We'll fund children's ideas as an entrepreneurial kickstart and give micro-funds of $250 to actualize great ideas. The payments will be made to the adult sponsor of the child's idea. The children must be between 5 and 12 years old. Our goal is to fund 8,000 ideas over the next 10 years.