Harnessing the Power of “Nothing”

By Erik Wahl
January 2016, Volume 39, Issue 5

Do you remember when your days were governed by your imagination? You could be whoever or whatever you wanted. You could travel around the world—even beyond the world—at the drop of a thought. There were no rules that said you couldn’t or shouldn’t because it wasn’t time productive. Pragmatism, logic, and even safety did not stand in the way. You were free to sculpt your days into works of art— tangible representations of your unique creativity—filled with joy, enthusiasm, and fulfillment.

We functioned this way as kids because our worldview was incomplete. To learn and grow, we needed to be mass collectors of information through our various senses. We were learning a language. We were figuring out how to relate to others. We were discovering the laws of physics and learning how to run and jump and use our muscles and limbs more efficiently. In short, we were cross-training for the many scenarios life would eventually toss at us in rapid succession. Our primary environment needed to be a rich, vibrant, and imagination-fostering one.

Many companies around the world have created offices that mirror kindergarten classrooms, hoping to spark that same rich, vibrant, imagination-fostering environment of childhood. Companies like Google have used unconventional environments to help them create cutting-edge products. The company allows its engineers to spend 20 percent of their work hours exploring anything that triggers their curiosity.

The freedom allows employees to work alone and focus on something that tempts their fancy. It also allows employees who wouldn’t normally intersect during the workweek to sit down together and let their ideas collide. Some of Google’s greatest products grew out of this freedom—Gmail, Google Earth, Google Labs, and its flagship AdSense program.

What many don’t know is that while Google hasn’t admitted its inspiration for their 20 percent perk, it was probably the mining and manufacturing giant 3M, which began allowing its employees to spend 15 percent of their work time exploring the recesses of their imaginations in 1948. The company wanted to stand out in a postwar America, when rigidity defined the corporate landscape. It did so and continues to do so today. Its legendary Post-it notes were birthed by an employee named Art Fry during his 15 percent exploration time; but that is only one of more than twenty-two thousand patents that have created approximately fifty thousand different products that bring in more than $20 billion annually. 3M is an innovation volcano.

Could we be oversimplifying the reasons for such companies’ constant creativity when we link it to their promotion of employee imagination and exploration? While there are certainly other factors that make the Googles and 3Ms of the world so hyper-creative, when asked, the employees themselves, from executive to entry level, point to this free time as the major catalyst in shaping the companies’ continued success. When Marissa Mayer (now Yahoo! CEO) was Google’s VP of search products and user experience, she estimated that approximately half of Google’s new products were the result of employees’ 20 percent time. Kurt Beinlich, a technical director for 3M, explained that his company’s 15 percent time has “shaped what and who 3M is.”

There is something freeing, something magical, something exuberant, about an environment where we are not hemmed in by rules and time lines and are instead opened up to imagination, possibility, and learning. This describes the landscape of early childhood.

How can you capitalize on this creativity mechanism in your own school? We want to know.

The Wahl Foundation, the philanthropy arm of our business that I run with my wife, Tasha Wahl, is offering the UNthink My School grant—one $20,000 check and ten $2,000 checks—to schools that foster innovation. The application process is simple, and we look forward to seeing your creative ideas come to life.

Proposals are due Feb. 15, 2016. Visit www.thewahlfoundation.com/unthink-my-school-grant for more details.

(Text except from UNthink: Rediscover Your Creative Genius by Erik Wahl.)

Erik Wahl is an American graffiti artist, speed-painter, author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur based in San Diego.

Copyright © 2016. National Association of Elementary School Principals. No part of the articles in NAESP magazines, newsletters, or website may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. For more information, view NAESP’s reprint policy.