Creativity, Ideas, and Innovation

An interview with Lincoln Stoller, prepared for Authority Magazine.

“Above them, a bright sun is breaking through the clouds, casting rays of light onto the table, signifying the emergence of innovative solutions.”
ChatGPT. Response to my query for an image for teams, creativity, and innovation.

Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

The following interview was published by Authority Magazine on October 9, 2023 and can be viewed on the website here:

Authority Magazine asks: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m an inventor, explorer, and creator. I look at things holistically and technically. As a scientist and businessperson, I’ve been troubled by other people’s low standards of focus, reliability, and honesty. As a therapist, I better understand these confusions as arising from people’s lack of meaningful foundations in their own lives.

You have to be creative in order to build authentic connections, and few people are creative. Most are attached to narrow, rewarded points of view. Much of what I do as a therapist is to free people from these learned rationalizations of how things should be.

Where insights in physics have little positive effect on people’s lives, insights in relationships can have an immediate effect. Helping people as a counselor gives me supportive feedback that sustains my work in other fields where the rewards are few.

AM: What led you to this specific career path?

My interest in how things work comes from my desire to understand what I think and feel. Unfortunately, knowing more often isolates you and makes you harder to understand. That’s the lie in invitations to be creative: few people want new ideas, and most are threatened by them. God forbid you have a world-changing idea. It could get you killed!

That realization, which resulted from presenting great ideas to intransigent people, led me to becoming a therapist. As I tell my clients, “You pay me to say stupid shit, and I reserve the right to be wrong.” This is also how you innovate, but you get more colorful feedback from people than you’ll get from equations.

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AM: Can you share the most exciting story that has happened to you in your work?

I’ve had professions in business, science, and health care. I’m drawn to things of deep and personal meaning, so both my scientific and personal achievements are difficult to communicate to others.

I had a breakthrough in physics that came from discovering an equation of unusual power, but I was doing such arcane work that no one appreciated it. These kinds of insights continue to nourish me despite being unrecognized. I dislike the prospect of having to spend a lifetime selling an idea. I care little for being recognized widely, but I do want to be appreciated by the people I work with.

I took a practical approach in business when my aim was to create a generic business automation system. I found a solution and turned it into a product. Then, I confronted my inexperience in growing a company and, again, did not want to spend a lifetime building a market for a problem I’d already solved.

Creating a new marketing effort to sell the idea to a large software publisher repelled me. That is not my kind of culture. So I folded the company and moved into neurology and health care.

AM: What are some of the most exciting projects you are working on now?

At a deep psychological level, everyone is interesting. I feel rewarded when I work with high-performing people, but I am more curious about people who are deeply confused. The high-performance people are only missing a few details, but the deeply compromised people are huge puzzles.

The high-performers offer me more pay and a more productive appearance. The low performers offer me personal reward and less demonstrable achievements. Nevertheless, helping more dysregulated people has the potential to make greater, lasting changes.

I’d like to pull together these two ends of the spectrum. Top performers get plenty of air and water, but their psychological roots are shallow. They are less likely to have gotten help or see the need for it. In contrast, those who struggle with old, deep issues see a deeper need for change. I would like to turn people’s attention toward issues of deeper meaning and more enduring importance.

AM: What are three traits about yourself that you feel helped fuel your success?

It’s only by working with people and their minds that I define myself as a success. I reject as celebrity the image of a successful businessperson. This image of success is what other people want, and it is an illusion.

Institutions foster this illusion in order to create supporters, customers, and managers. Professional ladders don’t lead to the satisfaction of personal needs. Once you’re committed to their required thoughts and actions, there’s no one at a similar position with whom you can share your doubts.

My success lies in finding an alternative. I pursue what interests me, and I reject much of what I’ve been taught. I believe there are many world-changing innovations within our grasp, but bringing them to light will turn the power structures against you.

My interests are in engineering, computation, and psychology. I see the problems of energy, ecology, peace, and prosperity as within our reach technologically. But they’re not within our reach psychologically.

Schools teach people to think superficially, and the survival of many institutions depends on this. People are a human resource to be organized. As in any ecology, economies can only tolerate so much innovation. If we learned to be smarter, things would progress faster. There would also be more chaos than we can manage.

I enjoy being a therapist, but I feel it’s somewhat of a joke. I tell people I am the horse attached to their cart. I can empower them, but they have to direct the power. I help them innovate, but they have to manage their innovation. This is where people have trouble.

I’m not the expert, and I don’t make change happen. Much of my work involves showing other people their power and getting out of their way. For some people, that’s a door to liberation. For others, it’s a personal hell.

Innovation requires exploring things that may not be safe. Your discomfort is a fertile pasture and a field of new ideas.

AM: Some say that our mistakes can sometimes be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made?

I fail to see the humor in my greatest mistakes.

In my work with Charlie Townes as an undergraduate, I completed a 9-month investigation of the atmosphere of Jupiter. Charlie, in the goodness of his heart, published our work. But he later found a sign error, a plus sign where there should have been a minus sign, which might have compromised the result. I will perpetually be embarrassed, but what can I do? Mistakes happen and progress takes time. It’s difficult to be perfect, but technical work is not complete until it is nearly so.

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My two ex-wives represent my failures in family formation. Relationships fail because of the ingredients from which we assemble them. I believe that in every relationship, you should commit to being your best. One commits to the idea as you most honorably understand it.

All our relationships reflect ourselves. The deeper the idea is spiritually, the greater the lessons you’ll learn from it. Take what comes and make the best of it for all concerned. Progress is necessary; happiness is not assured.

AM: Do you have any mentors or experiences that have particularly influenced your approach to innovation?

Most people wait for mentors to appear, but I seek them out. The Buddhist expression, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears,” is institutional bullshit. Always question what others say you’re ready for.

What we call teaching is not learning, it’s training. It’s what user manuals do. Good teachers are no better than well-written textbooks. Mentors are a different story.

When the student is ready, the student sets out on their journey. No mentor advertises. If they did, their advertisement would say, “Hard work, no excuses, mistakes will be your responsibility, zero job security.” That is not what teachers offer, but it’s what learning is made of.

When Thomas Edison said that he failed his way to success, he was not kidding. If you want to be successful in product innovation, expect to fail 99% of the time. You’re not even looking for success, because the luck of success doesn’t generate understanding.

Testing your ideas is different. In real testing there is no success or failure, you’re just collecting data, looking for all the ways things fail. It’s by better understanding all the things that don’t work that you gain the intuition of the things that do work.

AM: In your experience, what is the anatomy of a strong product idea?

A strong product reframes needs in terms of resources, and reframes compromises in terms of opportunities. Every idea has both material aspects and emotional elements. The material aspects are attractive to the short-sighted views of price, cost, profit, and production. The emotional elements are more important for future investment, partnership, and progress.

Be careful in testing. Be aware that you can test the short or the long-term aspects of a product. Many tests are not product tests at all. They reflect your preconceptions and say more about you than your product.

AM: What approach does your team use for coming up with new ideas?

Teams and novelty don’t work together. The concepts are contradictory. The first thing an innovation team requires is to get rid of the “team player” mentality. For innovation, the team must release interdependence and support each member as an individual.

As a therapist, I think of my client’s progress in terms of innovation. The products are the ideas I give them, and the product’s success is the life-change it leads to. I provide present value and a future return. I sell both the material benefits and the emotional appeal.

The product innovations reflect the client’s needs and desires. Because my clients are struggling, I may have a clearer vision of their needs than they do. They are looking to me for solution and, if they trust me, they’ll try the product. I watch closely to see if I am right.

AM: What is the story behind the most successful product idea you ever had, and what was the outcome?

I like difficult problems, which means I cannot judge my products using short-term measures. My theories of mind help me understand my clients. This understanding comes from my constant engagement with them and my experience with people.

My most important ideas in physics are similarly long term. I may never know of the ultimate success of these ideas, but, because they’re scientific, I’ll be able to measure them on objective standards.

My business automation software was the least revolutionary, though it was awarded a patent. It was a successful technical solution. It was unsuccessful as a corporation because I was not interested in building a market for it. Marketing takes a different personality. I question whether the same person can excel at marketing and product development. As a therapist, I now support a person-to-person kind of marketing, turning away from institutional to individual needs.

AM: What, in your view, is the biggest challenge regarding innovation?

This question has no general answer, as it depends on the problem, the target, the resources, and the market. I’ve been involved with many shady people over the years and, in every case, their deceptions embody some innovation. Deception is an example of short-term thinking. Short-term thinking is a big problem.

In therapy, the client’s thinking is the problem, along with the feelings they act on. In physics, accepted knowledge creates obstacles. In areas where the requirements are clear, innovation is more easily focused, but usually in the wrong places.

Creativity is common to all innovations, and you can develop greater creativity. I wrote about this in my piece titled, “Epiphany, Apophany, and Creating Creativity,” at:

AM: Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what are your “5 Tips for Accelerating Innovation”?

Here are five elements for successful innovation that apply to both individuals and groups.

1. Creativity

As the painter Chuck Close says, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work… All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.”

Creativity is not insight, it’s more like possibility. Most ideas don’t work out. That’s true in both art and science. Whether it comes as a blast or a trickle, creativity requires space to grow and permission to define its own direction.

For an individual, creativity means unrestricted thought. For a group, it means play. Because being creative makes a person vulnerable, a group must encourage and accept ideas from its members.

Most of my work has been done independently, developed from problems other people defined. I engage the problem and try to understand it, looking for what I’ve been told is correct, that’s wrong.

In the case of quantum magnetism, the error in the standard approach was viewing the problem too reductively in terms of parts, and too specifically in terms of temperature. To understand collective behavior required a formulation that could not be reduced to smaller parts. At first, this was just an idea. It took many months to find the right tools.

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2. Discernment

Every creative idea must have a place. The idea may be constructive or destructive, but it must play a role. A good idea that has no purpose is wishful thinking. You must slap your idea around a little. Invite the criticism of those you respect. As Charlie Townes told me, “If somebody disagrees with you, if it’s a serious person, you want to think carefully about what he’s saying. Think carefully about whether you are really likely to be right or not…”

creativity innovation productivity invention exploration mental health coaching business physics mountaineering lincoln stoller

My neurology mentor, Jerry Lettvin, was the first to measure the signals transmitted through fine neurons. He discovered that the eye, which develops as an extension of the brain, actually thinks. Jerry thought little of my work in brain biofeedback. He also thought everything we’re taught about how nerves work is wrong. I took both opinions seriously, and with that, I developed my theory of mind at a higher, more functional level.

I avoided physiology and focused on rhythm and timing, borrowing ideas from the cardio-pulmonary system. I am building a theory of the role of rhythm in cognition, a theory that makes use of what I’ve measured, and avoids the unsubstantiated beliefs Lettvin warned me about.

3. Care and Discipline

Feedback can be invaluable, but it has to be informed. When I showed some of my writing to my siblings, they trashed it. Their feedback was worthless. I need a reader who thinks along compatible lines. This is why scientists develop communities who understand the work.

The more important the problem and the more creative your solution, the less likely you’ll get valuable feedback. You must distinguish between the bias of others and your own attachment.

Real innovation is lonely work, and some people work best alone. Claude Shannon, who invented the theory that’s the basis for all our electronic communication, kept his doors closed and his colleagues out. The sculptor Alexander Calder got feedback through performing his sculptures at parties. Even though he was a private man, he became a performer. Institutions encourage oversight and predictability, but creativity supports neither.

Creativity will not survive examination. But if the artist is careful and disciplined—which does not mean organized to the outside eye—then they’ll develop an internal sense of order. Outsiders, viewers, managers, and critics need to be supportive while still being discerning.

It’s difficult to be helpful in the creative process. This is something I’ve learned through being a therapist because therapy is, at its root, feedback to encourage creativity.

4. Risk Appreciation

My experience with risk comes mostly from mountain climbing. Here, your decisions have important consequences. You must balance the goal of reaching the summit against the goal of coming back alive. In mountaineering, you can learn by playing the game, but some of the learning mistakes have dire consequences.

Needing an approach to problem solving that was more enjoyable and less risky, I designed board games. I built these using the idea of simulating systems and creating a duality between the player or players and the rules of the system. In these systems, you can fail repeatedly, but the game’s not over until you stop having fun. You can see my games on the Learning page of my website:

The wise risk-taker appreciates there are some risks that you should not take. You need a cautionary intuition. You learn most successfully by making your own mistakes, but you’ll live to explore more mistakes if you foresee the consequences without having to realize them.

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One of my mountaineering mentors was a grizzled mountaineer named Fred Beckey. He was highly accomplished, pain tolerant, and risk averse. He broke the mold of the courageous adventurer by always taking the safer path. What Fred taught was the importance of knowing the territory. He didn’t push his luck, but he pushed his body.

Fred was like the character Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, but with a better personality. He would be easily turned back by poor conditions, but not by discomfort, and, if he was turned back, he would return.

5. Acceptance

In software development, we’re advised to fail fast and fail often, but to endure failure successfully, you need to have the right attitude. You can’t expect to succeed.

It’s only natural to want to avoid failure, but if you want your creation to grow in the right direction you must expect to fail. Just like the cat that investigates by knocking things off the shelf, you will break things. Be attached to finding insight, not creating products.

The joke in software development is that early products are not beta-ware, they’re vapor-ware. So many products are falsely presented as working prototypes that most people don’t take early concepts seriously. The managers of these products are not accepting the months of gestation and the many false starts that are required. Not only must you accept failing fast and often, you must want to.

AM: Is there a person with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

Innovators don’t like celebrity, and celebrities cannot innovate. As a result, the only people I talk to are dead or silent. I engage in outreach such as this in order to build a fragile community. My feeling is that one doesn’t look for collaboration, one innovates and looks for feedback. But, like innovation itself, the search for feedback usually fails.

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