“With a prolific inventor like Rabinow, there appears to be little separation between home, social, and professional life, as testified to by the location of his home workshop just off his living room.”
— Henry Petroski, The Evolution of Useful Things

Walking in a Circle

Near the beginning of the year I revealed my running list of resolutions. To refresh your memory:

  1. Finish creating last year’s resolutions.
  2. Write pieces that are less random.
  3. Write faster.
  4. Read.
  5. Some sex.
  6. Shower more.

Valentine’s Day is approaching, so I’ll cross No. 6 off the list soon. Maybe No. 5.

But the fact is that I’m still slow-ish at writing, and I haven’t done much reading. I tend to cycle through a lot of books at once, reading a chapter in this book, a few pages in that book, a couple paragraphs in yet another book, and then falling asleep at my desk.

The point is that even though I started reading Petroski’s Evolution of Useful Things about a month ago, I’m still reading it. The primary thesis of Petroski’s book is that form follows failure (not function) — that the force of change (as evidenced through a survey of historical objects) is the desire to address a shortcoming. Connected to that thesis is a secondary idea: Nothing is entirely new. Everything builds upon that which already exists.

In other words, invention isn’t the creation of something new. It’s the improvement of something old.

A Brief Lesson in Latin

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a.k.a. “word porn digest,” the word “invention” comes from the Latin verb invenire, which means “to find, come upon, or discover.” In a sense, to be inventive is to become aware of that which is previously unknown — to learn.

Inventors: Daily Fantasy Sports Models

Normally when I use the word “models” I’m referring to our Player Models. In this next sentence, I’m not: Inventors are ideal models for DFS players.

Petroski has a chapter on inventors, and the characteristics he ascribes to them seem to be those possessed by many of the best DFS players today.

I want to explore a few of these characteristics.

Everything is a Source of Invention

Jacob Rabinow (mentioned in the introductory quotation to this piece) was an engineer for the United States government from 1938 to 1954, when he left civil service to start his own very profitable company. By the time of his death in 1999, he had earned 229 U.S. patents. In 2005 he was inducted into the National Investors Hall of Fame, which sounds fake but is totally real according to Wikipedia.

In 1989 he published the book Inventing for Fun and Profit, which sounds neither fun nor profitable but apparently is a classic in the field. In the book Rabinow discusses the origins of many of his inventions, and the extent to which he as an inventor immersed himself in everyday problems/annoyances is notable. Per Petroski:

Thus he relates such stories as how the difficulty in adjusting a watch he received as a present led him to invent a self-adjusting watch, or how his arguing with a fellow music lover whether or not the sound issuing from conventional phonographs was distorted (because of the way the arm constrained the needle to move in the record groove) led to his development of a new needle arm suspension system. Problems brought to him by friends proved to be an especially fertile source of ideas for new projects.

By observing the world, inventors see room for improvement in everything they touch. It’s not that they are preoccupied with work. Rather, the inspiration for their occupation flows from everything they encounter.

With the inventors Petroski highlights, there’s almost no distinction between what they do and who they are. Even when they’re not working, they’re always thinking and analyzing in a way that benefits their work.

They’re basically degenerates — and that’s a compliment.

Anyone Who Likes Money Can Be an Inventor

It might be easy to think of ‘the inventor’ as some Einstein-esque guy wearing a white coat in a pristine laboratory, but the inventor can just as easily be some high school student soldering pieces of metal together in an oil-stained garage. Inventors are defined neither by the pedigree of their training nor the prestige of their circumstances. Rather, Petroski ultimately sees inventors as pragmatic businesspeople looking to capitalize on opportunities. Per Petroski:

For every notable inventor who had to go to work instead of college, there is one who was able to attend an Ivy League school. What seems more common than any educational pattern is the entrepreneurial drive, whether as an independent individual explicitly trying to turn inventions into vastly successful products or as a member of a large corporate structure pushing for innovation by working within the system.

Inventors are those who work at the intersection of creativity and commerce. That also might describe some street-walking sex workers . . . but that’s just a coincidence.

Like DFS, the world of inventing is a meritocracy. What matters is production, not reputation. Who one is eventually is determined by what one does. Anyone can be a DFS player — especially if (s)he is motivated by money.

To Invent Is to Be Resilient

To Petroski, invention is the result of failure. It “begins in identifying a problem in whatever it is that we already have.” Something should work better than it does — something has failed in some way — and so it can/should be improved. The origination of invention is malfunction.

The following quotation from Petroski sums up his position:

Regardless of their background and motivation, all inventors appear to share the quality of being driven by the real or perceived failure of existing things or processes to work as well as they might. Fault-finding with the made world around them and disappointment with the inefficiency with which things are done appear to be common traits among inventors and engineers generally. They revel in problems — those they themselves identify in the everyday things they use, or those they work on for corporations, clients, and friends. Inventors are not satisfied with things as they are; investors are constantly dreaming of how things might be better.

This is not to say that inventors are pessimists. On the contrary, they are supreme optimists, for they pursue innovation with the belief that they can improve the world, or at least the things of the world. Inventors do not believe in leaving well enough alone, for well enough is not good enough for them.

Inventors focus on the negative by persistently striving for improvements — but they also tend to be positive. That might seem counterintuitive, but there’s a fact about optimism that people forget: It sometimes is rooted in the confidence that one can withstand a seemingly never-ending series of failures that sequentially and inevitably lead to massive success. In the words of Joe Dirt, “You can’t have ‘no’ in your heart.”

In a way, inventing is the ultimate Black Swan endeavor. Metaphorically, what matters is not the number of contests lost but the size of the guaranteed prize pools won. To inventors, failure is not just the inspiration for innovation. It’s also the essence of eventual success.

It’s what builds the resilience necessary to accomplish anything.

The Plastic Soda Bottle

Nathaniel C. Wyeth is the guy who invented the plastic soda bottle as the senior engineering fellow for the Du Pont Corporation. Although polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is now easy to process, in the mid-1970s it wasn’t. Per Petroski:

The development of the PET bottle did not come easily; Wyeth recalls showing the misshapen results of an early experiment to the laboratory director, who wondered about spending so much money to get such a “terrible-looking bottle.” Wyeth, who was pleased that the thing was at least hollow, persisted in his efforts, however, using, as he did in all his inventions, his “failures and the knowledge of things that wouldn’t work as a springboard to new approaches.” He was quite explicit about the way an idea progressed from terrible-looking things to bottles displayed proudly in supermarkets: “If I hadn’t used those mistakes as stepping stones, I would never have invented anything.”

The inventor is someone who can harness resilience to turn failure into triumph.

A Lot of Thomas Edison Quotations

Thomas Edison is generally regarded as the greatest inventor in American history. Here’s what’s fascinating about him: If you google his name, you don’t need to search too long before finding a whole bunch of quotations that are attributed to him. Whether they all actually belong to him is irrelevant. They all sound as if they could’ve been spoken or written by him.

• “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to success is always to try just one more time.”
• “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
• “There’s a way to do it better. Find it.”
• “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
• “There is no substitute for hard work.”
• “The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are hard work, stick-to-itiveness, and common sense.”
• “I find my greatest pleasure, and so my reward, in the work that precedes what the world calls success.”
• “Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless.”
• “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
• “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Anytime Edison (apparently) opened his mouth to say anything, the words he spoke had to do with the value of resilience. To be an inventor one doesn’t need to be inherently brilliant. One merely needs to exhibit the sustained willingness to endure pain as time transforms it into pleasure.

The DFS Laboratory

There’s an ethos of experimentation at FantasyLabs. To experiment is to fail in an informative way. Successful DFS players fail a lot. They build an immense number of lineups that they ultimately discard. They have a lot of stacking ideas that prove unproductive. They entertain a plethora of strategies that disappoint. They embrace experimentation with the Tools.

They act like DFS inventors.

Not all failure leads to success, but all success follows failure.

The Labyrinthian: 2017.12, 107

This is the 107th installment of The Labyrinthian, a series dedicated to exploring random fields of knowledge in order to give you unordinary theoretical, philosophical, strategic, and/or often rambling guidance on daily fantasy sports. Consult the introductory piece to the series for further explanation. Previous installments of The Labyrinthian can be accessed via my author page.