The value of thinking with the help of others

It’s very difficult to be truly innovative all by yourself

I had just donated blood and was having the required refreshments before leaving. Someone asked a question about doing business in China. I responded, and from across the table, someone I had never seen before added a comment.

I was astounded. I remember thinking there couldn’t be one in a thousand people who would know that. I had to meet this guy. We chatted a bit and exchanged information. We’ve become fast friends.

Bill is perhaps one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He grew up in Japan, the son of a Presbyterian minister. He graduated from MIT and works as a software engineer. He is very interested in many subjects; he seems to have a voracious appetite for knowledge of all kinds.

Whether we’re discussing business, engineering, politics, religion, history, foreign cultures or a host of other subjects, I always learn from him. He’s a very deep thinker, accepting very little at face value. This deep thinking often reveals insights which are quite profound.

He claims he learns from me, and I find that amazing. Even more amazing, when I’m with him, I learn from myself as well. He will often ask a question of which I have never thought. From somewhere deep inside an answer comes, and I’m amazed at what I find myself saying. These are things I never knew I knew, yet checking later, they’re always found to be right.

I think we all have largely untapped reservoirs of useful knowledge, which often lie dormant until someone or something helps us bring them to the surface.

Henry Ford used to say, “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is the probable reason why so few engage in it.”

Bill and I are always sending each other thought-provoking quotes and articles. He recently quoted the Marquis of Halifax from some 300 years ago: “A prince who will not undergo the difficulty of understanding must undergo the danger of trusting.” How many managers have gotten into trouble because they didn’t bother to understand?

An open mind

Over a recent lunch, he shared his views on the biggest problems the Chinese are facing. The Communist Party is losing its monopoly on power to the wealthy elite. As people become more affluent, they want some say in how they’re governed. Because of the Chinese practice of frequently aborting female babies, they have millions of unmarriageable men. Many of their aging population have no children to take care of them. Pollution, especially air pollution, is completely out of control.

If you think about it, those problems are fairly colossal in and of themselves. Many of their government’s policies have painted them into a corner, so to speak. It will be interesting to see what happens.

I’m a Catholic and Bill is a Baptist. We often talk about the differences in our religions. Bill knows an awful lot about many religions. I sometimes think he knows more about Catholicism than many Catholics, including me. He recently commented, “What a pleasure to be able to discuss such things without rancor.”

And that’s the key. As brilliant as he is, Bill still has an open mind. He doesn’t think he has it all figured out. He’s still trying to learn more, and he regularly modifies his thinking based on what he finds.

I’ve had friends and mentors like this in the past, but they’ve all gone to their eternal rewards, and I had forgotten how much I’ve missed them.

What about you? Do you have any friends or colleagues like this? Even the most brilliant people need conversations with other like thinkers to help them pull the very best they have out of themselves.

Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone used to get together quarterly for a few days for just this reason. They could stimulate each others’ thinking. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet frequently get together for the same reason.

Everyone talks about innovation as a key to survival in today’s world, yet it’s very difficult to be truly innovative all by yourself. Even Steve Jobs, loner that he was, needed the help of others.

I can’t tell you how to find a Bill; I consider myself extremely lucky to have done so. Two of my mentors were university professors, one of which had retired as a VP from GE prior to teaching. The other was from MIT, a school I never attended.

Although serendipity certainly played a role, my desire to recognize and seek these people out probably made the difference. It can for you too.

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or

Categories: Business Advice, Workplace Advice