I recently picked up a charming book called Damn Good Advice (for people with talent!) by advertising legend George Lois. The book describes his view on creativity, and how to be successful with your ideas. The book is full of slogans, some funny and some wise. Some memorable ones are: “You can be cautious or you can be creative (but there is no such thing as a cautious creative)”, “Tell the Devil’s Advocate in the room to go to hell”, and “You’re at your happiest when you are creating.” It is an inspiring read for any creative person.
The ad caused a furor when it came out in 1985, and helped make Hilfiger a well-known brand. This is a perfect example of out-of-the-box thinking. I think Lois would have made a good mathematician.
Mathematicians are at their core intensely creative people. Many of the best mathematicians develop new theories which seem natural but are completely novel. A good recent example is Lovasz’s theory of graph limits. While many have contributed to making the theory a success, Lovasz deep insights and exposition (see his book: Large Networks and Graph Limits) have propelled the new field forward.
As I look back mid-way through my academic career I reflect on the risks I took, and how some paid off while others did not. You can become “successful” if even a small percentage of your work gains traction. Nearly twenty years of research into graph theory and I feel sometimes like I am just getting started.
One of Lois’s messages is that you have to love what you do. Getting to the Big Idea takes persistence, hard work, and an open mind. And inspiration can come from anything: a book, a movie, or a long walk.