Ever heard of Claude Shannon? He’s the reason you’re reading this, actually. An inspiring new biography, A Mind at Play, describes the life of the man who discovered that information could be turned into bits, enabling communications of all kinds to be sent from Point A to Point B, flawlessly and consistently. Today we take our texts, Snapchats, emails and Instagrams for granted. But prior to Shannon’s “Mathematical Theory of Communication,” such things were considered “hopelessly utopian.” Shannon proved that it was not, and created the conceptual tools for digitizing information.
Challenge. Devoted to the study of communication, it was said that the quality of the challenges and puzzles Shannon set for himself defined his genius. Throughout his life he continually sought to master new things. As a child, he pushed himself mathematically, tinkered with code breaking and won first prize in a Morse Code contest where he used his body to convey the dots and dashes. Later, in the 1920’s he was an integral part of a team that created “a room sized brain,” an early computing machine, at MIT.
Commitment. Like Shannon, it was said that the people who did well at Bell Labs (where he worked for a time), did what others thought was impossible, committed to their goal, outrageous as it might seem to others at the time. Today, leveraging the technologies that Shannon conceived, we see this phenomena regularly, as computers and other devices get faster and more capable than we would have previously believed possible.
Play. Claude Shannon’s story involves so much more than mere drive and persistence. It was said that he spent his life in pursuit of “curious, serious play.” He had many diverse interests, including chess, juggling and riding a unicycle, which he took as seriously as bits and bytes. On the surface his many pursuits may have appeared unconventional, however, it may well also have been the key to his genius. Having many diverse interests, and passionately pursuing a variety of activities and challenges allows us to make connections between seemingly unrelated things that often leads to new solutions.
There is no formula for creative success. However, if we find ourselves struggling to break through, it may serve us to look at our “process.” Have we set a meaningful challenge? Are we willing to commit and persevere when we encounter roadblocks or naysayers—especially ones that say our goal is not possible? Do we regularly step away, allowing ourselves time to play so that we can come back to our challenges refreshed and inspired? For Claude Shannon it was a way of life that benefits us every day.