Visionaries Series: Chuck Pell says “pursuing surprise” is recipe for creativity

This is Part Two of an interview with engineer Chuck Pell, TEDMED 2011 speaker and co-founder of Physicent, a company applying biomechanics to update surgical instruments.  Click here for Part One.

Q. You’re planning to update more surgical instruments; can you talk about what’s next?

A. There are multiple instruments in development. I should point out that the platform technology making Assuage possible also applies to every other tissue in the body. Let me say that again: All surgeries can benefit from making the instruments biomechanically smart. The old battle between “open” procedures and “minimally invasive” procedures is over. The new world is divided between traditional steel and biomechanically intelligent surgery. All surgical procedures can be smarter and less painful, both open and minimal. It’s not just about rib cages. There is about to be an Oklahoma Land Rush across the entire surgical tray and we are already hell-bent for leather.

Chuck Pell

Q. “Pursue surprise” is something you have mentioned, along with the phrase “beginner’s mind.” How does one cultivate that kind of mindset?

A. Pursue Surprise is the recipe. We are all surprised many times a day, in many settings and in many ways. Comedy and magic depend on it – those take us one way, then surprise us – and we are delighted. But, in the day-to-day world, we’ve trained ourselves to ignore Surprise, in order to Get To The Point. Well, the Point is, there’s a better Point.

Surprise is a gift, a resource, a leg up. The feeling of surprise is the sign that your mental world model has just failed to predict something. Surprise says, “You’re wrong about something.” That’s not a bug; it’s the best feature, ever.  Every surprise is a chance to upgrade your model of the world, to improve your sense of What Is, to get a better sense of How Things Work. The most successful people pay attention to surprises. They take a moment to savor the new insight they’ve just experienced, and then they pursue it to find out where it leads. Pursuing surprise leads to things like human flight, computers, chemistry, medicine, science, penicillin (many people were surprised by the anti-microbial action of Penicillium fungi but failed to pursue it), electricity, rocketry –- stuff like that.

Q. Art, filmmaking, paleontology, biomechanics – you have a varied background, to say the least.  How does it all fit in? How did you get here?

A. To me, its like these are different aspects of a single pursuit. Paleontology and biomechanics tell me about convergent evolution, which tells me about which parts of an organism are evolutionary baggage, and which parts are the essential minimum required to accomplish some task.

A good example: Dolphins, tuna, mako sharks and ichthyosaurs all possess similar design features well-suited to a fast-moving, energy-intensive oceanic lifestyle: highly streamlined torpedo-like bodies, falcate fins, lunate caudal fins, and more, but the clincher is this: each has features the others don’t (the evolutionary baggage) that isn’t part of the essential fast-swimmer minimum design package. That stuff, I can ignore if I want to make, say, a fast biomimetic oceanic robot.

Biomechanics is essential for understanding how tissues behave in the moment, how they work as machines physiologically (e.g., at normal strains and stresses) and how they react to huge distortions – a consequence of almost every type of surgery. Biomechanics is a powerful insight machine, which is why I am stunned that it hasn’t been incorporated into modern medicine more than it has – but that, happily, is changing fast.

Where it made sense, I copied nature in designing these instruments. For example, you look at all these different ways animals grab on to to each other without causing injury. What if we worked for that outcome, versus a design approach like a predator’s talons going in and stabbing someone? As an example, an awful lot of surgical instruments sport serious spikes, which aren’t about patient comfort – they’re about not slipping under load. There are other, nicer ways of preventing slipping without sticking spikes into flesh. We’ve got several.

Before we started delving into the details of surgical instrument design, I had the impression that ‘it was all done,’ that everything will have been worked out to the utmost degree of refinement. So, when I glanced at a surgical tray for the first time, I thought, “Holy crap! Maybe I can contribute something here.” I recognized a number of instruments on the modern trays from art history, namely from Ptolemaic Egyptian tomb carvings (120 BCE). I know humans haven’t changed much in 2,000 years, but our scientific understanding of biomechanics sure has!

Pell onstage at TEDMED 2011

Q. By your own admission, you were a geeky kid, and surely that’s helped make you the creator you are today. I worry about kids today having the focus, inner drive and even enough down time to feed their creativity. What do you think? Will we have more or fewer Chuck Pells in our future?

A. More. We are re-recognizing the value of letting kids make things with bare hands, of savoring being wrong as an insight engine, of getting outside and exploring nature. My parents were strict in some ways, but in others they let me dive deep into projects (that, in retrospect, I’m amazed I survived). Combine kids’ expanding sense of offline learning with Google, Wikipedia, Make magazine, mobile devices, social networking, gamification, worldwide comms, GPS, apps, better AI, a new space industry and the sweeping trend towards cheap, ubiquitous 3D printing, and you’ve got an explosion of inspiration and opportunity. I’m not rare – I’m the vanguard. It’ll be deeply surprising if we’re not stunned daily by the show of enhanced accomplishments of ever-younger kids. I mean, if it’s now a 5th-grade science project to send balloon cameras to the edge of space, what can’t we do? We mustn’t teach the old assumptions to the next generation, because so many of the old assumptions are dead wrong. Imagine a generation of kids growing up pursuing surprise: there will be undergrads on Mars before you know it. I’m betting on it, actually.

Q. How do you stay so productive?

A. I barely sleep. My whole life I’ve gotten about four hours a night. There’s too much to do!  I’ll hate it when I’m dead, because fortune will no doubt have the temerity to wait just that long to reveal fun things like an outbreak of world peace, or alien contact, or cheap anti-gravity, or warp drives, or inter-dimensional travel, or true AI, or the like.

Part of what motivates me is that if any of these things are ever physically possible “in the future,” then they are physically possible right now, this minute. The main thing preventing us from discovering these things is our point of view, which is based on assumptions, most hidden from us. Pursue surprise with enough vigor and the unlikely will become possible, obvious, and even inevitable – and fun. The only thing stopping us is our imagination, and I can imagine quite a bit. I plan to discover as much as possible before I go, and give it to the worlds.

Click here to watch Chuck Pell’s talk at TEDMED 2011, and the audience Q&A following.