So, tonight is the premier of “American Inventor,” brought to you by the zeitgeist-tappers responsible for “American Idol.” Here, the reality TV aesthetic meets Ralph Waldo Emerson, who famously encouraged our national creative spirit with his rodent-catching wisdom: Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.
“American Idol” was all the things you think it was: crass, tasteless, manipulative, a twisted national lottery. But in the end it was harmless in its own way. Sure it promised a path to celebrity that was the off-key equivalent of “Hoop Dreams,” but no real damage was done — other than to a few egos.
I think “American Inventor” is far more dangerous, though. America has always had a fascination with get-rich-quick schemes; we’ve never had trouble getting in touch with our inner Ralph Kramden. This show reinforces that fantasy. While an innovation can present itself with a flash of illumination, successful innovation is about discipline and execution.
America is not going to succeed in the global economy with a reality TV approach to problem-solving. Of course, “American Inventor” isn’t going to singlehandedly destroy our chances of competing with China. But the silver-bullet fantasy that’s the emotional driver of the show is a real and deep problem in American business. I’ve seen its insidious appeal at the highest corporate level. It’s particularly risky in creative organizations that value the heroic Big Idea above all else.
Indeed, I’ve literally see brainstorming sessions end with participants voting on the best idea, just like the judges will be doing. Which means that the worst thing that could happen to us would be that “American Inventor” triggers a national obsession with the next big invention — when what we really need to win isn’t a single invention, but ongoing inventiveness. And those are two very different things.