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What the inventor of the Super Soaker water blaster can teach us about being curious...

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

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Did You Know? with Gorick is the official newsletter of Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules. Each week, you’ll receive one story from the past, one study from the present, and one strategy for your future.

My goal: to give you—in the time it takes to finish on the toilet—one piece of practical career wisdom you can apply today, no matter if you’re a student or a seasoned professional.

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Did You Know? To see more, step back... and be curious!

A story from the past

It’s 1982. Inventive NASA engineer Lonnie Johnson is testing a passion project idea for an environmentally friendly heat pump when, suddenly, the machine shot a forceful blast of water across his bathroom! Whereas the typical person would have jumped at their “mistake,” Johnson was curious, stepped back, and thought: "That would make a great squirt gun!

Johnson developed prototypes of his water blaster, gifting them to his daughter and bringing them to picnics. But, when he pitched the toy to manufacturers, no one believed it could sell. 

Fast forward eight years and one “yes” from a manufacturer later, Johnson saw his “Super Soaker” hit stores in 1990. By 1991, the toy broke $200 million in sales, ranked as one of the Top 10 toys worldwide, and got Johnson inducted into the Inventor Hall of Fame.

So, the next time you have the instinct to say, “That wasn’t what I wanted!” remember Johnson, whose curiosity made him pause, step back—and see not a mistake, but an opportunity.

Lonnie Johnson (L) with one of his Super Soakers. Early prototype (R, top) and a 2018 version (R, bottom). Image credit: Thomas S. England/Getty Images, Johnson R&D, and Amazon.

A study of the present

Johnson wasn’t successful just because of his engineering skills; it was also his ability to look at a situation… pause… and step back with curiosity. Johnson’s approach is backed by research—on burglaries.

Researchers from the Duke Institute for Brain Science once asked participants to pretend to be art burglars. One group was asked to “scout the museum for a future heist” before organizing a burglary. Another group was asked to “steal as much as you can… right now!” The researchers then asked both groups to recall the paintings they saw and their value.

  • Who did the best? Participants who “scout[ed] the museum for a future heist” (e.g., who were curious and methodical)—and not the ones who just went go go go.

So what? Quick thinking can help if you come across a bear on a hike, but quick thinking could slow you down if you’re learning something new. Step back and be curious—it could help you process more… and, in turn, accomplish more! 

A strategy for your future

If you’re working on something that is urgent and you can’t step away, try this: 

If you’re working on something that is urgent and you’re feeling anxious, try this: 

If you’re working on something that is not urgent… take breaks!

Who knows? Like Johnson, you just might discover the metaphorical trigger that could unlock something new and innovative.

I know it because it’s what I do: I encounter writer's block—an inability to put my thoughts into writing—every. Single. Day. In those moments, I’d stand up, take a walk, or go for a run (and dictate my thoughts using Siri on breaks). Or, I’ll ask a friend for feedback. It works every time!

Step back… and stay curious!