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What the inventor of the coffee filter can teach us about the power of repurposing…

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

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Did You Know? with Gorick is the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold paths to success — of people (or things) you know!

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Did You Know? Creativity requires persistent practice!

Today’s Preview

How creativity…

(1) …Led to the invention of the coffee filter

(2) …Might make you smarter than an algorithm

(3) …Can be honed in two minutes or less

(1) A story from the past

It’s 1908 and Melitta Bentz was enjoying her morning cup of coffee when she noticed the coffee grounds in her cup—and in her mouth. The residue interrupted Bentz’s morning routine, not only in taste and texture but also in the clean-up required: they clung maddeningly to the pot.

The most common technique of the time to avoid having coffee grounds in one’s coffee was to wrap the coffee grounds in a kitchen cloth, and then boil the cloth and grounds together in hot water. The other option, porcelain percolators, made the coffee too bitter. So, Bentz decided she was going to solve the issue herself—and she did.

What did she do? She rummaged through her son’s school supplies, took out a page of blotting paper (used at the time to soak up excess ink), placed the paper on top of a brass pot perforated with holes, and poured the coffee in.

And voila! The coffee dripped without over-brewing and with no coffee grounds in sight.

Months later, Bentz’s invention had a patent. She ran the company out of her family’s apartment and, by 1929 (21 years later), had expanded to her second factory. Fast forward again, and Melitta’s company is still standing, bringing in almost two billion in gross revenue in 2021.

So, the next time you see a pour-over coffee, remember: That coffee might still have grounds in it if Bentz hadn’t creatively tried using what worked for one purpose, for another.

​Melitta coffee filters in the 1930s​ (L) and ​Melitta coffee filters today​ (R)

(2) A study of the present

What did Bentz do that we can replicate today? Bentz was an early example of someone who would have aced what’s called the “alternate use test” (AUT), an assessment where participants are asked to brainstorm as many uses for an object as possible (for example, a paperclip or a hair tie). 

Not many people are talking about the AUT these days, but I think we should. Why? Because researchers from Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and the University of Essex gave the AUT to humans and computers and found that…

  • “9.4% of humans were more creative than the most creative GAI [General Artificial Intelligence], GPT-4”—or, more colloquially, ChatGPT.”

Now, consider this: An MIT Technology Review article published in 2012 wrote, “So at what point do algorithms produce something really creative, like art? David Cope, a professor emeritus at UC Santa Cruz, believes we’re nearly there.” Well, that algorithm now exists. And a work of art has already won a prize—last year.

So what? Fellow humans: We’re losing our edge as a species! 9.4% is not a large percentage. It means that, out of this newsletter of ~5,000, 4,530 of us would lose against ChatGPT in creativity. Are you in the 4,530? Chances are, you’d be inclined to think not because we all think we’re above average. But it is an important reminder: Humans may still be competitive against artificial intelligence, but this is for today—and that may not be the case tomorrow. 

So, it’s important to keep our neurons firing, not unlike an athlete who continues to train during the off-season. Your career—not to mention our species’ future—depends on it!

(3) A strategy for your future

Here’s a challenge for all of you: Try assessing your own creativity using the Alternate Use Test. Here’s how:

(1) Pick any object that you have around you (e.g., a wallet, a pen, a coffee cup).

(2) Set a timer for two minutes.

(3) Come up with as many possible uses for that object as possible (e.g., a wallet could prop up an uneven chair leg, act as a hand rest for your keyboard, be used as a coaster for your coffee, etc.).

Next, rate each of the following sections out of 10 (or ask a friend!):

(A) Fluency, or, how many uses you came up with,

(B) Originality, or, how unusual your uses are,

(C) Flexibility, or, how many categories you came up with, and

(D) Elaboration, or, how specific the use cases were.

Practicing this test can help you become more creative, so take it as many times as you’d like—and consider swapping the objects you choose for the systems and resources you use at work, in school, or in your everyday life. Who knows? You could sharpen your brainstorming skills or you could even be like Bentz, who turned an irritation into an innovation simply by using what she already had.

I know it because I’ve tried it: I often wondered what I would do with all of the extra notes, files, and strategies that I had after I wrote The Unspoken Rules. Now I finally know!

Keep reimagining!


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