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What Velcro's inventor can teach us about spotting opportunities hidden in plain sight…

Last Updated:

September 11, 2023

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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? A side hustle could be healthy!

A story from the past

It’s 1941. Electrical engineer George de Mestral is on a hike when he notices small, spiky seeds sticking to his dog’s fur. Intrigued by the burs’ sticky yet removable quality, de Mestral put them under his microscope, wondering if he could replicate the hooked teeth of the bur to create a new fastening mechanism like a zipper. The idea had potential.

Over the following 10 years, de Mestral sought manufacturers to produce the fabric needed—all while working his day job as an electrical engineer. Multiple rejections later, one factory agreed. Almost 20 years after his initial inspiration, the Velcro Companies was born—and de Mestral’s discovery went on to be used in everything from jackets to shoes to NASA spacesuits.

So, the next time you find a bur stuck onto your shoes or pants, remember de Mestral, who saw the same thing you did—and went on to make something of it.

Hook-and-loop fastener by Velcro company and the burs that inspired de Mestral

A study of the present

Not all of us want to become entrepreneurs, but all of us can benefit from having an entrepreneurial mindset.

After all, just last month, researchers at HEC Liège Management School and Liège University Hospital found that entrepreneurs have greater “cognitive flexibility” in the form of being able to switch between projects, perspectives, and problems.

What does this data suggest? If we consider that prior studies have shown that cognitive flexibility is associated with an improved quality of life and psychological well-being, especially among older adults, the HEC Liège study takes on a new meaning: Thinking like an entrepreneur is like doing crossword puzzles. It’s good for you!

So what? Whether it’s to grow your career or to improve your health, think like an entrepreneur. You might just discover the next big thing. And if you don’t, you’ll at least live a better life.

A strategy for your future

Starting a side hustle? Simply exercising your brain? Either way, try this:

1. The next time you find yourself seeing something and thinking wow, pause! 

2. Fill in the blanks: “Wow, this is so cool because ______. What if we took ______ and applied it to ______? Then, we’d be able to ______!”

3. Add this to your list of side hustles—just in case!

You probably won’t find the next VELCRO® product just by doing this once. But, if you turn this activity into a habit, it’s only a matter of time before you stumble upon something worthy of your time.

I know it because I’ve experienced it: When I heard about Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking through my friend Aaron Altabet, I immediately thought, Wow… if these are the elements of good cooking, what are the elements of being a high performer at work? If I hadn’t asked myself this question, I would have never developed my Three C’s framework!

Stay observant!