If not you, then who?

Mick Ebeling’s inspiring story makes a case for taking ownership of big questions

Mick Ebeling, Master QuestionerAs I finish up writing A More Beautiful Question, one theme that comes up repeatedly is taking ownership of the big questions in our lives. Instead of merely voicing a classic complaint such as “Why doesn’t someone do something about this?” the redirect is to transform it into a challenge that you take on yourself.

In “Take Ownership of Your Questions” from last year, I reported how banker and inventor Mark Noonan told me that “people are always saying, ‘Why doesn’t somebody do this or make that,’ but it doesn’t go any further. It’s just a rant.” To bring about change, Noonan says, “You have to decide, ‘I’m going to keep working on this question until I get something done.’” The post goes on to show how Noonan transformed a pain in the back into a profitable solution.

Technology Makes Impossible Art Possible

In terms of great payoffs, the story I came upon last week via Huffington Post’s TEDWeekend video series is one of the memorable ones. How about posing a beautiful question that ends up helping paralyzed artists create art with just their minds?

The entrepreneur and philanthropist who took on that daunting challenge began with a “Why…? question. After learning about paralyzed graffiti legend Tony “TemptOne” Quan, animation executive Mick Ebeling thought about writing a check to the man and his family but instead found himself asking his wife over dinner, “If Stephen Hawking can communicate through a machine, why don’t we have a way for an artist like Tempt to draw again?”

This started Ebeling on a journey that transformed both his life and those of uninsured paralyzed people unable to afford the astronomical price of a Stephen Hawking–like communication device.

I won’t go into all the details of the steps of that journey—Ebeling covers it swiftly in his 7-minute TED video (view below) and accompanying post—but since his journey embodies the Why? What if? How? construct that runs through my book, I’d thought I’d explore it a bit here.

The What if “Aha!” moment

I covered the Why? part above. The What if? “Aha” moment happened when Ebeling gave a talk at Graffiti Research Lab (GRL) and learned about their laser-tagging projection technology. Suddenly he realized that an affordable technology existed that could perhaps be harnessed to let someone communicate with just their eyes. So then the question became

If we know that a technology exists where you can use your eyes to control things, what if we can figure out a way for Tempt to control the laser?”

With technology as the key, then came the How? question. Knowing the direction they needed to go in was to devise a device that was so affordable that even paralyzed artists without insurance could get access to it, Ebeling’s first thought was “open source.” But he was no programmer, so the next thought on “How?” was Let’s get a bunch of hackers together. It wasn’t easy, but after a year of planning and organization, Ebeling brought together in his house seven international hackers and programmers for two-and-a-half weeks of all-day programming sessions. By the end, they had cobbled together The Eyewriter.

The Eyewriter

And it worked, as soon demo’d by Tempt. The DIY design and software for the Eyewriter are downloadable for free; no insurance company nor hospital can tell someone they can’t have it because it’s too expensive. When in the video Ebeling says, “Anyone who is paralyzed now has access to draw or communicate using only their eyes,” the TED crowd roars.

Beautiful, limitless naïveté

In A More Beautiful Question, I talk about the Beginner’s Mind, the naïve mindset many of the best questioners and most fearless innovators adopt when taking on new challenges. In his HuffPost, Ebeling writes about how that same openness or naïveté contributed to the project’s success:

Turns out, our naïveté was the key to us tackling the EyeWriter with brave abandon. We didn’t know that we weren’t supposed to be able to do it. We didn’t know that kind of thing doesn’t really happen in 2.5 weeks. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. And because of that, the entire team just did it because no one ever contemplated or considered the concept of failure.”

Ebeling’s takeway from this whole experience? If you see something that’s not possible, make it possible.

He closes his TEDTalk with two questions he wants everyone to ask themselves every day:

If not now, then when? If not me, then who?”

  • View Ebeling’s TEDTalk below.
  • Watch Ebeling’s documentary about the EyeWriter journey called “Getting Up: The Tempt One Story” at gettingup-thedoc.com.
  • See this earlier related AMBQ post: John Cage, Master Questioner 
  • Tired of people complaining? Visit A Complaint Free World, where their vision is “We see a day when people focus on and speak about what they desire things to be rather than complaining about how things are.”

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About the Author

Innovation expert and questionologist Warren Berger has studied hundreds of the world’s foremost innovators, entrepreneurs, and creative thinkers to learn how they ask questions, generate original ideas, and solve problems. He is the author or co-author of 12 books, including his three books on questioning: A MORE BEAUTIFUL QUESTION: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas; its follow-up THE BOOK OF BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS: The Powerful Questions That Will Help You Decide, Create, Connect, and Lead; and BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS IN THE CLASSROOM: Transforming Classrooms Into Cultures of Curiosity and Inquiry. Warren’s writing has appeared in Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, and The New York Times, and he writes the “Questionologist” blog for Psychology Today. He lives in Mount Kisco, New York. Follow him on Twitter at @GlimmerGuy and subscribe to his blog posts

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  1. A More Beautiful Question | Keep Calm & Crop On | October 23, 2013