The Olympics as a “Beautiful Question”

Plus, the story (and question) behind the amazing “blade runner”

With the 2012 Summer Olympics having just concluded, I wanted to mention two points that tie in with the “Beautiful Questions” theme.

The first point is that the Olympics is, itself, an ongoing endeavor to answer a beautiful question. The question was raised by Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France, who founded the International Olympic Committee in 1894 to tackle this lofty, ambitious idea: Might it be possible to reduce international warfare by having countries compete on the playing field, instead of the battle field?

It’s hard to say whether the Olympics have lessened the amount of warfare over the years, but they surely have contributed to a spirit of international goodwill. True, we tend to root for our own country’s athletes to win the medals, but we also find ourselves, at various times, pulling for some inspiring athlete or team from a faraway land. And in some small way, this probably fosters greater empathy with places that otherwise would not be in our thoughts. Plus it’s all great fun, of course. So here’s a salute to Baron de Coubertin and his beautiful question.

Speaking of inspiring athletes from faraway lands, this brings up my second point: One of the highlights of the past week was seeing South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius (aka “the blade runner”), the first double-amputee runner to compete in the Olympics. Running the 400 meters competition on a pair of carbon-fiber prosthetic legs known as Cheetahs, Pistorius advanced to the semifinals.

The man who made Pistorius’ Olympic achievement possible (aside from Oscar himself, of course) is a designer/engineer named Van Phillips, who I interviewed a few years ago when I was working on my last book, Glimmer, about innovative design. I learned that Phillips’ creation of the Cheetah was fueled by a burning question that took him a couple of decades to answer.

The origins of a breakthrough

The story starts in the late 1970s, when Phillips was 21 years old—a carefree college student, a natural athlete, and an avid thrill-seeker. He was water-skiing one day when a motorboat sideswiped him and its propeller severed his left leg, just below the knee. After recuperating in the hospital, Phillips was given a prosthetic foot made of wood and foam rubber. At the time, this was the best the prosthetics industry had to offer. But Phillips found the replacement limb to be clumsy, uncomfortable, and limiting.

This led Phillips to ask a question that would change his life, and eventually the lives of many others: Why can’t a prosthetic leg perform more like a human one? Why can’t it bend and flex, enabling a person to run and jump?

Phillips quickly learned, as bold questioners often do, that fundamental queries of this sort are usually not welcomed. His seemingly naïve question was a challenge to the expertise of those who knew much more than he on the subject—the doctors, the prosthetics engineers, and others who understood “what was possible” at the time and what wasn’t. To most of those around him, Phillips seemed to be unwilling to face reality and simple facts. Still, he persisted in asking his “why” and “why not” questions.

Then he realized something daunting: That it was going to be up to him to answer those questions.

The various stages of inquiry

So, Phillips spent the next 20-odd years going through various stages of inquiry and experimentation, as he endeavored to create an artificial leg unlike anything that had come before. He utilized contextual inquiry, immersing himself deeply in the science of prosthetics engineering, observing people who were using prosthetic limbs—and even trying to glean lessons from the natural world (he observed that the tendons of a cheetah exhibited some of the same compressed power and spring-force dynamics that he was hoping to bring to his invention).

Phillips had to be patient, because a question as challenging as his doesn’t get answered quickly or easily. “When you’re taking on a question as big as this,” he told me, “you have to be willing to sit alone with it—just you and the question.”

But in a sense, he was always answering the question, in small increments. One of the things Philips did, consistently, was to utilize connective inquiry—which is to say, his mind was making connections and trying out new mental combinations, all the time. Neurology researchers are discovering that the mind—and in particular, the sub-conscious—is remarkably adept at connecting ideas and influences in new ways to try to solve problems and answer questions.

Phillips also had to work through years of prototyping—or what might be termed constructive inquiry—to get to his breakthrough creation. He started with sketching, then quickly began building and, at times, cooking. He baked clay prototypes of the leg in his kitchen oven. After making each one, he’d attach it to his own partial-leg to give it a try. He’d stand on it, then walk—and then he’d try to run. Inevitably, the prototype would collapse under him, and Phillips would fall to the ground. Each time that happened, Phillips would respond by asking a series of diagnostic questions:  OK, what did I do wrong this time? And how can I fix it? You might say that each time Phillips fell, he landed in a place that was further ahead, closer to the breakthrough. He continued to “fail forward” in this manner for years.

When reality changed

Eventually, the foot stopped breaking; Phillips was able to run on it. And at that moment, the existing reality changed—not just for Phillips but for anyone who shared his condition. Phillips’ “Cheetah” prosthetic foot revolutionized the industry. It meant that a person with an artificial leg and foot could now run, jump—and even compete on an Olympic level.

His creation has drawn worldwide attention, thanks to Oscar Pistorius in the Olympics. But Oscar isn’t the only one running on Cheetahs—Van Phillips is himself.

Thanks to his own creation—the answer to his own beautiful question—he runs every day. I hope to re-connect with Van in days ahead and include him in the AMBQ book; I’d love to know what big questions and challenges he’s taking on now. I’ll let you know.

Read a full story on Pistorius and his controversial Cheetah blades (complete with photos and short films of how they work) in this February 2012 cover story in the New York Times Magazine.

Tags: , , , , ,

Like this article? Sign up for our newsletter!

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 about the power of questioning: BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS IN THE CLASSROOM: Transforming Classrooms Into Cultures of Curiosity and Inquiry, THE BOOK OF BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS: The Powerful Questions That Will Help You Decide, Create, Connect, and Lead, and A MORE BEAUTIFUL QUESTION: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. Warren’s writing appears regularly in Psychology Today, Fast CompanyHarvard Business Review, and The New York Times. He lives in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @GlimmerGuy and subscribe to his blog posts.

2 Beautiful Comments

Trackback  •  Comments RSS

  1. kshitij says:

    Awesome…truly inspired writing on a truly inspired question. Come to think of it, a beautiful question would be one which does not get answered in a hurry.


Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

CommentLuv badge