f you’re an engineer, you probably had teachers telling you about how your humanities classes were making you well rounded.  I know I scoffed at the idea that Beowulf would somehow help me become a better engineer.  I realize now that there is certainly something to the idea that engineers on the whole need to learn to be better communicators, but this article is about something different that I learned from the humanities, how creativity comes from a combination of skill and vocabulary.  I’ll explain.

I was never overly musical, I played trumpet and tuba in junior high, but that was about the extent of it.  I didn’t know a grace note from syncopation.  When my oldest daughter was about two, I noticed her unbridled, uncomplicated love of music, and it made me decide I wanted to pick up a trumpet again.  A quick google search turned up Monty’s Music up the street and I headed over a little embarrassed to be buying an instrument at my age.  I found a well worn used trumpet for under a hundred bucks and off I went.  Monty casually mentioned they offered music lessons and that they had a great instructor.  The idea of sitting in a tiny practice room with an instructor playing scales made my skin crawl.  I bought a couple practice books he recommended, thanked him and left.

At home in private, I warmed up and managed a weak C scale (I don’t think you can ever forget the fingering, no matter how long it’s been).  I played around for a while, got my bearings with where notes were and tinkered a little bit.  A couple of months later my wife got me a gift certificate for some lessons for my birthday.  Almost one year later I had not even thought about them and she reminded me that they would expire soon and this would be my last birthday present ever if I did not use them.  Reluctantly I signed up.

Enter Bob Powers, trumpet teacher – I know right, great name for a jazz musician.  Bob was close to ten years younger than me, but at least he wasn’t a high schooler.  He was a full time musician grinding it out playing gigs, teaching lessons, and finishing a music degree at ASU.  We really hit it off and luckily I really enjoyed my lessons.  He taught me more in a short period of time than I learned in 3 years of school band.  I really took an interest in the way jazz is made, and he gave me an inside look at the process, and the skills required even though I was never going to put in the years of 8 hour practice days it would take to get to that level.


Some of the things that stuck with me were:

  • Compelling music is about tension and resolution (true for stories too)
  • You gotta learn the rules before you can break them
  • You can’t stop in the middle, keep going.
  • Improvisation is the process of trying things you’ve heard before in new ways or in new places

Each of those could be the subject of their own articles, but that last one got me thinking.  I used to go to the office late at night to practice after my young fell kids asleep.  I was working on playing along with the Miles Davis solo that starts at 1:30 on So What from his seminal album Kind of Blue.  Don’t go thinking that I must have been improving quickly – I wasn’t very good at it, I just enjoyed it and there was no one around to hear.  So I had plenty of time sitting there listening to Jazz and sitting in a design studio.  I was thinking about how as engineers and designers we conceptualize new ideas, and how this process parallels jazz improv.  You can’t give a good solo unless you have two things: skill and vocabulary.  Skill is the ability to make good sound with your instrument.  It takes practice, practice practice.  Vocabulary is the stuff you’ve heard, stored away, and can use easily the way one uses words in a sentence without thinking about it. The same goes for design, you can’t create a new machine without being able to draw, operate CAD, calculate stress… engineering skills.  You also need vocabulary, and this is where most fall a little short.  Vocabulary is not picked up in engineering school (design schools do give students some vocabulary).  Vocabulary is picked up by tearing things apart figuring out how they work.  Vocabulary is gained seeing the world through the eyes of an engineer or designer – noticing highlights, color, shadows, parting line, fasteners, texture, finish.  I realized that I can’t even turn a deadbolt lock without imagining what’s happening inside.  I’ve been doing this my whole life without realizing I was building my vocab.  It’s something I talk to young engineers about because you can’t use google to find something you never knew existed.  You have to have the vocabulary before you can put it to practice.

Once I realized this, I kept seeing examples.  I was reading a book about the great american music arranger Nelson Riddle, I was struck by how much time he spent just listening to every new piece of music he could find.  You know his mind was breaking it down into useful chunks to be reused later in new ways.  I was touring Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio Taliesin West and our tour guide mentioned that he had architectural toys and books given to him as a kid.  I read about chess masters who break games down into chunks of moves they can use later.  I listen to great soccer coaches talk about how players need to possess technical skill, but also understand principles of play and creativity.

In other words practicing skills is essential, but so is vocabulary if you want to be a great creative.  Some endeavors require mostly skill, but creativity requires skill AND vocabulary.  You’ve got to understand what vocabulary means in your craft and take in as much of it as you can, use it, understand it, maybe even bend it a little.