It started at the breakfast table, with an old waffle iron.

Bill Bowerman thought he could make better running shoes than those he was selling at his store, Blue Ribbon Sports.

He had co-founded the company with a runner called Phil Knight he was coaching. The business wasn’t the only thing they shared: they were both dissatisfied with the clumsiness of American running shoes.

When Bill sat down to breakfast that morning, he had an idea:

“It was a little 6-inch 1930s kind of an Art Deco-style waffle iron, and he got looking at the pattern on it and thought that the little spike parts of the waffle would grip the ground really well if they were made of rubber.”

Bowerman’s waffle-soled shoes were the catalyst for a running revolution, and the store he co-founded grew to become the multi-billion empire that is Nike. (They might not be the best running shoes in the world, but they’re certainly the best marketed).

If it’s broken, fix it

Some people can’t just let problems be.

They have to tinker, to toy, to try to make it better.

Maybe inventor’s brains are wired differently from the rest of us?

The engineer Alan Adler started out making things that were rarely seen by the general public: controls for submarines and nuclear reactors, and instruments for measuring jet engines.

But it was an idea for a smaller flying machine that made him a millionaire.

Driven by a fascination with flight, he set out to design a better frisbee, and eventually settled on an odd-looking disc with a hole in the middle.

And boy, that thing could fly…

The Aerobie still holds the record for the “longest throw of an object without any velocity-aiding feature”: an amazing 1,333 feet.

(That’s more than a quarter of a mile, in case you’re wondering.)

30 years and 18 products later, he was still inventing.

Adler’s next brainwave — like Bill Bowerman’s waffle soles — was sparked by a mealtime conversation.

The story goes like this: He was having dinner with work colleagues when someone asked a question about his coffee-maker:

“What do you guys do when you just want one cup of coffee?”

Because his machine made 6 to 8 cups at a time, and he was a “one cup kinda guy”, Adler had already been thinking about the problem.

After testing every way he could think of to make coffee, he realised that he could use air pressure to shorten the brewing process. And using a plastic tube to compress water through the coffee grounds wasn’t just quicker; it make the coffee taste better too.

His invention, the AeroPress, sells for a fraction of the cost of a traditional coffee machine, and is revered the world over by baristas for the smooth, rich flavour of the coffee it makes. (Follow my new @aeropressrecipe project on Twitter to learn more about making the perfect cup of coffee.)

If you’re going to complain, be a practical complainer

The graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister had a similar revelation about fixing things when he wrote out all the things that made him happy:

Complaining is silly. Either act or forget.

If it's ok with you, I'm going to take a quick sideways step here and share the rest of his list with you, because it always gives me food for thought:

Thinking life will be better in the future is stupid. I have to live now.
Being not truthful works against me.
Helping other people helps me.
Organizing a charity group is surprisingly easy.
Everything I do always comes back to me.
Drugs feel great in the beginning and become a drag later on.
Over time I get used to everything and start taking it for granted.
Money does not make me happy.
Traveling alone is helpful for a new perspective on life.
Assuming is stifling.
Keeping a diary supports my personal development.
Trying to look good limits my life.
Worrying solves nothing.
Material luxuries are best enjoyed in small doses.
Having guts always works out for me.

Another designer, Tina Roth Eisenberg (who you might know from her blog Swissmiss) has made a career out of side projects born from personal frustration.

Tina has started so many companies that sometimes I suspect she has some creative superpower that I'm lacking.

But actually her secret is more practical than this:

"I have a rule: If I keep complaining about something, I either do something about it or let it go."

Thus were born Tattly (temporary tattoos for kids), Creative Mornings (free breakfast lectures for creative types) and Studiomates (a collaborative workspace).

The itch that you scratch doesn’t have to become a fully-fledged business though…

I built The World's Most Shareable Website because I was sick of seeing websites where the content was overwhelmed by sharing buttons. And I started CycleLove because I couldn’t find a blog about cycling of the calibre that I was used to seeing in the design world.

Side projects are good for the soul

When day-to-day life is pissing me off, I like to have a side project or two that I can tinker with. Something that’s all mine, and that I have complete control of.

So I think that side projects help keep me (relatively) sane and happy.

Let's look at this another way.

When you have an itch somewhere on your body, you have a simple choice: ignore it, or give it a good scratch.

That might sound banal, but what interests me is applying the same approach to the rest of my life.

What’s getting on your nerves right now?

And more importantly, can you do something about it?

In the words of another guy called James...

"The best way to complain is to make things "

— James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem

Posted to Uncategorised in 2015.

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