What can shoelaces teach us about tradition, expertise, and innovation?

Do you remember when you first learned to tie your shoelaces? Who taught you? How many times have you tied them since then? Have you ever stumbled or fallen because they were undone? How do you tie a knot? And what can we learn from these ribbons that we use everyday to keep our feet in our shoes?

Tradition is not necessarily optimal.

Shoelaces are ancient technology. While there’s a dubious claim that they were invented in 1790, this was probably an upgrade and not the first use by a long shot. Evidence suggests that shoelaces may have been around for more than 5000 years: a pair of shoes that we encountered from that era has lots of laces on it.

This means that we have been tying our shoelaces for millennia. We are also familiar with a wide variety of knots, especially thanks to activities like scouting, sailing and climbing. Yet, it turns out when it comes to shoes, most of us are doing it wrong and can do better. It is curious to see that a method we learned from older generations and hence stood the test of time can still be problematic. Most of us do it everyday, yet we don’t think about the possibility of improving the traditional method both for ourselves and the generations to come.

Expertise can be found in unexpected places. 

There are several safety concerns about shoelaces. Why do they really come undone? How many falls and injuries do they cause in a year? How dangerous are untied shoelaces for different ages and professions: children, elderly, dancers, runners? Luckily, for instance, Usain Bolt was not hindered by his in the 100-meter Olympic finals.

Believe it or not, engineers in the University of California at Berkeley have studied how shoelaces come undone in some detail. It turns out that the knot gets loosened by the stomp of our step and then the swinging ends of the laces cause it to get promptly undone while we walk.

Yet these sophisticated researchers made a crucial mistake: they neglected to consult a genuine expert on this subject. Ian Fieggen, a.k.a. Professor Shoelace, has been studying shoelaces for decades. His website and Youtube channel explain in detail why the traditional knots don’t work well, offers an insightful alternative, and shows how to tie a bow knot with one hand, among hundreds of other shoelace related facts.

He recently penned an apt critique of the knot study, which was also published by the same journal. In this particular context, the scientific paper, the media articles that followed, and most importantly the readers would have benefited from his inputs.

There’s room for innovation in everything. 

Over the years we improved the materials we use, created a wide variety of styles, and introduced aglets (rigid parts at the ends) to improve functionality. Yet the concept of shoelace hasn’t changed much over time. In the 1980s, we replaced them with Velcro in some shoes. But the fashion industry soon decided that these were unfashionable. We use zippers sometimes, especially on long boots, but rarely on shoes. We did get rid of laces altogether to create loafers, but in most shoes we seem to be stuck with the old yet still effective shoelace technology.

Things may be changing. Recently, some people got rather frustrated with tying their shoelaces everyday and seeing them get frequently undone, which pushed them to become inventors and entrepreneurs. So, there have been several interesting developments. Are we nearing the end of traditional shoelaces? You’ll be the judge of that:

Lock Laces, Laceez and U-laces still look like and work like shoelaces, but they are designed so you don’t need to tie them. An effective way to eliminate knots altogether.

Undo Laces are traditional laces with a twist. They allow you to change the shoelaces quickly and frequently thanks to the added magnetic aglets. And for every lace you buy, they purchase carbon-offset credits on your behalf.

Hickies bring major innovation to the market. These are not your typical shoelaces. They are individual adjustable elastic straps you install, remove and replace at will.

Last but not least, there are the power laces, famously envisioned by Back to the Future and hopefully soon to be built by Nike and other major brands. There are some working versions like Powerlace and ZeroTie already out there.

Shoelaces are essentially small, thin and relatively short ribbons. This made some people think beyond their usual function and about how and where else they can be useful. They may even help you survive.

Keep track of how often your shoelaces get undone and consider improving the way you (and your children) interact with them by checking out a wide variety of methods and products online.

And ask yourself, what else in your life is like shoelaces?


Originally published in psychologytoday.com

Lesson from Harry Potter

The world has just celebrated the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter. One can now spend hours going through thought-provoking analyses, insightful lists, and entertaining content created for the occasion. Yet, there is one aspect of this story that is essential for anybody who strives to create ideas, be it a writer, an artist, or an entrepreneur.

That part is soul-crushing, sleep-depriving, appetite-robbing rejection.

When it was first written, Harry Potter apparently got rejected by not one, not three, not five, but a dozen publishers. Even the person who eventually agreed to publish it reportedly did not jump on the idea and initially published only a thousand copies. Think about your experience with Harry Potter over the past two decades and ask yourself: how is that possible? This has got to be one of the most interesting aspects of this groundbreaking saga, and it is both upsetting and great news for the rest of us.

Was Harry Potter a bad idea right before it was great?

Given the size of Harry Potter’s eventual success, one would expect that publishers, filmmakers and agents from all over the world would be racing to sign Rowling the minute she finished writing the first book and started to show it around. One would imagine that the experts in the business, who stood to make millions in terms of money and prestige during decades to come, would have seen Harry Potter light up as a bright blip in their radars long before it became a smash hit.

But the opposite occurred. When Rowling approached publishers, they weren’t impressed. All the incentives, experience and expertise in the world did not help them identify Harry Potter as an opportunity. So, right before Harry Potter became an extraordinary success story, it was an ordinary failure.

It’s easy to write glorifying stories of why something became successful after the fact. When I ask my students — some of whom are executives — why Harry Potter is so successful, they always offer some concrete reasons:

“It’s about an underprivileged boy who becomes the unlikely hero.”

“It’s beautifully written, easy to read.”

“It takes place in an amazing world.”

All true, yet they were also true while the book was being rejected. And these features are also presumably true for other books that were rejected and never heard of again. Luckily, Rowling persevered until someone finally gave it a shot. Yet this is upsetting news for those of us who are creating new things, be it a book, a film or an enterprise. Would most of us be that patient? How many times would you get rejected before giving up?

How many times have you been rejected recently?

In the complex, connected and chaotic world we live in, even Harry Potter can get summarily rejected by those minding the gates. This means that nobody — including the experts or even the creators themselves — know much about the true potential of new ideas. Harry Potter is one of many recent (positive) Black Swans: a highly improbable event with an unprecedented and wide-ranging impact.

In domains where predictability is low and the number of creators is high, expertise and rejections don’t really matter. Anyone who works hard and tries relentlessly has the capacity to create value that eventually grows beyond their wildest dreams. While the probability of success of one trial or one particular project is undoubtedly minuscule, with enough ideas and perseverance, the impact a creative person can make is demonstrably huge.

How many times have you been rejected during the past three months? If it’s not at least a dozen, you are not “alive.”

Investing in copying

IBM stands for International Business Machines. Historically, what is one of the most indispensable business machines?


Yet when a patent officer and physicist by the name of Chester Carlson approached IBM in 1930s with the first ever photocopying technology, the company wasn’t interested.

Carlson was rejected by many companies for years, until he finally signed an agreement with Haloid Company in 1946, which soon later evolved into Xerox.

Before photocopying emerged, people had to copy everything by hand. If multiple copies were needed they were using carbon copies. There was much need for reliable, automated copying.

So, how did a company like IBM miss this opportunity?

Perhaps the usefulness of this technology wasn’t really obvious at the time. In fact, physicist Otto Kernei dissolved his partnership with Carlson soon after they developed photocopying together. Like IBM, the co-inventor of photocopying also didn’t see much value in his own creation.

Carlson, on the other hand, had to believe in photocopying.
Mainly for health reasons!

Calling Dr. Cooper

Dr. Martin Cooper invented the cellphone.

Question is: If you were the inventor, who would you call first? And what would you say?

Here is Mr. Cooper talking about the first ever call (he) made using a mobile device and his vision of what a cellphone should really do.