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  • Chic Thompson

In these crazy times… I tried thinking like Rube Goldberg

Updated: Dec 15, 2020


My childhood dream was to be a cartoonist for Walt Disney. My inspiration came from my creative neighbor, Rube Goldberg. Rube was a cartoonist, sculptor, engineer, and inventor (1883-1970). He created wacky, complicated contraptions that performed simple tasks like opening an umbrella, scratching someone’s back, or sharpening a pencil.


A Rube Goldberg contraption consists of a series of simple machines that are linked together to produce a domino effect – a series of actions in which each device triggers the next one, and the original goal is achieved only after many steps. If you’ve played the classic “Mouse Trap” board game, then you’ve experienced the fun of Rube’s creations.


To get a sense of Rube’s out-of-the-box thinking, take a look at his thirteen-step approach to using an ordinary table napkin titled: Self-Operating Napkin. Drawn in 1931, this “A to M” contraption showed the untapped power of a simple napkin, and was honored in 1995 by a commemorative U.S. Postage Stamp.

Here’s a cartoon Rube drew for me when I was ten years old.

Mr. Goldberg taught me one incredibly insightful strategy for life, and I think about it during these crazy days of COVID-19 when we’re all stuck at home trying to get things done. He said the average person tries to finish a task – or go from “A to B” – as fast as possible. Today, we call that “working smart.” It’s a way to think that we are in control.

Rube felt differently. He said he tried to go from “A to B” using all the letters of the alphabet. Why? Because that’s where the creativity is! Even when doing simple tasks, Rube Goldberg took the time to be curious and explore the unexpected events, failures, and possible detours in everyday life.

Going straight from “A to B” is called convergent thinking. It is fast and efficient – and great for simple analysis, drive-through waiting lines, and true/false tests.

Rube’s approach of using all the letters of the alphabet is known as divergent thinking. It encourages growth and is ideal for challenges that have multiple possibilities – for example, life and the pursuit of happiness.


According to Rube, life is not a straight line. It is a zigzag roadmap of detours. If we are persistent, this roadmap eventually leads us to our dreams. It helps us adapt and learn from the dead ends, U-turns, stop signs, and inevitable setbacks. We might even begin to welcome these detours as “blessings in disguise.”


If Rube was alive today, I think he would have drawn a zigzagging contraption to help us visualize the challenges we are going through during these, “lock-it-down”… “start-it-up” times.


Drawing Like Rube Goldberg

To keep my mind active, during the COVID-19, “stay-at-home” time, I decided to draw like Rube. I began reflecting on the detours and “pivots” that grew out of my lifetime dream of becoming a cartoonist for Walt Disney.

Here is my roadmap and life’s path. Right now, it’s an “A to S” adventure, and my hope is I’ll get to “Z” in my lifetime. If not, maybe my students will add more letters to my pathway.

You see, I made it to Disney, which I thought was my dream, but within six months of working there my life took a significant detour. I left to start my own cartoon company because the leaders at Disney said my ideas “would never work” at the Mouse.

Here was the problem: I wanted to create healthcare cartoons for kids and use the new distribution technology called videotape (remember, this was 1977!). The then Disney president told me that Disney films would never be sold on videotape. So, I quit and created a healthcare cartoon company – using videotape!

As I think back, I have no doubt that my curiosity helped me discover and reveal my true passions and my flexibility and persistence eventually led me to this rewarding time of my life.

I always wanted to be a cartoonist.

AND

I needed to become a chemist first, which gave me the scientific method.

AND

I needed to be a new product developer second, which gave me Design Thinking.

AND

My fallout from Disney gave me the motivation to become an entrepreneur.

AND

All of this prepared me to start my own cartoon company and now my

latest creative adventure, called WagiLabs.


WagiLabs is an idea incubator for elementary school kids to generate ideas to help solve community challenges. We call them “Ideas for Good.”


Final Reflection: Evolving the Rules of School

I believe Rube has helped us evolve from the old “rules of school” that held me and many students back. Among these rules:

1. There is only one right answer.

2. The teacher is always right.

3. The right answer is in the back of the Teacher’s Edition.

4. Don’t pass notes.

5. The answer is not on the ceiling.


In third grade, I dreamed of magically finding a copy of the Teacher’s Edition so that I would have all the right answers to pass the test. I’m sure glad that I never found that Teacher’s Edition.


To survive, Rube's insight helped me develop learning guidelines that are the exact opposite of those old rules of school:

Look for second right answers.

Look at your challenge from different perspectives.

Look for new answers every year.

Pass notes and collaborate.

The questions are on the ceiling.


I hope you enjoyed sharing Rube's thinking and mine.


Stay Healthy and Safe,

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