How to Expand Your Mind
How do we open up to more possibilities of things to try, to pay attention to, to respect, to be curious about? I want to tell the story of the time when the President of the United States called to shut down the 33-year-old City Planner in Winooski, Vermont. This is a town in Vermont. I don't know quite which town this is. Winooski looks very similar to this. Winooski, Vermont, very small town. It's neighbors with Burlington, which is the smallest city in any state to also be the largest city in that state, if that makes sense. Vermont is a small place. Winooski is the next door neighbor to Burlington and about 40 years ago, yeah, that math makes sense. About 40 years ago, President Carter called to shut this guy down. I'm 33 years old. A guy my age was put in charge of city planning for Winooski. They had a problem during this time 'cause there was sort of this oil crisis thing going on in Iran. Oil prices were really high. This place is cold and the heating bill that families were h...
aving in this town was extremely high. It was something like $500 a month on average to heat a family's home, which is a lot of money, especially back then. This is a problem that the city planning office was trying to decide, how can we help? Burlington had recently put in a proposal to put a hydroelectric plant on the river so that they could generate some electricity for cheaper, so they could heat their homes. The problem is the hydroelectric plant would basically ruin Winooski. They'd have to redirect the river, ruin their downtown, and it would not help them with their heating problem. They were worried about this and this City Planner, his name was Mark, he was with his staff at the bar one night. One drink turned into two, two drinks turned into who knows how many. Someone said, I wish we could just put a lid on the city, keep the heat in, and that's when they decided that a good idea would be to build a dome over Winooski, Vermont. They all thought that was a great idea. They were drunk at a time they went home, they went to bed. Mark told one of his buddies who worked in national politics about this hair-brained idea and his buddy said, you know, by crazy happenstance, the Deputy Secretary of, I forget which department, HUD, Housing and Urban Development, something like that. Happens to love domes and this is late 70s, there was this dome craze that sort of happened very briefly where building dome houses and things like that was briefly popular 'cause they're very energy-efficient, but they also look stupid. There is this subculture of people who love domes or who were sad that they went away with like pet rocks and everything else that went away around then. But this guy, this HUD guy, happened to love domes and he said, Mark's friend said, I'm carpooling with this guy to Washington. I'll call in sick, you carpool with him to Washington for no good reason, tell him your dome idea. Mark sits in the car with this politician, tells him the dome idea, the guy turns around from the front seat and he says, if you propose that, I will fund it. (students giggling) Things get out of hand and soon Winooski, Vermont is the home of the First International Dome Symposium. Dome weirdos flew in from everywhere. Buckminster Fuller, he's like this famous crackpot and mentor, flies in. They get all of these people around the world to come talk about putting this dome over this city. The newspapers went crazy. A lot of them were like, this is an insane idea, but a lot of them asked real questions for which they had no answers. Like what will the dome be made out of and how will people breathe? What do you do about car exhaust? They just made up the answers on the fly. Well, we'll have electric cars. How will you invent that? We will. How will people get in and out and what are you gonna do, what will it be held up with? Will it be pressurized? How will people see through the dome and will that not cook everyone inside? Letterman started joking about it. Time Magazine showed up, New York Times talked about it. Some guy wrote a song called, Dome Over Winooski Not Far from the Lake. I forget how it goes, but one of the lines is, "Still real and not fake." It became this, the butt of this joke to the point, though, that it started worrying people. In Saudi Arabia where the oil crisis was on everyone's mind, newspaper made the top story about how cities in the United States are building domes over them in order to avoid paying for oil. People started freaking out about this and that's around the time when President Carter called. He was up for a tough reelection against Ronald Reagan. The story of government funds being used to build domes over towns in Vermont was not helping him. He called and he said, what is this? Shut the dome thing down. Now, I think the dome idea is a pretty fun idea. (giggling) It's not like a good idea. They didn't think through everything. They didn't figure the cost of keeping the heat in, sure. Building a dome that no one knew how to do that was going to suffocate everyone. Not a good idea. And like ruin the view. I went up to Winooski, check this place out, it's gorgeous, but if we're talking in the analogy of our mountain range and solving problems, the problem of not enough heat in this town. Way too expensive a heating bill, this is kind of what it's like. What if we built a dome over the city? It's off the map. It's not even on the list of solutions that are decent. This is what happened and then it kinda became this laughing-stock thing via, the owner of the Winooski Restaurant said to the Christian Science Monitor, I believe the quote was, "Well, this dome idea will probably give some architect "a job, to come here and decide that it won't work. "Maybe he will eat here and improve the economy." (giggling) That's how it turned out, but then what happened is the Deputy Director of HUD calls him up, calls Mark up and says we gotta shut the dome down. We're not gonna fund the dome, but I do have all these funds that I was gonna apportion to this project. Got any other ideas for how to save the town and save the heating bill? They decided what if in-between this crazy dome idea and paying $500 a month for heat, we did something else like build a different kind of hydroelectric plant further up the river and make cheap electricity for us and Burlington? Turns out that that was a great idea that had kinda been floated, but no one was willing to consider 'cause building a hydro-plant was just not something that Winooski was even remotely able to do. In-between all these other solutions and this bad idea, it turned out there was a really good mountain peak. Saved all this federal funding, they saved the town, and then this kind of emboldened this Mark guy to start proposing more crazy ideas because this was so crazy and people actually paid attention. First and last International Dome Symposium happened and if they could do this, then maybe they could revitalize the old warehouses and turn them into a small business office park. Maybe they could take a bus of local business owners up to Montreal and talk to business owners there about how great Winooski is and get them to open up shops in Winooski. They did this and they not only attracted the second-most federal funding per capita of any city to their little town, but they also decreased the unemployment rate by like double digits and they boosted the economy, and made this place great. When Mark moved to his next job, they named a street after him. I love this story not just 'cause it's fun, but because it illustrates why bad ideas are actually useful. Not just can be useful, but are useful. Even though that was an idea that wasn't gonna work, just by exploring the territory between what could work and that, it opened people's minds, expanded the possibility, expanded that cognitive range. Also, the story got people excited enough to care and to pay attention. This is kind of a higher risk, higher stakes version of the Christmas in Space party. By paying attention to Brian and his aliens idea, something in-between was actually a pretty fun, unique idea we wouldn't have thought of. Einstein talks about this. About how the difference between him and other people, he said, was that when someone else was searching for a needle in the haystack, when they found the needle, they would stop, but he would search through every other needle in the haystack to see what else was there. Which sounds insane, right? Sounds crazy and if it was someone other than Einstein, we would probably say he was crazy. If Einstein hadn't developed the Theory of Relativity, we might have just looked at him and seen how he operated, and said that was an insane person. Turns out that the difference between insanity and genius is often very small. Often on the surface it looks pretty similar. I actually think that Mark, City Planner of Winooski, was a genius. I called him up and interviewed him a couple years ago. Incredibly smart guy, incredibly thoughtful, empathetic guy. He knew what he was doing, even though he was making up these answers on the fly, he's 33 years old, he had not quite hit his stride, he was really smart. And yet people wrote a song about how much of an insane person he was. I think if we wanna be like Einstein, we should not underestimate the different parts of the mountain range and what's in-between us and them. I like to talk about this as radical curiosity. Everyone seems like these days is talking about radical everything, like radical candor, and radical dieting, and I don't know what else. Radical honesty, I think radical curiosity is something that's really important. If we wanna expand our minds, I think it pays to start becoming curious about weird things basically.