April 2002

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The Innovator

Technology’s upward spiral brings us more for less. That’s the special magic of innovation.

The late songwriter Steve Goodman put so many of my feelings into words, it’s second nature to look to him when there’s something really big to work through.

"My Old Man" starts out:

I wish he was here with me.

With his corny jokes and his cheap cigars

He could look you in the eye and sell you a car.

That’s not an easy thing to do,

But no one ever knew a more charming creature

On this earth than my old man.

My dad sold a few cars, but only after he had personally refurbished the mechanics and sprayed on a fresh new coat of paint. Folks liked getting a car from him because they knew that, unlike at used car lots, the engine was always better than the paint. He performed those mechanical miracles in the garage next to the house, which he built with his own hands and those of a few good friends. He was a Renaissance man of the mechanical arts.

I have this enduring image of dad out in the garage, perfectly still, staring at a partially disassembled engine—doing I didn’t know what. Then I read Richard Feynman’s "He Fixes Radios by Thinking" and learned how the Nobel Prize winner built a mental model of a system to figure out why it wouldn’t work. After that, I could almost see my father tracing the systems in his mind to find the failures that could explain the symptoms. When you really understand how a system works, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll see a way to improve it. Dad put cars back together with leftover parts, and somehow they ran better than new. That’s called innovation.

Technology’s Honored Tradition

When my friend Becky and I exchanged stories about our recently departed fathers, she said, "Oh, that’s where you get your knack for computers." I hadn’t consciously made a connection between dad’s mechanical genius and my affinity for applying technology to problems. Once Becky laid it out, it seemed both obvious and a commentary on what it means to use technology in the service of innovation. It’s the never-ending struggle to make things better.

This country has a long and honored tradition of technological innovation. Witness the farmers who figured out how to squeeze so great a bounty from each acre that we became the breadbasket of the world. Or the boys who played with rockets until they sent them past the atmosphere and beyond the solar system. It is the special magic of technological innovation to make more from less, something from nothing. In turn, the cornucopia of agricultural productivity freed young girls from farm work so they could learn about satellites and weather so farmers could be even more productive. It is the upward spiral of innovation.

There are, of course, naysayers who on principle dislike change. For them, the past is always seen through a soft golden haze, with perpetual longing for the good old days. Invariably, these people have never experienced the "good old days." I learned that lesson from my dad, who did not suffer fools gladly, especially Luddites. He was one generation removed from Carpathian serfs who struggled to survive with tools that hadn’t changed in a century. He had a special contempt for those who romanticize the past and decry technology’s impact on modern life. When I fell prey to that vice, he escorted me on hands and knees through a tunnel to a black pit like the one where my grandfather spent 12-hour days chipping coal. I emerged not only cured, but an ardent devotee of innovation.

Lessons for Legal Luddites: We Can Do More

The proposition of legal Luddites is that ours is a learned profession requiring such wisdom and judgment that the technological storm transforming society will have no impact here. The truth is, we are subject to limits of time and space just like everyone else. And as we figure out how to use technology to push back those limits, we can do more for our clients with less effort. With constant innovation we can help more people, charge less and make more money.

In the end, it’s our spirit of innovation that makes America great. In World War II we coupled the courage of men like my dad with innovation and an industrial production never seen in history to defeat great evil. Dad spent the rest of his life making the world a little better than it was the day before. That’s the spirit of the innovator, and it’s not a bad legacy.

STEPHEN J. HARHAI ( practices family law in Denver, CO. He is the author of the Colorado Divorce Handbook site,