Reading Group Discussion Guide

How to Fly a Horse
by Kevin Ashton

About the Book

In How to Fly a Horse, Kevin Ashton tells the stories of great creators to show that creating is not magic, but a step-by-step process of identifying and solving problems that takes time, work, and tenacity.

Each chapter tells the story of a different person and draws conclusions about it using science, history, philosophy, and stories about other creators. The people featured in the stories worked in many different disciplines and come from different times and places.

The book also addresses the reader directly: in each chapter, Ashton exhorts the reader to use his or her own creative abilities to help make the world a better place. He does not merely describe the actions of others; he calls upon us to take actions of our own.

The end result is that How to Fly a Horse does more than describe the creative process—it also provides insights about the human race, and its past, present, and future, and seeks to inspire and motivate us to be ever more creative.

Discussion Guide

1. In the opening chapter, “Creating is Ordinary,” Kevin Ashton writes, “Creating is not for an elite few. It is not even close to being for an elite few … how many of us are creative? The answer, hidden in plain sight, is all of us. Resistance to the possibility that Edmond, a boy with no formal education, could create something important is grounded in the myth that creating is extraordinary. Creating is not extraordinary, even if its results sometimes are. Creation is human. It is all of us. It is everybody.” [Page 9.] How well does the story of Edmond, the 12-year-old slave who discovered how to pollinate vanilla, illustrate this idea? Why is the idea that “all of us” are creative important to the rest of the book? And why might some people find it controversial?

2. “Genius,” which Ashton calls “a myth,” is a theme throughout the book. For example, “creation is not the exclusive domain of rare geniuses,” (page 9), “The capacity to create was starting to look … like an innate function of the human brain—possible with standard equipment, no genius necessary,” (page 16), “genius does not predict creative ability because it is not a prerequisite,” (page 22); and the final chapter is called “Goodbye Genius” (page 232.) Having read the book, what do you think “genius” actually means? Did your opinion of the word change at all while you were reading? Is Ashton saying everyone is equally creative, or something else? And do you agree?

3. In Chapter 5 (page 118), Ashton tells the story of Rosalind Franklin, the female scientist who discovered the structure of DNA, to illustrate the problems of prejudice and inequality in creative work. He claims that, “the creative potential of women has been suppressed for most of human history” (page 123), that women are “as likely to create, invent, or discover as anybody else” (page 139), and that “the same is true of people who are black, brown, or gay” (also page 139.) Do you agree, or disagree? Why?

4. Chapter 7, “The Gas in Your Tank,” says that the intrinsic motivation of passion is the best driver of creative behavior. On page 173, Ashton describes a study that found people who get a reward but no choice about the work they do are least creative. He says, “In creative work, choice transforms the role of reward. The least creative group’s problem was easily diagnosed: members of the no choice–reward group reported feeling the most pressure.” Then he points out that “No choice–reward is the condition most of us are in when we go to work” (page 174.) Do you get to choose what work you do? Does that affect how creative you are? What motivates you to be more creative? What squashes your creative abilities?

5. How to Fly a Horse includes a detailed explanation of the way a can of Coke is made (pages 143 – 148), and a discussion about how and why the drink evolved, and what its consequences are, both for people and the planet. What is Ashton trying to say here? That Coke is good, bad, or is he trying to say something else? What surprised you about how Coke is made, and how it originated? More generally, what do you think about the consequences of creating?

6. The “Marshmallow Challenge” (page 216) is an exercise in which teams are given eighteen minutes to build a tower out of uncooked spaghetti, tape, and string. The tower has to be able to support a marshmallow, and the tallest tower wins. On average, kindergartners build twenty-seven towers and business school students build ten inch towers. Ashton writes, “The surprising thing about the marshmallow challenge … is not the performance of the children but the performance of the adults. The business students who build a ten-inch tower would have built a twenty-seven-inch tower when they were in kindergarten. Where did those extra seventeen inches go?” (Page 220.) Education is intended to improve performance, not make it worse. Based on your reading of How to Fly a Horse, as well as your personal experiences, how might school and college reduce people’s ability to create, especially in teams? What other factors may contribute to the the difference between the performance of the kindergartners and business students? How has your education and life experience affected your creative abilities?

7. In How to Fly a Horse, Ashton uses a very broad definition of “technology.” He writes, “Anything that is as it is due to conscious human intervention is invention, creation, new” (page 11), and says, “Creation surrounds us. Everything we see and feel is a result of it or has been touched by it” (pages 11 to 12.) His then gives a number of examples: “This book is creation. You probably heard about it via creation … it was written using creation, and creation is one reason you can understand it. You are either lit by creation now or you will be, come sundown. You are heated or cooled or at least insulated by creation …The sky above you is softened by fumes and smog in the day and polluted by electric light at night—all results of creation … Apples, cows, and all other things agricultural, apparently natural, are also creation … You are a result of creation … Cars, shoes, saddles, or ships transported you, your parents, or your grandparents to the place you now call home, which was less habitable before creation … Listen, and you hear creation. It is in the sound of passing sirens … even the bark of a dog, a wolf changed by millennia of selective breeding by humans; or the purr of a cat, the descendant of one of just five African wildcats that humans have been selectively breeding for ten thousand years … Creation is so around and inside us that we cannot look without seeing it or listen without hearing it. As a result, we do not notice it at all” (pages 12 through 13.) What do you think of that list? When you look around, do you see the evidence of human creation everywhere that Ashton describes? Or do you not really notice it at all, as he claims? Has the book changed how you think about “everyday” objects? If so, how? If not, why not? What does the word “technology” mean to you?

8. Chapter 4 is called “How We See” (page 91.) It starts with the story of an Australian pathologist called Robin Warren, who discovered that bacteria in the human stomach. Until Warren made his discovery, scientists believed the stomach was so acidic that bacteria could not survive there. After Warren made his discovery, other scientists reexamined their results and photographs and realized that the bacteria had been there all along; they just could not see them. Ashton writes, “this is not because the mind plays tricks but because the mind is a trick … We may want to believe that we inhabit a stable, objective universe and that our senses and minds render it fully and accurately—that what we perceive is “real”— and we may need to believe this so we can feel sane enough and safe enough to get on with our lives, but it is not true … our senses do not give us the whole picture” (page 108.) What do you think of this story, and Ashton’s claims about our senses? Do you agree that “the mind is a trick,” and that “our senses do not give us the whole picture”? Why?

9. How to Fly a Horse includes 29 pages of notes (pages 247 to 276) and a 20 page bibliography (pages 277 to 297.) Did you look at these pages at all? Are they useful, or do they feel like “filler”? Why do you think Ashton decided to include them? Do books like How to Fly a Horse need this kind of information, or is it a waste of paper?

10. Now that you have read and discussed How to Fly a Horse, what kind of book would you say it is? Is it a “How To” book? Its subtitle is “The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery.” Is it a history? Does it contain any secrets? What part of the bookstore or library would you expect to find it in? What part of the bookstore or library did you find it in? How would you describe to a friend who asked you what it was about? Would you recommend it to them?

Author Bio
Kevin Ashton led pioneering work on RFID (radio frequency identification) networks, for which he coined the term “the Internet of Things,” and co-founded the Auto-ID Center at MIT. His writing about innovation and technology has appeared in Quartz, Medium, The Atlantic, and the New York Times.

How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery
by Kevin Ashton
Publication Date: January 20, 2015 Genres: History, Business, Science, Nonfiction
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN-10: 0385538596 ISBN-13: 978-0385538596

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