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The Boy who Harnessed the Playstation

See what more you could be doing to foster creative thought or productivity, because nothing turns you into a zombie faster than after-midnight virtual skateboarding.

By JOEL HANS, Associate Editor, Industrial Maintenance & Plant Operation (IMPO)

I’m the “boy who harnessed the Playstation.” And for what, exactly?

Let me explain. A while back I learned about the accomplished life of one William Kamkwamba, an African who, at the age of 14, built a windmill from trash (yes, literally) in order to keep his starving family alive. Recently, he’s turned his story into a book titled “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.” Needless to say, I felt a tad guilty when I went home that evening, ate a grandiose meal, sat down on the sofa and turned on my Playstation 3.

So, William’s story got me thinking about how I spend my time, and it was slightly harrowing, if not depressing. I couldn’t escape the lingering thought that William and I are the same age, and so when his family was suffering in the wake of a massive drought — and he was learning about the difference between AC and DC — I was trudging through freshman year of high school, coming home most every afternoon to play (you guessed it!) the original Playstation. Which brings me back to the first question: What good was all that Playstation-ing (if I may)?

It was fun. (Well, wasn’t that easy!) But that answer wasn’t really satisfactory, especially now that I’m no longer 13 — I didn’t really have a good reason why I spent hours in front of the TV. While it’s a good way to de-stress from life, it was killing my time spent creatively, or productively, outside of work. I do like to think of myself as a creative, right-brained thinker, someone who has always dabbled in the arts, and William’s own creativity reminded me how much of my own potential I was literally forking over to the hungry Playstation 3 for the sake of “taking a break” or “de-stressing.”

I think it’s important to the sanity of this country that our time isn’t spent in the polarized world of too-hard work and mindless relaxation. Case in point: the recession. As the 2010 working year starts, many are waiting for American innovation to kick in once again, but I think we’ve lost a great deal of our creativity in that polarized world.

Epiphanies don’t happen on the plant floor, the office or the conference call as much as we would like to believe. Needless to say, the only other time Americans have available to them for this complex creative thought is between the hours of 5 p.m. and 8 a.m., and as it stands right now, that time is largely spent watching on American Idol or playing Grand Theft Auto.

I’m recommending William’s story — and wonderful book — so highly because his spirit is exactly what manufacturing needs to survive. I don’t care if the economy is improving — some day it will go back down again, and if we don’t take anything from the misery, we’ll never be better off.

The core of William’s tireless effort to build his first windmill was his refusal to grow up to be another poor Malawian farmer. His ingenuity is startling, so much that it’s hard to make fathomable in this small column. He lived on handful of food a day, if he was lucky, and worked long hours in his father’s field. And yet he still had the willpower to return to his books and read, and truly innovate with the poor conditions he was given. If only all Americans could hold such a fondness for hardworking creativity.

How did I get there from talking about my Playstation? Good question. I’m not about to ban the console from my life, nor the TV — they’re among my prized possessions, even when I use them to watch the Packers lose their wild card game. And I’m not asking anyone to abandon anything that makes their lives, whether at work or at home, more enjoyable, even if it does promote complacency.

But every once in awhile, especially in an economy like ours, it’s good to take a critical look at yourself: See what more you could be doing to foster creative thought, even if you’re more left-brained than me. You can rest assured that while you took a moment to question the nature of your distractions, countless others continued flocking to Dancing with the Stars like zombies.

And I know all about that, trust me: Nothing turns you into a zombie faster than after-midnight virtual skateboarding sessions, especially when you have work in the morning.

Think this country is getting stuck in the work- /relax-too-hard paradigm? Are we losing our creative touch? Let me know by e-mailing me at — scratch that, read William's book first, then e-mail me at [email protected].