CHAPTER SIX: Man Like George Washington Carver
Man Like George Washington Carver
- They are not smart enough, invention is the domain of smart people.
- These ideas cannot work in our location (especially when I share it within my Nigerian circles)
- Lack of capital. The idea that you need to be “in money” before you can be creative.
And so, just like the biblical Moses, we are faced with a scenario that due to many years of hardship, failure and harsh economic conditions, people’s spirits have been crushed and disillusioned and it becomes VERY hard to convince folks that this message is real, quite actionable and practical.
Concerns about been smart enough or not been able to implement these ideas due to one handicap or the other are soon swept away by anchoring the discussions around faith in God. Spiritually alive people know intuitively that there are no Greeks, Jews, Nigerians, Americans or Chinese in spiritual things. Any man that comes to God can be accepted and when you get in tune with God, you get ready to channel his superior knowledge and creative energy.
The true life story of George Washington Carver (1860s – January 5, 1943) is a carefully selected case study that demonstrates what is possible when we embrace this message of creativity and invention. There have been various kinds of inventors from all walks of life, but I think George Washington Carver has the kind of background we can better relate with, and hopefully if he was able to succeed by tapping into the secret origin of creativity and inventions, maybe you can be convinced that you can succeed also.
George Washington Carver, despite been born into slavery and a time of great racism and discrimination, went on to become a world renowned agricultural scientist and inventor in his days.
For someone born as a slave, his life’s journey was filled with unsurmountable odds. Yet, by learning to dig into his innate ability to create and invent, he was able to find fame that extended beyond the black community. Even the whites had to acknowledge the talents, and abilities he demonstrated in his work.
By some accounts, this man invented over 300 products from the peanut and sweet potato. The peanut is more commonly known as the groundnut in my own part of the world (Nigeria). Someone sat down and developed more than 300 products from these crops. We are not talking about product concepts and hypothesis, we are talking REAL products.
In the early 1860s, a baby boy was born to a black slave woman living on a plantation in Missouri. The exact date and year of birth is unknown, the child was weak, and while still tiny, slave raiders attacked the farm and kidnapped the mother and child to sell further south. Moses Carver, the owner of the plantation, rode in chase of the raiders all the way to the state of Arkansas. Moses found the baby abandoned, but never caught up with the raiders to claim the mother.
The baby was allowed to live in the family house, and when old enough, because of his poor health was only expected to do light housework. For some time the child was given no name, but because of his characteristic of telling the truth Moses Carver called him George Washington. When slavery was abolished, his “owners” adopted him, raised him and his brother as their own children and gave him the family name Carver.
George Washington Carver was allowed to spend many hours each day doing whatever he liked. So Carver often wandered in the woods, watching the animals and fascinated by the plants and trees. Without anyone teaching him, he started sketching the plant life of the countryside, keeping a secret garden in the woods in which he collected and cultivated many unusual plants. Carver had a deep insight into plants, and he became known as the ‘plant doctor’ because of his ability to heal sick plants of pests and diseases. People sent sick plants to him from enormous distances for his help and guidance.
George Washington Carver would have been content to settle as an artist and musician, for he excelled at both, and enjoyed making paintings about nature but someone advised him to take to horticulture. Yielding to that advice is responsible for the way expressions of Carver’s creativity and inventiveness matured and blossomed beyond the arts and unto scientific breakthroughs.
He had a longing to learn and despite his limited options as a black man born into slavery, he had to find a way to get admitted into schools and also come up with the means to generate enough funds for his schooling. At this time, most schools turned down “coloured” people from their institutions.
He was able to finally get his Bachelor’s Degree in Science at Iowa State College. In 1896 he received his Master’s Degree, but Carver was more than a botanist or chemist. For nearly fifty years he was a professor of agriculture at Tuskegee Institute.
When he arrived at the Tuskegee Institute in 1897 with little salary, no equipment and in barren surroundings, he had no clue his life’s assignment was about to begin. Several accounts state that George Washington Carver mobilised his students to go through the trash and near-by woods to find scraps that could be salvaged for use in their laboratory.
George Washington Carver came from the poorest and dullest of backgrounds possible, but by application of wisdom to solve problems around the work output of people in his community, he enriched the local farmers and by extension, revitalised the economy of Southern America in the early twentieth century. You do not need to be “in money” before you can unleash your inventions, you just need a step-by-step application of wisdom.
I think George Washington Carver excelled because he was able to identify early on the true purpose of inventiveness; to solve problems of people. He was able to identify early on the problems he wanted to solve, and for whom he wanted to solve the problem for.
George Washington Carver was known during his lifetime as the “farmer’s best friend”. He was obsessed with improving the quality of results and the income the farmers were making from their farms. That was why he was able to become so massively successful.
One of the main crops in Southern America was cotton. However, growing cotton year after year can remove nutrients from the soil. Eventually, the cotton crop will grow weak. So, Carver taught his “clients” to use crop rotation. One year they would grow cotton, followed by other crops such as sweet potatoes and soybeans. By rotating the crops the soil stayed enriched.
Carver’s research and education into crop rotation helped the farmers of the south be more successful. It also helped to diversify the products that they produced.
The crop rotation was going on well, but other problems still held back the farmers. They had pest infestation that destroyed the yield every year, Carver once again discovered that the pest they were dealing with did not like peanuts (groundnuts) and so, he advised they switched to peanut farming.
The proposal was good for the farmers, but they weren’t so sure that they could make a good living off of peanuts. It was at this point that Carver began to come up with products that could be made from peanuts. The books report that he introduced hundreds of new peanut products including cooking oil, dyes for clothing, plastics, fuel for cars, and peanut butter. He attributed all the insights to divine inspiration.
Many of the products did not do well enough in the marketplace to be considered commercially successful, but I think this was due to limitations of Carver’s business acumen and not because the products were useless. How I wished he had half the business acumen of someone like Thomas Edison, another prolific inventor that was alive during that era.
Thomas Edison did offer Carver US$100, 000 a year for him to join forces with him, but Carver turned down the offer, he preferred to teach and train the poor farmers (for free) while working out of what he described as “God’s little laboratory”.
The reality is just that George Washington Carver was not interested in making money or even the fame. He was content with whatever he got from his teaching position as a University professor. Carver’s interest was mainly in developing the science and helping others, not in getting rich. He was a man that refused to patent most of his work because he considered his ideas as gifts from God. He thought they should be free to others.
George Washington Carver did not set out to become an inventor per se, he merely wanted to help. He developed discipline, tenacity and a passion to patiently work out problems in a systematic manner to apply his knowledge to solve problems for those farmers working with insights he considered to be freely given to him by God.
George Washington Carver ‘s work was deeply anchored upon his conviction that God held the answers to all of life’s questions, and that the only requirement for obtaining these answers was a receptive ear. You did not need to be a genius, just listen to what God had to say and follow the same directives.
Carver said, “I love to think of nature as unlimited broadcasting stations, through which God speaks to us every day, every hour, and every moment”. Carver’s scientific discoveries originated from a rich inner life built upon a strong faith in divine powers.
His spirituality came not from participation in a particular church (as a black man growing up in racist America, he was actually locked out of the church! He could not congregate or attend church until later in life!), but from a deeply personal relationship to his God. “All my life,” he said, “I have risen regularly at four o’clock and have gone into the woods and talked with God. There he gives me my orders for the day. Alone there with things I love most, I gather specimens and study the great lessons Nature is so eager to teach us all. When people are still asleep, I hear God best and learn my plan.”
Circumstances forced Carver to discover one of the greatest secrets of great inventors: been alone. It is like when Nikola Tesla said “Be alone, that is the secret of invention; be alone, that is when ideas are born.”
Carver also claimed to have spoken with the subjects of his scientific inquiry. He was always seen to have a flower in his buttonhole, and he explained that he talked with the flowers and they revealed their secrets to him. “How do I talk to a little flower? Through it I talk to the Infinite. And what is the Infinite? It is the silent, small force. It isn’t the outer physical contact. No, it isn’t that. The infinite is not confined in the visible world. It is not in the earthquake, the wind or the fire. It is that still small voice that calls up the fairies.”
The results of George Washington Carver’s work with the farmers of the South grew beyond anything he had expected. The results were visible; farm after farm used his methods. The soil changed and crop production increased, yet, he struggled to gain recognition from the scientific community in his days. His willingness to publicly discuss his inspired methods of research set him at odds with the scientific community.
Declaring that your breakthrough ideas and methods came from the place of prayer and meditation as opposed to the scientific method, and a rational, deductive methodology was not exactly what the world wanted to hear then. Not in the early twentieth century and definitely not today.
Carver did not deny the importance of rational thought, but regarded it as a means of confirming and illustrating truths obtained first through communion with God. Such openness regarding his methodology did not endear him to critics, and indeed a 1924 New York Times editorial claimed that he showed “a complete lack of the scientific spirit.” The Times went on to say that “real chemists” do not attribute their successes to inspiration, and warned that Carver would bring discredit to his race and to Tuskegee Institute.
George Washington Carver was vindicated at last and honoured beyond the expectations of most, because at the end, the ability to deliver real results is what matters. Remarkable souls like George Washington Carver are not always awarded the recognition they deserve, yet he received numerous accolades.
He served as nutritional adviser to Mahatma Gandhi, agricultural consultant to the Russian government, and massage therapist for the Iowa State football team. His paintings received honourable mention at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair, and the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts in London elected him a Fellow.
He was awarded the Spingarn Medal for Distinguished Service to Science and the Theodore Roosevelt Medal for outstanding contributions to agriculture. Two honorary doctor of science degrees also were bestowed upon him and he was awarded honorary membership in the American Inventors Society.
Popular Mechanics magazine selected him one of fifty outstanding Americans, and he was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. Variously referred to as the Peanut Man, the plant doctor, or the sage of Tuskegee, Carver counted Henry Ford among his closest friends. He was the first black man to get a national park, museum and monument built in his honour. The George Washington Carver National Monument remains open till today.
George Washington Carver attracted immense wealth to his country. Such is the power of creativity and inventiveness, one man’s brilliance can change the economic outlook of his community forever.
Jim Hardwick, talking about one of Carver’s lectures says, “One day he came to the town where I lived and gave an address on his discoveries of the peanut. I went to the lecture expecting to learn about science and came away knowing more about prayer than I had ever learned in the theological schools. And to cap the climax, when the old gentleman was leaving the hall he turned to me, where I stood transfixed and inspired, and said, “I want you to be one of my boys!”
But Jim Hardwick was white, and born from Southern parents, whose family had owned slaves. He says, “For a ‘nigger’ to assume the right of adopting me into his family – even his spiritual family, as in this case – was brazen effrontery to my pride. I recoiled from it.” It took Jim several days of wrestling with this inbuilt pride before this barrier fell away, and he shared the inner life of Dr Carver. To quote him again, when that happened, “instantly it seemed that his spirit filled that room… A peace entered me, and my problems fell away.”
The success on the farm continued until one year the harvest of peanuts and sweet potatoes was so big the market couldn’t absorb them. People couldn’t sell their crop. Shocked at this outcome of his work, and seeing the threat of a disaster, Carver went into his laboratory to pray. He didn’t ask for government aid, or demand people to stop planting.
George Washington Carver understood deeply that a man of science that could also tap into the faith-force was unstoppable and unlimited. The power of prayer is valid and it works in the laboratory.
Carver locked himself in his laboratory for several days and nights listening to his intuition and working to analyse the peanut. When he emerged he said God and he had solved the problem. From the peanut, and later the pecan-nut and sweet potato, Carver discovered how to extract, or synthesise, face powders, printers ink, peanut butter, shampoo, creosote, vinegar, dandruff-cure, instant coffee, dyes, rubberoid compound, soaps, wood stains, and hundreds of other uses.
The secret of this man’s incredible inventive genius came from the combination of these three things: love, selflessness and accepting responsibility for others.
“When I touch a flower, I am not merely touching that flower, I am touching infinity.” He also said, “You have to love it enough. Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough. Not only have I found that when I talk to the little flower or to the peanut they will give up their secrets, but I have found that when I silently commune with people they give up their secrets also if you love them enough.”
– George Washington Carver
It is reported that George Washington Carver would begin each day with a prayer that God should reveal secrets to him about plants and vegetables. That prayer and heaven’s response launched him into a lifetime of discovery.
Secrets can be very valuable. Having some rare knowledge that very few or nobody else has access to can be empowering. The question is: will God show you secrets which can add tremendous value to others and benefit yourself too?
It takes a level of audacity to think about it! If you cannot develop enough faith to make some kind of prayers, you are not worthy of such secrets.
George Washington Carver was bold enough to ask for secrets from God, the Creator. And his life and work revolutionized the economy of his country when it was most needed.
We need more people that will follow the trail of George Washington Carver. People who will explore thousands of things we can do with readily available crops like Cassava, Maize, Cocoa, Cowpea, and all those crops we are currently under-utilising.
You do not need to be the smartest man alive, you only need to have developed your mind enough, so that you can better process the thoughts that will be imprinted upon your mind. This process does not depend on anything external, your location or skin colour is irrelevant, you simply need to focus and cultivate that state of mind.
Who will wait upon God to discover the thousands of other things we could do with Cassava that nobody is even thinking of doing right now? Diligently working out the invention one step at a time until maturity?
As soon as the inventions are created, you have to look for people that have the skillset you don’t have and collaborate in order to ensure that the products of your creativity and inventiveness reach their maximum potentials.
What set of people out there will you adopt as your own headache and obsess over their problems until they are able to overcome all their challenges and problems, so that they can increase their productivity and work output?
I have been teaching for many years now that people and problems are like Siamese twins. You cannot separate one from the other; anywhere, any community of people whether geographical or by interest, will have problems common to them. There is great opportunity in solving those problems.
You need to understand that making money is merely a reward for solving problems. If you want to become a billionaire, start thinking about how you can develop the solution to problems at the scale of billions.
I see some people attempting to channel their creativity and inventiveness through some grandiose project that is not grounded in reality, all in the hopes of getting fame and glory. I do not think things work that way. You do not invent things in a vacuum, you have to put yourself out there and ingeniously tackle real life problems that people know that they have.
This is one of the biggest lesson I learnt the hard way from my earlier “innovative” projects that failed to work because they were not solving real problems people knew they had. I wasted like five to eight years of my life on such grandiose projects. These days, I think I have learnt my lessons and I know better.
Hopefully, that will also be one of your takeaways from Carver’s story. We solve problems for people that is how we apply our creativity and inventiveness; in pursuit of solutions to problems we can see and identify.
When it comes to the balance between solving problems, unleashing your inventions and making money. I fully support and endorse making money. Making money is not the goal, and you must ensure your heart remains in the right place – making money is never our goal! The truth is that you will soon find out that if you wish to be able to continue to work and reach out to more people and make a bigger impact, you must learn how to handle the business aspect of things.
For all of Carver’s inventiveness and all round “good guy” branding, he was considered by certain reports to be a poor administrator and failed to commercialise his God-given ideas. If he had built out industries from his inventions (like people like Thomas Edison did), he would have left a greater legacy than he did. Carver was lucky in that he was unmarried all his life, never had biological children or dependencies and he always had his job, teaching at the University. I doubt if those circumstances would be same for most of the people who would be reading this.
You are not George Washington Carver.
Things might have played out much differently if Carver had a business partner, or a business team that could work with him to commercialise the inventions. We must be able to develop inventions and then build multi-billion dollar industries from them, which would be the ideal scenario.
We must be ready to collaborate with others that have strengths in our areas of weaknesses. God will never give a man everything that will be needed to complete a mission, he rather gives that person everything that person needs to complete his own part of the mission.
That is the reason I like preaching that we should learn to complete each other, rather than compete with each other. Our world is competition crazy. Any new idea that thrives is soon subject to copying by other players in that industry.
Every night, many Entrepreneurs cannot sleep as they ponder over what to do now that the big names in their sectors are shamelessly copying their USP and adding it to their offerings. The modern business landscape is such a brutal place, certainly not for the weak minded.
An alternative to all the competition is another approach which I call “Completing each other” or someone else says “Complementing each other”. It is not compulsory for us to compete every time.
There is no reason several companies in the same industry cannot share a common framework and leverage each other’s strength. This mind-set of me against the world will continue to kill us. Serious.
There are over seven billion people in the world, the odds that you can serve them all on your own is small, if we work together more often, we will reduce wastage and our overall output will increase.
To maximise our creativity and inventiveness, we must learn to surround ourselves with people that can effectively complement and complete us.
George Washington Carver transcended barriers of race, socioeconomic status, geographical and political squabbles, belief systems and ego boundaries, and he capitalized on a deep, intimate relationship with his God. He was able to integrate his faith in God and science completely and unleash some great inventions upon the earth.