The ideas of Christopher Columbus were more monumental than any of his discoveries.
Most of us born just before World War II as well as the baby boomer generation born just after, were taught that “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” This was also the time when the notion that Columbus may not have discovered the New World was being presented. In fact, many suggest that it’s ludicrous to credit any individual with the discovery of a continent already inhabited by an entire culture.
Political correctness aside, it is not important who discovered what when. What is important is why. Why did Columbus go? Why did he spend most of his life either in pursuit of funds to test his idea or living with the consequences of his discovery? Most of the questions were explained by Columbus himself upon his first return to Spain from America.
The news of his return preceded Columbus by several days. Smaller, faster ships met him at sea, provided supplies and returned to Spain with word of his arrival. When he arrived on shore, he still had to cover a tedious distance over land before he could present himself and his discoveries to his benefactor, the Queen.
This gave the Queen more than enough time to prepare an elaborate homecoming celebration. No detail was overlooked. The finest foods and wines were delivered. The castle and the grounds were prepared as though a visit from the Pope himself was expected. This all needed to be done for a variety of reasons. There was an enormous I-told-you-so that the Queen had for almost everyone in the royal court, including the King, and it needed to be said without actually saying the words. This level of celebration said it loud and clear.
People and egos being what they are, in Columbus’s time as well as today, nobody liked to have an I-told-you-so hanging over his head. To dilute the Queen’s triumph, several of the ministers who spoke against the Columbus exploration started a rumor. They said that while what Columbus did was significant, in a way it was inevitable that someone would have bumped into the New World eventually, even if by accident. By the time of the dinner in the great hall, everyone was feeling quite smug and self-satisfied, to the point that several ministers were openly hostile and sarcastic toward Columbus.
He was again alone with his ideas, without support. As the dinner went on, the Queen, almost in desperation, asked Columbus to respond to these comments. He was seated at the head table next to the Queen with over thirty ministers and bureaucrats all around him. He stood up and called for the chef. When he appeared, hot and sweaty from the kitchen, Columbus asked him to bring everyone in the room a raw egg.
When everyone had an egg, Columbus said, “I can make my egg stand upright using the small end. Can any of you?”
A combination of laughter and ridicule escaped from each participant, something like bad-smelling gas. Columbus’ face changed from the warm, round countenance of an intellectual cherub to that of a slave driver as he said, “Do it, if you can!” Without a sound they all attempted the challenge.
After only a few minutes, no one at the dinner was able to complete the task and all had quit in frustration. With new-found courage, those ministers who had started the rumors said in protest that it could not be done and that Columbus was trying to avoid their assessment of his accomplishment as a lucky accident.
Columbus cleared the space in front of him on the dinner table. He reached for the salt and poured out a small mound, no bigger than a button. He placed the small end of his egg in the mound of salt and it stood up. He then blew away the mound of salt, and the egg still stood.
The ministers began to protest. “This is just like the discovery of the New World. Now, we can all do the trick!” Columbus stopped everyone with a look. “Of course you can now do what has already been done, but only after someone has shown you how.”
Some good ideas survive obstacles. Many do not. Successful new products and services prosper because of the entrepreneurial spirit in senior managers who recognize that ideas are America’s products, and that we have a penchant, an aptitude, a talent for innovation and creativity. Original thinking starts with original thinkers.