It's safest inside a ring of fire

Some truths are counter-intuitive.

My focus has been to study master craftsmen. Craftsmen are innovators, working on the fridge or trade, and focused on raising standards. I look at what they do and how they think can be applied in other areas.

Craftsmen tend to work alone. They are in community with other craftsmen, but they work day in and day out by themselves. They are in the business of playing with standards and elevating them. They do this through innovation and creativity.

There is great power in groups. We all know the kinds of things we can accomplish with strong teams. But this article focuses on the trouble we can get into when craftsmen encounter groups. And I want to point to a parallel that happens with people embracing creative problem-solving, trying to push through norms, and how organizations respond.

When groups grow, they become more coherent and pull together. They start to share an identity and see things similarly. They become powerful. These qualities can build cohesiveness on the one hand, and group-think on the other.

A challenge to both the craftsmen and the groups they interact with is that individuals outside the group are trying to work with existing standards, something the group is familiar with, and create something new.  This difference gets aggravated by the fact that innovations are experienced as happening out of sync.

The cliche "they were ahead of their time" comes to mind, but no one is ahead of their time. People invent in reaction to something (an event, a set of ideas, etc.). This is why we experience innovations as unpredictable.

We rarely recognize them as solutions or potential answers to a problem. We don't know what to do with them when we see them. They make us think differently. They change the way we understand and engage the world around us. They force us to learn something new.

The virtue of any particular innovation is hard to judge until you've tried it.

As a result, communities often fear what they can't understand. More often than we would like, we circle the wagons believe around our beliefs, shunning the new idea. We don't even want to give it a try.

History shows us that bad things can happen at least temporarily and good things are lost. They are lost often at a time when they're needed most.

It's fire season here in Seattle, so it seems like a good time to reflect on firefighting, in general, and in particular, a 1949 fire that fundamentally changed the way we approach fighting fires.


This particular fire is a cautionary story and it's an important illustration of how the issue of learning well, how we can meet challenge head-on, and predict that it's going to happen because it happens over and over and over again throughout history.

The fire-fighting crew this group was a very heroic bunch of young men between the ages of 17 to 22. They called themselves "smoke jumpers." The last of them recently passed in 2014. They were the first firemen to parachute from a plane into remote areas to fight forest fires. The smoke jumpers were a courageous, elite group held together by their group values, their mission, and the courage to do accomplish a difficult job. They dropped into a chaotic environment with the few resources they could carry.

It's most important to remember for this story is that these men knew if the fire came toward them, they could find safety on the top of a ridge. A ridge provides a natural break in the line of fire.

The innovator of the story, Dodge, was older and more experienced than the group. He could do everything the smoke jumpers could, but better. He had a great reputation and a lot of experience. He was also a reticent, quiet man. He took care of everything in the base camps. But he wasn't one of them.

The day of the fire, he was their Foreman. They didn't know him personally and it was the first time he had actually led them as a group. Left in the afternoon to meet the fire and they were on the ground fighting by five o'clock. We know because they found a watch that was melted indicating the fire confronted them 59 minutes later at 5:59. The incident happened in a very short period of time.

This is a familiar dynamic between communities and innovator.

In a crisis or pressure-filled experience, it's never time that matters,

it's the certainty with which we hold our views that seems to make a difference.

When they saw this fire the innovator saw one thing, and the group saw another. The kids saw something they could conquer they could tame. They referred to such fires as "ten o'clock fires" and laughed about them.  But Dodge saw the fire and saw something different. He saw a fire that was about to explode and get out of control. He tried to move the group down toward a river that ran through the center of the fire, where they could safely fight the fire within relative safety. They would be able to exit through the river.

But the wind was so strong grass just burst into flame between them and the river and they were trapped. He told them to run. At this point, their only option was uphill, against a fire traveling 100 yards a minute. This was a race they would not win.

At that moment, he did something that at the time that no one had ever done before. He took a pack of matches out of his pocket, turned toward the fire, and lit a ring around himself. He had invented what is now called an escape fire. It is something that every forest firefighter has been educated in today and has saved many many lives since.

The term now means....

escape fire noun, \is-’kāp\’fī(-ə)r\

  1. a swath of grassland or forest intentionally ignited in order to provide shelter from an oncoming blaze.

  2. an improvised, effective solution to a crisis that cannot be solved using traditional approaches.

The fire was approaching fast. He called to his men and said to them, "Step with me into this fire."


The team was running as their training had instructed them to do. Fifteen smoke jumpers ran for the ridge because that was the knowledge that they could rely on.  But Dodge took his canteen out, watered a cloth for this face, knelt in the ashes, and laid down in the ashes of the fire he had burned. The fire burned over him. Other firefighters found a lucky pile of stone. But the fire caught the rest of the men.

Dodge, the foreman, survived the fire by staying in the circle he had burned in the grass. Two more made it to the top of the ridge, only to watch ten members of their team fall to the fire. Two more died the next day in a hospital. All but one died of smoke inhalation.

This is a sad story and I don't tell it to make you feel sad. However, this urgency of communication and influencing between innovator and group is one that breaks down all the time. You only have to look back through history:

  • the first time we were told the earth is flat;

  • the first time someone said microscopic things are responsible for disease

  • the first time someone said vehicles can go underwater, through the sky, and into space

  • the first time someone said a computer could fit in our pocket

  • first time Lady Gaga said I'm going to be a rock and star Idol

Whenever groups come together, they have common beliefs and their identity is preserved by them holding on to those beliefs. Innovators need to understand that when they are calling people to come with them to a new idea
they're inviting them into an unproven fire.

No one knows if someone says "I have the greatest idea in the world" if it's going to work or if it's going to be a disaster until effort happens. I think in every group we have to ask questions and assign mechanisms that allow us to be open to ideas we haven't anticipated.

As innovators, we have to find better ways to communicate and accept new ideas while maintaining our relationships. There have to be better ways to pool ideas and share resources in times of stress.

I know that was an intense story, but I want you to think about how you go through your day and interact with others when you are a member of a community that is holding to beliefs, or an innovator approaching a problem from the outside-in.

You are both. You are going to be in communities that you're working hard to build and you're a creative innovator that has ideas that people around you will not understand. So the question that we all need to answer for ourselves, and it's a different answer for everyone, is:

what is the one thing you can do if you're a member of a community

to see what's possible when what is presented

is something you don't understand?


when you take the role of innovator 

and you are telling someone what is possible, 

and sharing how you see differently or more effectively?

In the end, learning new ideas, and really being able to try them on when it counts, is the way we move forward. It's about getting over our own anxiety. Change is not the problem. I'm not entirely convinced that we even mind failure so much.

The problem for most of us is fear of deviating from a leading strategy.

Just look what it's doing to the business of healthcare, education, and poverty.

Thought Series: The Other Side of Fear


Thought Series provides actionable ideas and anchors for reflection on your life or your work.

Technology is meant to complement us, not dominate us. If automation is where people developing technology can take us and what they want to accomplish, it strikes me that we as human beings need to lean in to our humanity and what psychologist Carl Rogers referred to it as our ‘human-beingness’ even more. In order to remain as relevant as possible, we need to develop the skills that robots cannot simulate, poll dancing aside.

Critical thinking, ethics, and policy will be very important to our future. We need to regain some of the knowledge we have lost in our pursuit to become one with The Machine of the Industrial Revolution. The basis of how we understand (ourselves and others and the universe), therefore, lies in the anatomy of the brain and its capacity to cope with complex human reactions such as intelligence, thinking, and learning.

Master wood turner Eric Hollenbeck put it this way, “It’s like the Train of Society, going down the track, is scooping up more and more information— ‘scooping more, ‘scooping more, ‘scooping more—at an impressive speed. For some reason, it can only hold so much. This forces the person in the caboose to start throwing information off, as fast as he can, making room for the information coming on in the front. The problem is, we are throwing off the information it took us twenty-five thousand years to glean.”

Rather than being completely replaced, jobs are going to be reinvented. Our jobs are merely bundles of different tasks. Some (or many) of those tasks will be automated. But like evolving from the typewriter to the computer, or going to the library to now using a search engine, technology will basically redefine the kinds of things that we do and how we do them. (Librarians, by the way, are still better than a search engine because they are better at forming good questions.)

At some point in the future, we will learn that even something as human as creativity is actually fairly mechanical. There will be, I believe, an algorithm for creativity. But robots are going to be creative in a different way than humans are. For instance, a robot’s attempt at comedy or dance would be different than a human’s. They will never intrinsically understand what it means to “be human” in the way that we do. Even with such deep intelligence at their disposal, they will never do things exactly like we do them, and there is tremendous value in this difference of perspective, of skill, and of execution.

The convergence between man and machine has become adopted by people of every walk of life, from the poorest farmer to the richest billionaire. The relationship we have with machines has spread widely, been adopted quickly, and evolved to an unprecedented level of intimacy. No longer for the super curious dancing on the fringe of early adoption, the web/internet/computer is now part of mainstream society.

Is that panic, or excitement you are feeling?


Since the robots are here, and here to stay, we shouldn’t be fighting them. If we do, we’ll lose (if our national math/science scores are any indication). We should be figuring out how to work with them.

In 1997, the first big challenge to human exceptionalism was the IBM Deep Blue, who beat the reigning chess master at the time, Gary Kasparov. And when Kasparov lost, some thought this was the end of chess. Who’s going to play competitively because computers are always going to win? But that didn’t happen.

Playing against computers actually increased the extent to which chess became popular. And, on average, the best players became better playing against the artificial minds. Technology raised their game. Even Kasparov, who lost, speculated on the unfairness of being matched to a database that had access to every single chess move ever. So he invented a new, freestyle chess league, where you can play any way you want. You can play as an AI or you can play as a human or you can play as a team of AI and humans.

In the past couple of years the best chess player on the planet is not an AI. And it’s not a human. It’s the team that Kasparov refers to centaurs; it’s the team of humans and AI. They are complementary. AIs and humans think differently. This is reflected in other disciplines. The world’s best medical diagnostician is not Watson, or a human doctor. It’s the team of Watson plus a doctor.

This idea of teaming, or collaborating with something that can be creative, make decisions, and develop consciousness (different than ours) requires us to learn to develop more self-awareness, increase our autonomy, and make better decisions. We are running on a different substrate, and it’s not a zero-sum game.

There is inherent beauty in this symmetry between machines and humans. That, if humans get to gain more awareness of themselves and gain mastery in something unique to them, we can work with machines to tackle something even greater.

At its essence, artificial intelligence is math and data. Math and data have rules. What is difficult about the problems that need to be solved today is that deep neural networks of the brain have a multidimensional space where there is no “sense” to be made. Or, at least we are still unable to make sense of the rules at play. At a certain point, we just don’t know what it all means (yet).

If you relate to the metaphor of the brain in terms of a computer and the way that it receives, processes and stores information, you can appreciate that incoming information is acted upon by a series of processing systems. Each of these systems accepts, rejects or transforms the information in some way, resulting in some form of response.

Where there is a difference between the computer and the brain is in the type of processing of which each is capable. Computers are only capable of processing one bit of information at a time before moving on to the next bit, whereas the brain often engages in a multitude of bits of information simultaneously. There is also an issue about predictability, with the computer always reacting to the same input in exactly the same manner, whereas the brain may be subjected to emotional or environmental pressures that cause differences in reaction.

In short, we just don’t know the rules of the human brain. Therein lies the great fear of and opportunity for humankind: learning, guiding, or controlling these rules.