Home All Necessity-is-the-Mother-of-Invention Strategies

Necessity-is-the-Mother-of-Invention Strategies

written by Jordan Silberman 27 March 2008

Jordan Silberman, MAPP '06 is an MD/PhD student at the University of Rochester where he studies neuroeconomics—the neural basis of decision making. He is currently developing a technique in which brain-computer interface technology is used to promote neural activity that may facilitate self-controlled behavior. Jordan has published articles on psychology, pediatric palliative care, health care communication, bioethics, and proteomics. Full bio.

Jordan's articles for Positive Psychology News Daily are here.

They weren’t PhD’s. They didn’t have millions in NIH grants, or access to well-oiled research and development labs. In fact, neither Augusto nor Michaela Odone had even a basic background in biology. Despite their lack of resources, the couple landed a spot in history; they are known for developing a treatment that successfully halts the progression of adrenoleukodystrophy.

Film Poster for Movie based on the Odones

Film Poster for Movie based on the Odones

Although they lacked the resources that are typically required to achieve such a breakthrough, the Odones did have an unfathomably urgent need to find a cure for their son’s purportedly terminal illness. It was this necessity that drove them to achieve a feat previously deemed impossible by medical experts. In less than five years, they accomplished what typically requires an army of researchers, millions in grant funding, and decades of researchers’ time.

For me, this feat catalyzed two questions:

  1. What can we learn from them?
  2. What can we learn from learning from them?

What can we learn from them?

Given that the Odones accomplished far more with far less than most professional labs, one question is obvious: How did their methods differ from standard research protocols? Did they forego low-yield research steps? Did their lack of pre-conceived notions about pharmaceutical treatment lead them down a unique path? What can researchers learn from their approach?

What can we learn from learning from them?

In scrutinizing the Odones’ approach, we are seeking strategies that arose when challenges required off-the-chart efficiency. The Odones needed to find a treatment far faster than treatments are typically developed, so they found a much faster approach to treatment development.

We can, of course, identify circumstance-necessitated uber-effective strategies even when we are not facing intense challenges. Why just mimic those who have endured typical levels of challenge? Why not instead learn from those who–because they faced seemingly insurmountable challenges–were forced to find strategies that are far more efficient?

I’d love comments. How have you used, or how might you be able to use, “necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention strategies?” In what aspects of your life can you find somebody who was forced to find a far more effective approach? Looking forward to your thoughts.

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Jeff Dustin 27 March 2008 - 1:46 am

What an intriguing post. Crisis cuts through the B.S. sometimes doesn’t it? I really related to the mnemonist reference. I’ve studied foreign language intensively and, at its most basic, learning a language is crunching a bunch of words. I’ve often thought “what if I could remember words at a quick rate”. That would help me immeasurably…maybe I could even have a life and succeed!
Friends studying medicine have said the same.

It is a question of which model to borrow for a solution. Poverty often thrusts awkward but effective solutions to problems. I look at the pilgrims that came to America for one model. Life sucked at first but through determination and exploitation they made it. Following the puritans the yankees of New England were an industrious bunch. They could turn a piece of wire and some gum into a windmill, MacGyver-style.

A third example that I found fascinating was an exhibit at MassMoca, the Musuem of Contemporary Art in Western Massachusetts. A local warden had confiscated from felons a working wood lathe made from a ball-point pen, all manner of shanks, personal pleasure toys, batteries, darts, a blowgun, “kites” or secret messages folded super tight into tiny bits of paper, picture frames from origami-folded Doritos bags, etc. I have never forgotten that showcase of ratty merchandise. I would never have thought of such ingenious uses of rolled up toilet paper, tape, and time.

The cable show MythBusters and Consumer Reports also spring to mind when thinking about creativity.

Jordan Silberman 27 March 2008 - 9:55 am

Thanks for your comment, Jeff.

> Crisis cuts through the B.S. sometimes doesn’t it? I really related to the mnemonist reference. I’ve studied foreign language intensively and, at its most basic, learning a language is crunching a bunch of words.

I agree that crisis can force you to forego what’s unnecessary or low-yield, and this may happen when people are forced to learn languages quickly. See this for an intriguing approach: http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2007/11/07/how-to-learn-but-not-master-any-language-in-1-hour-plus-a-favor/

Kathryn Britton 27 March 2008 - 1:40 pm


What did the Odones do?

I have several friends whose children have severe illnesses. Most have been very active in the search for a cure. One family has raised lots of money for Friedrich’s Ataxia research ( http://www.curefa.org/families/thomas.asp ). Another has been very active pushing for treatment Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease (http://www.jacobsladder.ca/pmd.html). Another has gotten a companion dog for a child with cerebral palsy (search for The Invisible Chair in http://www.provail.org/media/winter07.pdf ). And so on.

I think there’s a lot we can learn from people who face the crisis of a child diagnosed with a major disease for which there is no known cure. I’d like to hear more about what we can learn from the Odones.


Jeff Dustin 27 March 2008 - 1:50 pm


Fun article! I think using a sight-word vocabulary corpus would reduce learning time. The Linkword strategy employed by many language learners works well. You match a familiar image to the sounds & meaning of the language. Then you bind these images together in a brief story.

Rehearsal is king. Rehearsal is king. Rehearsal is king. I’d go so far as to say “without rehearsal there is no learning.” Flashbulb memories, using a sense of smell, multiple intelligences,and other cool experimental methods might cut down the time, but again, rehearsal/practice will out.

I love that the mnemonists can memorize a deck of cards or random words in under a minute. I bet they still rehearse a lot. Their memory systems are just highly efficient.

Jeff Dustin 27 March 2008 - 1:57 pm

check out this linkword sight.

Jeff Dustin 27 March 2008 - 1:57 pm Reply
Jordan Silberman 27 March 2008 - 5:45 pm

Hi Kathryn!

>What did the Odones do?

The Odones basically lived at a medical library for a while, hypothesized their own ideas about how to treat the disease, pestered highly skeptical researchers, and tracked down a chemist who was willing to synthesize lipid mixtures for them.

More at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augusto_and_Michaela_Odone

>I have several friends whose children have severe illnesses.

Do you think there’s anything they can learn from the Odones’ approach?

J 🙂

Jordan Silberman 27 March 2008 - 5:47 pm


Thanks for sharing this. Let me know if you have success with this approach!


Kathryn Britton 27 March 2008 - 8:17 pm


I just wanted you to put meat on the bones. :-}

I have trouble imagining my friends doing more …

But such persistence and single-mindedness is an amazing example.


Jess 6 April 2008 - 11:09 pm

I truly enjoyed your article – it’s incredible to think that the Odones were able to accomplish such a task without any prior medical training. I thought this story sounded familiar – I remember watching the movie “Lorenzo’s Oil” when I was younger, and being amazed at the inventiveness of Lorenzo’s parents.
However, now I’m curious about the main catalyst in their search for a cure. Was time the greatest factor in their discovery? Since they knew their son would die without treatment, they must have felt incredible time pressure to find a solution. Or, was the driving force just simple passion? Did they work harder because they were so emotionally connected to the problem? Just curious 🙂 Keep up the great work, Jordan!


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