Ana Veciana-Suarez: Why didn’t I think of that? Another missed opportunity for invention

Most of us who are neither genuises nor innovators are destined to live our lives asking this question: Why didn’t I think of that?

This happens to me a lot more than I’d like to admit, and the recognition of another’s cleverness invariably sparks a cocktail of conflicting emotions. Admiration, resentment, appreciation, guilt. Mostly, though, I chide myself for not possessing that idiosyncratic way of looking at the world, a point of view that, if coaxed forth, if played right, can lead to a transformtive concept.

Not to mention making the creator a multi-millionaire in the process.

The simplest ideas often strike me as the most brilliant. Some may not appear as particularly useful — but they nonetheless meet a need or revive a hope that we did not know we had until we see the product in front of us.

The Hello Kitty line of products is the perfect example. Cute and common, cuddly and corny, Hello Kitty is everywhere and its popularity extends beyond children. I know grown women, women with college degrees, families and respectable careers, who own a Hello Kitty something or other. A smart-phone cover. A calendar. Even a book of checks or a debit card. Who would’ve thought a Japanese feline could be so influential?

Hello Kitty, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, has made billions for Sanrio, the company that manufactures it. A recent article reported that the kitty’s fame baffles even its creator, Japanese illustrator Yuko Shimizu.

Baffling or not, that pink and white feline has managed accomplishments mere humans like me have not. In 2008, Japan named Hello Kitty an ambassador of Japanese tourism in China and Hong Kong. It was the first time a fictional character had been appointed. UNICEF also anointed Hello Kitty with the exclusive title of UNICEF Special Friend of Children.

All manner of experts have tried to explain why the button-nosed, big-headed cat attracts so many avid, free-spending fans. A media studies professor at a university in Taiwan, where Hello Kitty is huge, explained it succinctly: “Cute characters can make people feel good, even though we have to face the difficulties every day in our real life.”

So meow your troubles away!

Of course, not all inventions inspire warm cuddlies. One of my favorites is the laundry basket that hugs the body for easier carrying. Don’t have one? Stop reading right now and run out to your nearest home store. It changed my view of washing, folding and sorting. I suspect an engineer who was a parent came up with this small but incredibly significant structural change in the tried-and-true rim of an ordinary basket. Only a person sentenced to daily bouts of laundry could re-imagine what ordinary folk see as tiresome.

Here’s another invention that’s fabulous: Velcro. It’s used for all kind of things but my favorite application is on children’s shoes. Oh, the freedom of no more tying and re-tying laces!

Velcro, by the way, was the brainchild of Swiss engineer George de Mestral, who, legend has it, went for a walk in the woods and realized that the burrs that stuck to his slacks might prove useful.

Do you know how many burrs I’ve picked off socks in the course of my lifetime? Not once did this strike me as anything but annoying.

And maybe that’s the difference between innovators and the rest of us. They see a problem as a disguised opportunity. An annoyance becomes an invitation to tinker and meddle and alter. Me, I just throw my hands up in frustrated surrender. The pity of it. If I could only find a way to find the opportunity in my most vexing problem: how to reap the benefits of exercise without breaking a sweat or lifting a single barbell.

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