Creative Headwind and Creative Tailwind. (Episode 52)

Interview with Dr. Said Zahrai of ABB, Robotics Head of Innovation, Corporate Executive Engineer at ABB Corporate.

When we work on making our creative projects happen we have all experienced the feeling when:

a) it feels like everything is suddenly going our way.


b) when the cards seem to be stacked against us.

Which one do you prefer?

The obvious answer would be option a). Who would not like to be in a state of flow when things just fall into place and where we have the equivalent of driving through a city at night where all the traffic lights turn green just as we get to them.

Creativity without resistance.

But today I got a different perspective by talking to Dr Said Zahrai of ABB. Dr Said Zahrai has been working with innovation within ABB for almost 30 years. He is now Robotics Head of Innovation, Corporate Executive Engineer at ABB Corporate. ABB is a world leader in the areas of robotics power, heavy electrical equipment, and automation technology areas. The company has a 130 year old history, operates in over 100 countries and employs over 100,000 people.

In almost three decades of working on different cutting edge projects Dr Zahrai has experienced times when it was easy to get support for innovative ideas, like in the end of the 20th century when the Internet revolution happened and “innovation” was on everyone’s lips and it was easy to get budgets approve for innovation projects. But he has also experienced the dry spell when focus was on other things that innovation and he had to fight for attention and budget for the projects he wanted to work on.

He has seen when the automotive industry embraced industrial robots and how the car industry helped develop the industrial robot industry, and he was sent to China to build the first small industrial robot in a development centre that did not even have any product development at the time.

“I have worked in times when innovation was everything, and in times when you had to push really hard to push things forward.” he said to me in our creativity conversation.

Don’t get me wrong: The time that Dr Said Zahrai has been with ABB has been the golden age of industrial robots and ABB has pushed the envelope on what robots can do consistently over these 30 years, but in some times it’s easier to innovate than in others.

Let’s call it “Creative Headwinds” and “Creative Tailwinds”.

And Dr Said Zahrai prefers “Creative Headwinds”. And after listening to his line of reasoning I am inclined to say the same.

Yes, Creative Tailwinds are amazing. Think of Apple after Steve Jobs came back and launched a series of innovative products and became the global poster child for a creative company. But Steve Jobs also experiences Creative Headwind, for example as he was fired from Apple – something that made him enter a very creative time of his life as he started NEXT and PIXAR.

Too much headwind will – just as in sailing – kill all momentum. But the right amount of headwind will keep you on your toes and push you forward. And while sailing downwind might be nice and comfortable, you will never sail faster than the wind. It’s pleasant but not exciting. 

I asked Dr Said Zahrai why he preferred Creative Headwind. He said: “It’s my personality. I prefer to feel that I had to work for what I got. And I think most creative people prefer a certain amount of Creative Headwind over a life of Creative Tailwind.”

After interviewing thousands of creative people I am in agreement with Dr Said Zahrai.

Really creative people want a challenge. Want to find problems and solve them. Want to push the boundaries. Go against the grain. 

That does not happen if you cruise downwind. That happens when you search out the headwind and tackle it.

Dr Said Zahrai was born in Iran and was just about to enter university when the Iranian revolution happened in the 1980’s and all universities were closed. He left his home country, travelled to Europe and finally ended up in the far away country of Sweden where he enrolled at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Talk about headwind.

Creative people are problem solvers. That means they feed on problems. Give someone a life of no problems to solve and their creativity will stave. Again, too much headwind will kill not only your creativity, but your spirit, drive and momentum. But the right amount of Creative Headwind will – as illogical as it might sound – actually push you forward faster.

So enjoy the times when everything goes your way and creativity seems to just come effortlessly. Enjoy your moments of Creative Tailwind.

But do not fret when you are hit with the Creative Headwind – instead embrace it. Use it. Get power from it. And use the Creative Headwind to push you forward.

When I ask Dr Said Zahrai to reflect on his 30 years at ABB and think about what were the best times for him from a creativity point of view, his initial reply was to break out in a big smile and proclaim: “30 years, oh yes, I am really old…” and then I answered my questions and confirmed: “I was the most creative when I had Creative Headwind.”

I think this is true for a lot of truly creative people.

Is it true for you?




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