Mick Ebeling – innovation for humanity.
I was supposed to meet Mick Ebeling for a breakfast/interview on the last day of the No Barriers Summit in Park City, Utah. Having heard his riveting talk at No Barriers University the day before, I had a lot of questions for him, and a number of his simple but profound philosophies were bouncing around in my head. But I was worried because we’d agreed to meet in the main No Barriers breakfast area at the Canyons Resort, and I knew that his big personality would draw a lot of attention and it would be difficult to talk to him in that setting—people would be coming up and saying hello, congratulating him on his innovative work with Not Impossible Labs, the Eyewriter and Project Daniel in particular.
Ok, I admit it. I wanted Mick Ebeling to myself.
So I put my backpack and computer in the back room, as far away from the food buffet line as possible, and waited for Mick to arrive.
A few minutes later I received a text from Mick, which read, “Would love to do a hike with you this morning in true No Barriers style—is that something you’d be interested in?”
Ten minutes later we were trotting up the trails above the resort, Mick’s long strides propelling him quickly up the mountain. He wears a goatee, and the flat-billed hat of a skater dude. Lanky, driven, and purposeful, Mick is an embodiment of one of the philosophies he espouses that I find powerful:
“Commit, then figure it out.”
It’s a simple notion, deeply meaningful and imbued with the potential to really transform—not only ourselves, but also the world. “Commit, then figure it out” is really quite Newtonian when you think about it, connecting to Newton’s first law of motion: “Objects in motion tend to stay in motion; objects at rest tend to stay at rest.” Mick Ebeling is all about keeping things in motion, his ideas and actions a kind of perpetual impetus.
The act of committing to something is often the hardest part—that initial impetus required for one to actually DO something. It’s much easier to remain at rest. But Mick has figured out a way to take that leap of faith required to start a project, to put something into motion, even if at the outset he has no solution. So often we let doubt creep in, we tell ourselves all the reasons that something won’t work—we rationalize that we don’t have the skills or the expertise or the time or the resources to do something—and that stops us in our tracks before we ever even get started. That doubt keeps our ideas and goals and dreams at rest, dormant, inert.
Not Mick Ebeling.
When Mick discovered that legendary Los Angeles graffiti artist Tempt had contracted ALS and was reduced to communicating with his brother and father through a crude method of blinking at one letter at a time to spell out words, he determined that there had to be a better way. Mick told Tempt’s family that he would create a device that would allow Tempt to communicate with them—and not only that—one that would allow him to draw again, to do the thing he loved most.
He’d committed. Now he had to figure out how he was going to pull it off.
Another of Mick’s philosophies for getting things done is to team up with people who can make things happen. He says, “Surround yourself with people who make you feel stupid.” I think what he means is that you don’t gain much if you are always the smartest one in the room. It’s important to find people who have the ability, the intellect, the passion and the drive to raise your level. To make you reach.
So he invited a bunch of brilliant hackers and programmers to his house in Venice Beach, CA, for a hackathon, and they created a device called the Eyewriter. The prototype was a cheap pair of sunglasses from the Venice Beach boardwalk, duct-taped copper wire, a Sony PS3 camera mounted with zip ties to track Tempt’s pupils as he moved his eyes—and voila, Tempt could talk with his family! Mick’s team had built a super-cheap version of the so-called “Stephen Hawking machine”—which at the time cost about $15,000—for under $100.00. The Eyewriter can now be built for around $14.00.
The Eyewriter was heralded by Time Magazine as one of the Top 50 Inventions of 2010, and the device is now part of MoMA’s permanent collection. The accolades came from far and wide, but what spurred Mick to keep going, to continue pushing forward, was an email he received from Tempt. The email read, “That was the first time I’d drawn anything for seven years. I feel like I’d been held under water, and someone finally reached down and pulled my head up, so I could take a breath.”
Tempt’s email convinced Mick that he had to keep doing it. He’d discovered that through helping one person, he could help many more. That was the start of Not Impossible Labs, whose mantra is “Technology for the sake of humanity.” Mick’s work in Hollywood, in animation and design, had previously focused on technology for the sake of entertainment.
Humanity felt bigger, more important, than entertainment.
Not Impossible Labs operates in part on the notion—and this might seem paradoxical—that everything that’s possible today was impossible (or seemed impossible) first. Mick cites cell phones, electric lights, the four-minute mile, a blind man summiting Mt. Everest, as things that were once deemed impossible, and are now possible. It’s a tantalizing philosophy, one that dares us to dream BIG ideas and make them happen.