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Vanilla, Credit and Creativity

Vanilla ice cream cone

“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit” – commonly attributed to Harry S. Truman though the actual origination is disputed (https://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/12/21/doing-good-selfless/).

In creativity, the more ideas you have, the more likely you are to find a great idea. When people come together to share, they can combine ideas and build off each other. In these cases, it’s better for the people involved to check their egos and their need for credit at the door. If someone can come up with a world-changing idea because people were open to sharing and participating in give and take, that should be what matters. While the creative community knows this, it also knows that the person or company who implements the idea gets the credit and the rewards. It’s a stumbling block that comes with capitalism where the almighty dollar rules all.

Facebook went through this with the lawsuit against Mark Zuckerberg for stealing the idea from the Winklevoss twins who recruited him to work on ConnectU. Zuckerberg is a billionaire, but he cared about who got the credit.

In “How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery,” author Ken Ashton tells the story of vanilla and a slave boy named Edmond. Europeans loved vanilla, but it only grew in Mexico. Plants were taken to other countries, but they didn’t produce any vanilla beans. The world’s supply of vanilla was limited to the two tons of beans produced in Mexico and pollinated by a specific bee there.

It wasn’t until Edmond (who didn’t have a last name because he was a 12-year-old slave) pollinated a vanilla orchid, adapting a technique he had learned from pollinating watermelon vines, that the vanilla industry was able to grow beyond Mexico. Edmond was freed about 6 months before the rest of the slaves in Reunion and given the last name “Albius.” He went to the city, was jailed, his former owner was able to free him in three years, but Edmond came to a “destitute and miserable end” according to his obituary. Edmond is remembered through the name of his pollination technique called “le geste d’Edmond” (“Edmond’s Gesture” in English) and a statue that stands on the island where he created the technique. In 2018, according to “Time,” vanilla ($515) was worth almost as much as silver ($527) per kilogram.

While Edmond didn’t get the recognition he deserved in his lifetime, it was due to his status as a slave and African and not because his owner tried to take credit. In fact, his owner insisted on telling everyone the debt that the nation owed to Edmond for his discovery. He corrected false stories and did his best to improve Edmond’s standing in life. Twelve-year-old Edmond probably never thought about getting the credit for his discovery.

However, in today’s climate, discovery, innovation and creativity take a backseat to quarterly profits and the need for fame and recognition. We may be capable of achieving great things, but we need to figure out how to justly compensate everyone involved. Unfortunately, greed, intellectual property theft and laws geared toward improving the lot of corporations make it increasingly difficult to justify being creative for the sake of humankind.

For more on creativity, get “Disneyland Is Creativity” and “Penguinate! Essays and Short Stories.” Preorder “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity.”

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