If you’ve ever found a Wacky WallWalker in a box of cereal, we’re probably around the same age and you might remember The Dr. Fad Show. It’s not a prerequisite, but my brother wrote a very good description of the show in his zine Taken for a Ride: My Night in the Cash Cab. You can probably get that zine wherever you got this zine.
What you need to know is that Dr. Fad, the man Ken Hakuta, is the guy who put those Wacky WallWalkers in the cereal boxes. He did that, he did some other things, and then he did The Dr. Fad Show from 1988 to 1994. I was an early fan of the show. According to my brother’s essay, I watched it every day after school. I think this is a metaphor for how much I enjoyed watching it when it actually aired on Saturday mornings. [Ed. note: Give me a break, I was six years old. I barely knew what a day even was.]
In every episode, three contestants would pitch their inventions to the audience, with the winner chosen by applause meter. I was not a contestant. I was one of the kids in the audience who got to give their elevator pitch to Dr. Fad when he asked, “Who’s got a great invention?”
Notice that Dr. Fad did not ask, “Who’s got a great practice or interest followed for a time with exaggerated zeal?” Because kids don’t understand what a “fad” is. As far as they know, everything that is interesting now will always be interesting.
When the producers came to our school to announce that we would get a chance to audition for the show, I don’t remember if they explained what a fad is. Even if they did, I didn’t pay much attention in school, and was probably already busy drawing inventions in my notebook. Or fighter jets.
I was in fourth grade, and we used pencils to do classwork, or in my case, draw fighter jets. I obviously made a lot of mistakes, because my eraser would get all gunked up, and I would rub it on my jeans to clean it off. I imagine the idea struck while I was doing this, and I realized that my pants would get less pink dust on them if I had something else covered in denim.
So my first invention was an eraser cleaner: a piece of an old pair of jeans wrapped tightly around a wooden block. It was exactly as exciting as it looks on paper, but it worked very well. In fact, I took it to school and used it even after my teacher told me it needed something more if I wanted to be on Dr. Fad. I was probably trying to prove her wrong.
If I had been in a startup incubator and not grade school, I might have learned to iterate. I might not have gone bitterly back to the drawing board, and I might have used my teacher’s advice to apply my idea in more interesting ways. I might have learned what a fad is, and we all might have had loose-leaf binders with strips of denim on the inside flaps.
I remember another school project, for which I invented a series of mirrors that allowed a person to watch one television from any room in the house. It wasn’t as practical as the eraser cleaner, but the teacher gave me a similar critique, and I had a similar reaction. I rejected the original idea and drew a giant robot instead. I thought it was ridiculous, and would by comparison show my first invention to be practical and genius. I was wrong, and my teacher liked the giant robot. That was not my goal.
My teacher’s goal, I understand now and maybe even understood a little then, was to get me to think creatively and with both sides of my brain. I don’t know if she was also trying to teach me to challenge my assumptions, but teachers teach us even when we don’t appreciate it, and sometimes even when they don’t know it.
I had assumed that the best way to get on Dr. Fad was to build a useful invention. A little bit of market research would have helped, but in fourth grade you don’t challenge assumptions with a competitor analysis. You get mad, you go back to the drawing board, and you reluctantly learn what your teacher is trying to teach you. You invent snowball-making gloves.
I like to think that I thought of snowball-making gloves as a silly, giant robot of an idea that I later realized might actually be good. It was, in either case, a simple idea: Attached to each glove was half of a hollow plastic ball, which would be pressed together to scoop up a perfectly round snowball. I tested using a foam ball, since it doesn’t snow much in New York in spring. It was difficult to actually throw the foam snowball with the scoop sewn onto your palm, so one hand had the scoop sewn onto the wrist, “depending on if you’re a leftie or a rightie” as I explained to Dr. Fad.
However well (or not) they might have worked in winter, the snowball-making gloves were good enough to get me on television. I wasn’t a contestant because either my invention or my personality were not big enough, but they sat me on the aisle so I would be picked first to demonstrate my design. Considering that I was probably too shy to really want to be a contestant, this was my goal.
Years later, in a startup incubator for much older students, I would learn again to challenge my assumptions. I would learn from other entrepreneurs who had struggled and sometimes failed because they didn’t, and others who had found great success when they did. While The Dr. Fad Show doesn’t come up much in business casual conversation, the lessons do, and I now wonder how many other entrepreneurs gave their first elevator pitch to a guy in a pink sweater covered in Wacky WallWalkers.