Parker Thomas is a genuine maker. He grew up curious and is inspired by working with his hands. So it’s no surprise that he not only worked for Maker Media but that he also built his own plane and flew it across the country. I’m thrilled that he is now a ThinkFun inventor and has collaborated with David Yakos on our next Maker product.
Thank you Parker for participating in my interview series!
In one sentence, who are you?
I am a maker of things as well as a father, husband, friend, inventor, wannabe engineer, pilot, sailor, explorer, entrepreneur, teacher and perpetually curious and irreverent learner. Was that a run-on sentence?
What was your favorite toy or game as a child?
I don’t think I ever had a favorite game. I do remember taking apart everything I could find to figure out how it worked. My mother once said I always asked “how?” She also said it was really annoying.
I believe that the most important skill someone can have is the ability to come up with an idea and execute on it. So I would do anything that gives people the confidence and the competence to execute on their ideas. The best way that I’ve found to teach to kids this is to combine the hands-on learning philosophy of Maria Montessori with the problem-solving methodology of Design Thinking. So I helped start a school called Urban Montessori in Oakland for my kids (and 300 others now) that’s based Montessori and Design Thinking. It’s still early, but you can see glimmers of the kinds of creativity our students will have.
So you have a particular interest in education. Can you tell us about that?
Unfortunately, I think education is a place in which our country is just stuck. Most of our current education prepares kids with facts they might have needed in the 20th century, but not the innovation, learning and life skills needed today. I found my schooling to be sheer torture. Nobody could ever explain why I needed to know all these facts or why I couldn’t go explore the things in which I was really interested. So my interest started simply by wanting to spare my own children the same torturous experience. We were thrilled with the progress our kids made in a Montessori preschool and found that much of the Montessori philosophy maps to the skills needed in today’s economy. We couldn’t find a way to continue Montessori through elementary school, so we started our school. We are only in our third year, but I’m very proud of our progress. I don’t know if Montessori is the solution to all of our education problems, but it is certainly the solution to some of them.
How do you activate creativity?
I don’t think you can activate creativity. We are all hardwired for creativity-it’s a fundamental human trait. We can, however, crush it. Unfortunately, I think that’s what our education system does - but that’s a whole conversation by itself. On a personal level, I do most of my thinking when I’m working with my hands. My breakthroughs happen in quiet times in my shop. With others, I like to get a group of people together in a room, create a warm, supportive, whimsical environment and brainstorm. It’s amazing where you can get to when you focus on “Yes, and…”
What is your place of inspiration?
A workshop. In a workshop you can almost feel the possibilities around you. It’s contagious.
If you could only have two tools to create with on a desert island, what would they be?
Probably a good pocket knife and a Dremel. You can make anything with a Dremel.
What are your passions?
I love to make things. I love to create something from nothing. It almost doesn’t matter what it is - it’s the process that I love. And ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved airplanes. I finally got to combine these passions about 15 years ago by building an airplane from a kit and then flying it around the country. It was amazing. We live in a beautiful country.
Wow! You built an airplane! Can you tell us more about that?
When I was about 30, I took almost 2 years off from work to build an airplane. It was a Van’s Aircraft RV-8 - a 220 MPH, fully aerobatic two-seater that took close to 3400 hours to finish. I learned a ton about airplanes, but I learned a lot more about myself. I discovered depths of determination I didn’t know about. No matter what obstacle I encountered, I found a solution. It was a real learning experience. And I got to leave the ground in something I built - not many people get to do that.
Who is or has been your mentor? What piece of advice did s/he give you?
The best mentor I’ve ever had was a guy named Pat Patterson. For some reason, Pat took me under his wing 15 years ago and taught me everything I needed to know to build a small airplane. He was the first person in my entire life who understood exactly how to teach me. He somehow knew that I needed to understand the relevance of the knowledge and have a framework in which to put it. So he would wait until I was unbelievably frustrated and saunter in to drop some gem of knowledge that I was utterly ready to receive. Pat taught me how I learn and this changed the course of my life.
What is your Superpower?
I don’t think these are superpowers, but I am perpetually curious and I love to figure things out. I think it’s a combination of loving to learn, having a broad background from which to brainstorm and what my wife would call a pigheaded determination.
Describe the best day you ever had....
One of the trips I took in that little airplane was heading down to Florida, stopping in Fort Lauderdale to pick up my girlfriend (now wife) and turning left to head out over the ocean to the Bahamas. There are uninhabited islands where you can land, taxi to the end of the runway, jump out, take off your clothes and jump in the water. That was a pretty good day.
When is breaking the rules okay?
If it’s a dumb rule? I’m trying to teach my kids to understand the spirit behind the rules. That way, if the rule doesn’t make sense, they can still follow the spirit of it.
We met at HATCH and now you and David Yakos have collaborated on a product that ThinkFun will launch in 2015. Have you always considered yourself a toy and game inventor?
No-I did not even think of myself as an inventor. That said, I have so many ideas that at least a few stand a chance of being good. It took collaborating with David to bring that one to fruition.
Have you always been a maker? If so, how did it start?
I’ve always taken things apart and sometimes put them back together. Even as a kid, I wanted to know how things work. The airplane was really the first time I attempted a huge project. Like many huge projects, if I had any idea how long or how hard it would be I probably would not started.
You worked for Maker Media, what’s your thoughts on the Maker Movement?
Well, I think Chris Anderson really nailed it in his recent book - Makers: The New Industrial Revolution - the movement does represent the next industrial revolution. The falling cost of electronics has made tools that were out of reach just a few years ago readily accessible. And even expensive tools can usually be accessed in a makerspace. So we’re going to see a flood of innovation as more and more people figure out how to bring their ideas to life.
I think making things really teaches the confidence and competence of how to execute an idea. In the future, the only thing it really will distinguish us is our ability to come up with an idea and execute. It’s just critical.
What is the toy that would be considered children’s first foray into the maker space even before there was the Maker Movement?
There have always been maker toys-Lego, Tinker toys, Lincoln logs, Capsella, Lionel trains etc. I think the most important thing is for a kid to be able to create something from scratch or customize something that exists. It’s this act of creation that builds the confidence to be able to take on larger and more complex challenges.
What current trends do you see in the toy and game space?
The biggest trend that I see is that the cost of electronics, sensors and connectors is falling so much that they can be added to everything. This opens up entirely new areas for games and toys that we've never even thought of before. And the falling price of electronics and the ease of creating with 3-D printing means it’s never been easier to prototype an idea you have. So go do it.
How do you think the maker movement is going to change the toy and game industry?
I think we're going to see a huge wave of innovation as people figure out how to take advantage of new electronics and 3-D printing. It’s going to mean a whole lot of small companies and likely another wave of acquisition. I’m not an expert in toys, but that’s my guess.
What advice to you have for fellow inventors?
Well, this is going to sound weird, but I would say listen. Listen to your own problems and listen to the problems of people around you. Opportunities are embedded in those problems. The toy I invented with David happened because I was describing my frustration with making macaroni box cars actually move. It never occurred to me that there was a product there until we started talking. Now I’m paying much closer attention.
How do you think 3-D printing is going to affect the toy and game industry?
3-D printing just means that you can prototype really quickly. What happens when project design cycles shrink down to weeks instead of months or years? For one of my clients, I’m writing curriculum to teach elementary students how to use simple 3-D design and printing software. What happens when kids who are the users of these toys and games can design and hack them? That’s going to be really fun.
What makes you smile?
My two children-most of the time. I like watching them learn to do things. I like watching their faces light up when they do something that they've never done before and on which they worked really hard. That’s very rewarding. I also smile when they laugh at themselves. I think the ability to not take yourself seriously is critical to really enjoying life.
If you could go back in time and tell a younger version of yourself one thing, what would you say?
Don’t work for other people. Don’t think that you are going to learn from them any faster than you can learn on your own. If you’re passionate about something then go do it. NOW.
If you were a DJ...
DJ Papa Tango - that has a nice sound doesn’t it?
What are your goals?
I have two big goals I am working towards right now. I made the first one last year at HATCH because being around all of those people living lives they created was very inspiring. My goal is simple: I want to create a life I want to live in. That means doing work I believe in and find fulfilling, with people I can learn from and want to be around, with ample time to spend with people I love. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? The second goal I’ve had since my kids were born - sailing around the world before they are too old. I’m not sure how I am going to pay for it, but I am going to do it.
Very inspiring Parker! Thank you and I look forward to hearing all about your sailing adventures!
HATCH is a community, movement, and a series of experiences designed to ACTIVATE CREATIVITY to HATCH a better world. Founded 10 years ago HATCH is designed to stimulate new thinking, lifelong collaborations, and support innovative thinking with 360 mentor-ship. HATCH has grown into a global network of innovators, and is expanding into a year round collection of experiences that will take a variety of shapes and forms.