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.
WE MET AT HATCH A COMMUNITY THAT UNITES CREATIVE THOUGHT LEADERS TO HATCH A BETTER WORLD. HOW WOULD YOU HELP TO HATCH A BETTER WORLD?
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.