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How Harry “The Hat” Anderson helped me learn Design, Risk, & Entrepreneurship
Harry Anderson passed away last month; my thoughts are with his wife, son, daughter, and family.
The following is unusual, but truthful. It’s how Harry “The Hat” Anderson helped me learn, and teach, design, entrepreneurship, and risk management.
7 minute read.
Harry Anderson was a television star on Cheers, Night Court, Dave’s World, It, and other shows for almost 30 years. He was most known as Judge Harry Stone on television’s Night Court, where his character was a kind-hearted prankster, magician, and fan of jazz music.
Judge Harry Stone was an iteration of Harry “The Hat” Gittes from television’s Cheers, where Harry was a good-natured con-artist and magician.
Harry’s career jump-started in 1983 when he appeared on the famous comedy show Saturday Night Live, apparently shoving a needle through his arm.
Today, I use Harry’s Needle Through the Arm routine in workshops for medical device companies, teaching them how to comply with Risk Management and European Union Medical Device Regulations in ways that balance patient safety with innovative products.
Risk (this may get “Hairy” 🙂
I use Harry’s needle-through-the-arm routine in corporate training for medical device development on Reducing Risk As Far As Possible and applying Risk-Benefit Analysis, concepts that are often confusing. I believe the needle example explains the “point.” (ha!)
During the Saturday Night Live performance Harry fumbled while looking for the instructions to his trick while he had a needle stuck through is bleeding arm. This “stuck” in my mind (ha!) as a way to illustrate the concept of designing products that don’t require written warnings to protect people. The international standard for medical device risk management, ISO 14971, requires three priorities for reducing risk to patients:
Make the design inherently safeAdd safeguardsProvide written instructions or warnings
New regulations in Europe require that each medical device prove that the highest level of risk reduction were applied. Harry’s needle-through-the-arm represents a real-world challenge in healthcare, accidental needle sticks, that helps explain why these priorities are enforced.
Healthcare workers would get stuck by needles that had been in contact with patient blood, which resulted in transmission of diseases. Some of those diseases included life-threatening viruses such as HIV. Written instructions were ineffective at protecting healthcare workers, and it was difficult to make needles inherently safe because it must be sharp to penetrate patient skin. Innovative companies found cost-effective ways to add safeguards to needle after government regulations for needles required more safety, and those companies excelled in the market. Companies that didn’t innovate lost in the market. In all cases the reduced risks benefited society.
If an innovative company improves needle designs to be inherently safe, which is priority level #1, then that would become state of the art and society would once again benefit. Similarly, all medical devices are now required to “reduce risk as far as possible,” but companies struggle balancing cost effectiveness, innovation, and applying risk control. I provide guidance in a full article on risk management that uses more analogies from Harry and other 1980’s pop-culture.
Design & Education
I saw Harry perform his Needle Through the Arm on television’s Saturday Night Live in 1983. I wanted to replicate it so I started brainstorming how it could be done, prototyping ideas, and testing them in front of audiences. I’d repeat this process until audiences enjoyed the trick and my presentation.
Over the next few years, Harry performed a total of eight times on Saturday Night live, including when he opened the show by saying the
famous words, “Live! From New York! It’s Saturday Night!” with his mouth full of a guinea pig he apparently ate live because it wouldn’t jump through hoops on television.
I would repeat the same process with each Harry Anderson skit: brainstorm, prototype, test, improve, repeat. This process is how I teach design, and is the basis of engineering design and the method of Next Generation Science Standards, NGSS, which include Engineering Design as a core science, the same as Physics or Biology.
Engineering Design is now a requirement for kids from Kindergarten to 12th grade in 22 states, but that doesn’t mean we know how to teach it yet. I’ve used Harry’s magic to help students learn design and innovation at two universities, a public high school, and in several countries; teaching teachers how to lead project-based learning where kids learn-by-designing, where the teacher is a coach, encouraging iteration and providing hints to overcome obstacles. I’ve also started incorporating the design process into my consulting on how to apply government regulations in ways that create more innovative designs.
Many of Harry’s magic effects were mechanical innovations, and even later in life, famous and wealthy enough to retire, he maintained a workshop to prototype ideas for the joy of observing a product evolve. Imagine that instead of reading text books to learn the mathematics behind mechanical engineering mechanisms students prototyped ways to swap cards or dollar bills when you activate the mechanism arm by dropping your pants on national television and moving the trigger connected through your pants, coat, and sleeve.
We loose some of our most creative students because they don’t fit traditional education models. New education standards like the NGSS are trying to improve education for all students, moving away from memorization, job training, and competitiveness towards critical thinking, design, and teamwork.
In hindsight, it makes sense that minds Harry Anderson was dyslexic, and had to find non-traditional ways to earn a living after high school.
“My high school teachers were always asking me what I was going to do. Cheers’ was my first acting job, but it was basically the character I had developed on the street,” he said. “That’s now I made my living, hustling drinks in bars and quarters on the street.”
Harry published a book sharing his good-natured con-games, “Games you can’t lose, a guide for suckers.” His”cons” were usually plays on words, but were often based on mathematics and probability, which is a more engaging way to learn the concepts than traditional teaching methods. I use those concepts in both high school classrooms and corporate workshops to help students learn math by practicing applications rather than reading concepts.
Harry wrote Games You Can’t Lose with Turk Pipkin, a writer for Night Court and other shows and movies. They co-founded The Nobelity Project for “bridging gaps in education at home and abroad.” It turns out that a many celebrities, athletes, and entrepreneurs are dyslexic, and also had to find non-traditional ways to earn a living that didn’t depend on written words.
Entrepreneurship uses a similar process as designing: brainstorm, prototype, test, improve, repeat. Like design, entrepreneurship can’t be taught but it can be experienced. Almost every successful entrepreneur or inventor has more stories of failure than of success.
Magic and designing magic tricks is an ideal way to make iterative design fun, remove the fear of failure, and enforce the public speaking skills necessary to communicate with diverse people. Performing for real people develops skills that lead to other opportunities, like Harry discussed on television’s Late Night with Johny Carson, who was also a magician.
All of my classes incorporate some form of entrepreneurship, even if only how to communicate complex topics confidently. Innovators benefit from the iterative design process, getting a product closer to what is useful to a larger market, and everyone benefits from the hands-on skills and mathematical concepts that result from prototyping. I incorporate how to patent ideas and ways to build a business, which, like design, comes more from practice than lectures. As an example, rather than taking tests one of my Design Engineering classes created an online company that sold products they designed and continuously improved throughout the course using the process of brainstorm, prototype, test, repeat.
Combining all of Harry’s influences on me
My first medical device job had been with a start-up company founded by the original inventor of needle safety features, a serial entrepreneur who continues to invent products and start companies. In our interview he wanted to see how I brainstormed new ideas; by then I had designed or invented dozen of magic effects, starting with Harry Anderson’s 1983 Needle Through the Arm. I got the job, learned from mentors, invented medical devices, co-founded companies, retired, taught, and now consult on all of these things while incorporating my childhood love of magic.
In lieu of payment, I will exchange my service for corporate donations to non-profits or benefit-corporations that provide equitable education. Some of the work funded hands-on engineering laboratories in inner-city middle schools, and programs that incorporate community service into design engineering courses. I also perform magic shows for corporate events and private parties under the same arrangement.
I enjoy the work I do and feel gratitude for the good luck and influences that helped get here.
This is leading to my point.
A common theme in regulations I teach is “linked processes,” a concept that’s complex and difficult to apply in large organizations or government policies; I use Harry as a metaphor for linked processes, that we’re all connected by our words and actions in small but measurable ways. A lot of my luck and opportunities can be tracked back to seeing a guy in a hat apparently shove a needle through his arm on Saturday Night Live in 1983. Harry’s influence had ripple-effects that continue to help me help others.
I was fortunate to share a few drinks with Harry and his wife in their magic shop in New Orleans. We performed magic and discussed our love of the city and people who live there. I wasn’t consulting then, and I probably wasn’t self-aware enough to piece together the series of events that led to my career, so I didn’t share the positive ripples he created.
I don’t have the writing skills to convey what I’d like to say or to summarize my thoughts in one point. Maybe it’s that I was happy to see him doing what he loved, performing magic, 35 years after I first saw him on Saturday Night Live.
Or, maybe the point is that everything we do influences others in ways we may never know.
There are probably many points I could make from this article, and maybe one day I’ll have the skills to express them. If I do, it’ll unlikely to happen from luck, it would probably happen from the process of brainstorming, prototyping, testing, and improving.
Maybe that was the point.
For now, there’s no point, but I’m enjoying practicing writing while reflecting on influences in my life that have brought me joy.
Rest in peace, Harry Anderson, aka Harry “The Hat” Gittes, aka Harry Masters, aka Judge Harry Stone.