4 Lessons from a True Innovator

Each year on January 4, Louis Braille is recognized on World Braille Day. Before this year, I had little knowledge of Braille’s personal story. All I knew was that he was the guy who created a system of raised dots that allows individuals who are blind to read. What I discovered is that Louis Braille has a fascinating backstory – one with distinct lessons for all of us.

Braille was born in a small town in France in 1809. When he was only three years old, one of his eyes was injured by an awl in his father’s harness-making shop. Infection in the eye spread to the other eye resulting in his permanent blindness. After teachers recognized his intelligence and creativity, Braille was given the rare opportunity to attend one of France’s first schools for the blind.

At the time Braille was in school, the only system for reading for the blind was raised letters – similar to using your fingers to feel the outline of letters that are embossed on a raised seal. This system, the Haüy system, was developed by one of Braille’s teachers (who happened to not be blind). Frustrated by how slow this system of reading was, Braille endeavored to create something better.

While at school, Braille learned of a system of writing created by a French military officer, Charles Barbier. Barbier’s method used a system of raised dots and dashes on paper. Barbier intended this to be a way for soldiers to communicate without speaking or needing light – a big advantage at a time when enemies on the battlefield were often close by.

Although Barbier’s system was too complex to catch on, Braille recognized the advantages of this type of system for individuals who were blind. He adapted and simplified Barbier’s system to make it easier to write and learn, thus inventing what we recognize as Braille’s namesake system. Braille developed his early writings using a stitching awl to create the raised dots in heavy paper. After various refinements, braille has remained largely unchanged since 1824 – when Braille was 15 years old.

Braille’s teachers quickly recognized that he was an excellent student. After completing his education, he was asked to be a teacher’s aide and later given a full professorship at the school teaching a variety of subjects. Yet despite its many advantages, Braille’s system was not adopted at the school until two years after his untimely death at the age of 43. In fact, the leaders of the school actively opposed the use of braille, preferring to continue with previous methods. When it was allowed to thrive, braille quickly became the method of choice for written communication for individuals who are blind.

What can funeral professionals learn from Braille’s story? Here are four of the most important lessons I discovered.

1. Don’t let age or inexperience stop you.

Braille created a new system of written communication by the time he was only 15. Don’t dismiss new ideas from yourself or from your colleagues due to age or relative lack of experience.

2. Explore previous efforts as opportunities to innovate.

Although Braille developed a new system, he did not create it out of thin air. He took Barbier’s system, made it better by making it simpler and then applied it to individuals who were blind instead of soldiers. Braille imagined a new application and made improvements to create his successful system.

3. Ensure your solutions are best for families, not just best for you.

It’s important to avoid clinging to methods and procedures that make sense to you but may not serve the intended audience. Haüy and other school leaders (many of whom were not blind) continued to use an outdated system that made sense to them – after all, they could see and read the raised letters that Haüy developed. But they weren’t able to truly empathize with their blind students and recognize that Braille’s system had many advantages for those who really needed it.

4. Take what has hurt you and make it work for you.

Braille was blinded by an awl. He later used an awl to create his communication system. Maybe you have tried something new for your business and been disappointed by a bad experience. But you may find that with more testing or a different strategy, you could turn that loss into a win.

Dr. Jason Troyer helps funeral homes connect with grieving families with his grief support resources and Facebook services. He earned his doctorate in counseling psychology and was previously a psychology professor, counselor and grief researcher. Dr. Troyer is a frequent presenter at funeral service professional events. His Finding Hope grief booklet series is available through Homesteaders.

Download the Finding Resilience Burnout Prevention Guidebook at homesteaderslife.com/resilience.

This information is not intended to replace information from a mental health or medical professional. The reader should consult an appropriate professional in matters related to his or her physical and emotional health.

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