Producer, director, screenwriter, and problem solver Lee Zlotoff is best known for being the creator of television series MacGyver, which ran for seven seasons in the U.S. and abroad from 1985 to 1992. The title character, who has become somewhat of an icon in the maker movement, is a secret agent known for his resourcefulness and knowledge, able to solve complex problems with everyday materials. MacGyver refused to handle guns, opting for non-violent resolutions where possible, and always had his duct tape and Swiss Army knife.
On the pages of MAKE, Lee wrote 20 installments of his column MakeShift, where he posed a crisis scenario, ranging in scope from rescuing a friend with a broken arm in the wilderness to stopping an electrical fire from ranging, gave a list of materials available on hand, and challenged readers to devise the best solution. Lee would then evaluate and select the most plausible and most creative entries. His latest venture, called The Yurika Method, is a simple process he’s developed for solving virtually any problem by engaging the capabilities of the subconscious mind.
One project you’re particularly proud of: 1. I tend now not think of my “pride” when it comes to my work. Each project takes on a life of its own and, given the highly collaborative nature of the work, it’s hard to claim true ownership of anything regardless of how it gets credited. But if I had to choose something I created that’s most amazed me, it would have to be MacGyver. At the time I was merely trying to fulfill a contract and the brief I was handed for the project. And yet, for reasons that seem to transcend nearly everyone involved, the character has become a global meme for creativity, resourcefulness, and solving problems with your mind rather than with a gun. Who couldn’t feel good about that?
Two past mistakes you’ve learned from: 1. I was once offered two jobs at the same time. And rather than looking at the content of the work each really offered, one job looked like it would advance my career faster and so I went with that one. Needless to say, it turned out that even for that reason the other job would’ve proven to have been a much better choice. So I learned — the hard way — not to bother looking at potential outcomes, which are impossible to predict about anything, and just look at the work itself and how much it really calls to me.
2. I’m an relentless optimist. And so I tend to take people at face value and assume that when we jump into a project together, our aims are virtually aligned. Alas, that’s led to a few painfully disastrous partnerships. So, while retaining my optimism, I’ve learned to enter things just a bit more slowly — and ask a lot more questions.
MacGyver, the star of the action-adventure television series Lee created.
Three things that make your work unique: 1. I’m a storyteller, so it’s more than tempting to fall headfirst into the twists and turns of the story itself. But it always turns out to be more about the characters than the story. And, in all my most successful work resides as indelible a character as I can create.
2. It’s also easy in my universe to be “typed” or pigeon-holed for a particular type of story or character. And so I’ve made a point to resist that and create not only in entirely different genres but even in wildly divergent fields, be it consulting, journalism, or TV.
3. I’ve also learned how to create or solve problems in a somewhat unique manner (about which I’m currently writing a book called “The Yurika Method“). This entails relegating the heavy lifting of my creative process to my subconscious rather than asking my conscious mind to stress and struggle over a problem. But there’s more to come about all that shortly.
Cover of the first volume of the MacGyver comic book mini series that Lee co-wrote.
Four tools you can’t live without: 1. Swiss Army knife 2. Duct tape (no surprise there) 3. Dremel tool 4. My sense of humor because if you can’t laugh at yourself when you screw up (which is inevitable) then you’re apt to become a very frustrated human.
Five people/things that have inspired your work: 1. Nelson Mendela because insisting on forgiving the people who imprisoned you for over 20 years should be an inspiration to everyone. 2. Lawrence of Arabia (the movie as well as the man) for demonstrating how transformative a story can be even beyond the abilities of an extraordinary man. 3. Carl Jung because whether we like it or not, there is a collective unconscious. And because synchronicity’s a pretty cool concept all on its own. 4. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel for teaching me that the truth lies in paradox, not in our futile attempts to avoid it. 5. Bruce Springsteen because one way or another, we are all of us born to run. And he just makes it sound worth doing.
Lee’s newest venture is The Yurika Method, a problem-solving technique and accompanying book in the works.