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How do geniuses solve problems?

Drawing: Frank Cotham for The New Yorker

In Quirky, Melissa A. Schilling focuses on eight “breakthrough innovators”: Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Elon Musk, Dean Kamen, Nikola Tesla, Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, and Steve Jobs.

While doing so, she draws upon an abundance of recent research. However different these eight geniuses may be in most respects, all of them (to varying degree) manifest pure creativity and originality, relentless (indeed tenacious) effort and persistence, and unique situational advantage. They also demonstrate what Schilling characterizes as “a marked sense of separateness,” perceiving themselves as different or disconnected from the crowd.

Of course, different problems require different solutions; also, some problems are more serious and/or more complicated than others; finally, geniuses tend to be unique, one-of-a-kind, incomparable, etc .

That said, Schilling shares much of substantial value that helps to explain how the eight geniuses solve problems. Here are five of the commonalities:

o They focus on the right problem and ask the right questions about it.
o They focus on root causes rather than on symptoms. Also, they are very alert to anomalies.
o They are persistent, indeed tenacious and relentless when solving the given problem.
o They include in their analysis why previous solutions either failed or proved insufficient.
o Finally, they make every effort to ensure that the problem never reoccurs.

Einstein, Franklin, Musk, Kamen, Tesla, Curie, Edison, and Jobs demonstrate an especially healthy ego, so healthy that they do not hesitate — even for a moment — to admit an error or modify an assumption — and then become even more tenacious. They are driven by ego, yes, but almost never trip over it or hide behind it.

As Schilling explains, openness to experience is one of the “Five Personality Types.” All eight geniuses demonstrate that their openness is wide and deep. “What’s more notable about these people than their range of interests was their drive to find fundamental principles, whether they be in physics, math, virtue or social progress.”

In this context, I am again reminded of a question Hannibal Lecter asks of Clarice Starling in the film, Silence of the Lambs: “What does Buffalo Bill do?” Channeling Marcus Aurelius and the importance of getting to the essence, Lecter then answers it: “He cuts!” Einstein, Franklin, Musk, Kamen, Tesla, Curie, Edison, and Jobs are among the great problem solvers because they get to the essence of each issue associated with the right problem to be solved.

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Melissa A. Schilling is the Herzog Family Professor of Management at New York University Stern School of Business. She received her Bachelor of Science in business administration from the University of Colorado at Boulder. She received her Doctor of Philosophy in strategic management from the University of Washington. Professor Schilling’s research focuses on innovation and strategy in high technology industries such as smartphones, video games, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, electric vehicles, and renewable energies.

To learn more about her and her brilliant work, please click here.

PublicAffairs/Hachette Book Group is the publisher of Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World (February 2018).

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