Quirky: A book review by Bob Morris

Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World
Melissa A. Schilling
PublicAffairs (2/13/18)

“What makes some people spectacularly innovative?”

Melissa Schilling poses that question and then focuses on eight serial breakthrough innovators, now listed in alpha order: Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, Dean Kamen, Elon Musk, and Nicola Tesla. Each of them changed the world in significant ways and did so several times. Over the years, I have known several other people who also were odd, different, eccentric, unorthodox, etc…and they had the intellectual curiosity of a muffin and the brain of a hamster. That could never be said of the eight on whom Schilling focuses.

“The innovators displayed some unusual characteristics – quirks – that had important implications for both the ideas they generated and the intensity with which they pursued them. For example, nearly every innovator I studied exhibited very high levels of social detachment.” As Schilling points out, however different they may have been in many (if not most) respects, all of them shared a great deal in common (to vary degree). More specifically:

o A keen sense of separateness
o Extreme self-confidence (i.e. “self-efficasy”)
o A creative mindset (e.g. “openness to experience”)
o Feeling a call to higher service (i.e. “a determination to make things better”)
o Are driven to work (i.e. “a need for significant achievement”)
o Take advantage of opportunities and challenges of an era
o Have access to sufficient and necessary resources
o Nurture the potential within

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.

For decision-makers such as I who are not, alas, geniuses, these are invaluable points to keep in mind. One of the most important is to be driven to to find [begin italics] fundamental principles [end italics]. Einstein, for example, ‘was driven to find the fundamental principles of the mechanics of the universe, which led him to study gravity and light and to seek generalized solutions for his theories (i.e., theories that are robust to a wide array of contexts and applications, such as his General Theory of Relativity): “In this field, I soon learned how to scent out that which was able to lead to fundamentals and to turn aside…from the multitude of things which clutter up the mind and divert it from the essential.”

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 seek truth wherever and whatever the source proves to be. Their focus on experimentation and validation is relentless, if not pathological. They are driven by ego, yes, but almost never trip over it or hide behind it.

Rather than devote a chapter to each innovator, as Nancy Koehn does in her most recent and valuable book, Forged in Crisis, in which she discusses five courageous leaders (Ernest Shackleton, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Rachel Carson), Schilling devotes a separate chapter to each of the defining characteristics, enriching the narrative with cross-references between and among the breakthrough innovators. When appropriate, she also suggests differences, albeit of degree. Consider this brief passage:

“In Edison, we see a man who worked incredibly hard, not because he was driven by the zealous idealism of Franklin (or, for that matter, Musk, Kamen, Curie, Jobs or Tesla) but rather because he had a strong working ethos, had a high need for achievement, and found the work rewarding in and of itself. He enjoyed the process of achieving things, he was competitive by nature, and the physical and mental activity of work gave him pleasure.”

Of course, the phrase “to varying degree” should be kept in mind when noting both similarities and differences between and among the breakthrough innovators. All work extraordinarily hard…and smart. They love what they do. Their moments of discouragement are few and far between. Thank you, Melissa Schilling, for these thoughtful, sensitive, and revealing profiles.

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