The nature and significance of self-efficacy in breakthrough innovation

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.”

“The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the only ones that do.” Apple’s Think Different commercial, 1997

Steve Jobs certainly believed that and, more to the point, lived by it as an article of faith. As Schilling explains, “The three main factors that give rise to self-efficacy are personal experience (one’s own prior experience of succeeding at a problem or task), vicarious experience (seeing how others succeed at a problem or task), and verbal persuasion (being told that one will succeed at a problem or task). Of course, not surprisingly, personal experience is the most powerful.”

Long ago, Henry Ford observed, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right.” His friend Thomas Edison was involved in thousands of failures, although he viewed as positive developments: precious learning opportunities as well as verifiable evidence of what won’t succeed.

Within 18 months after Roger Bannister became the first person to break the four-minute mile (3:59.4 on May 6, 1954), more than a dozen others did so. What everyone assumed to be impossible was in fact possible. The same is true of the eight serial breakthrough innovators. All achieved the impossible — not once but several times – in part they did not know (or believer) that it was impossible.

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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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