The Quirky Secrets of the World’s Greatest Innovators

Here is a brief excerpt from an article by James Surowiecki for Strategy+Business, published by certain member firms of the PwC network. To read the complete article and check out others, please click here.

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In her book on inventive genius, Melissa Schilling delves into the personality traits that lead to breakthroughs.

In Quirky, NYU Stern professor Melissa Schilling embraces what you might call the “great person” view of innovation. Many recent studies of innovation have focused on the importance of collaboration and social setting, and emphasized the ways in which good ideas are typically the product of many minds, rather than one. Schilling looks instead at eight individuals whom she calls “serial breakthrough innovators”: Benjamin Franklin, Marie Curie, Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Dean Kamen, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk.

The approach Schilling takes with Quirky is a variant of the case study method — instead of companies, the cases here are the lives of great inventors. She examines their lives to uncover the common personality traits and “foibles” that helped them see what others did not. Schilling argues that serial breakthrough innovators are different from the rest of us because they’re able to come up with groundbreaking innovations over and over again, rather than just once. And their innovations represent dramatic leaps, rather than incremental improvements.

Schilling has a nice eye for the telling detail, and shares the stories of these well-known innovators’ lives with economy and precision. In some ways Schilling’s study conforms squarely to our assumptions about what creative geniuses are like. Great innovators, she argues, tend to be obsessive workers who sleep very little and are willing to sacrifice almost everything to the pursuit of their goals. They’re able to do so in part because they have an unrelenting drive for achievement and because they derive tremendous pleasure from work, which offers them that feeling Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi famously called “flow.”

Innovators also have exceptional working memory, and the ability to hold many concepts in their mind at once. This allows them to “search longer paths through the network of associations in their mind,” increasing the chances they’ll make interesting and unexpected connections between ideas. Schilling also suggests that there may be something concrete about the cultural association between genius and madness. Pointing to the experience of Tesla, who had an extraordinary sensitivity to outside stimuli and would routinely go for long stretches on almost no sleep, she argues that most great innovators have at least a touch of mania.

Innovators are also typically blessed (or cursed) with a deep sense of what psychologists call self-efficacy, which is a nice word for what, in other contexts, might be called hubris: the misplaced confidence in one’s ability to accomplish whatever one sets one’s mind to. This is crucial because the very nature of breakthrough innovations means that most people will be skeptical of their value. Indeed, most of the people Schilling writes about were, in one sense or another, outsiders in the fields they helped revolutionize. They were also idealists, convinced that they could change the world. As Schilling puts it, “They are willing to pursue an idea even when everybody else says it’s crazy precisely because they don’t need the affirmation of others — they believe they are right even if you don’t agree.” It was that sense of self-efficacy that allowed Elon Musk to believe he could become the first civilian to put rockets into space, and that allowed Dean Kamen to build a wheelchair that could climb stairs, even though everyone told him it was impossible.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

James Surowiecki is the author of The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies, and Nations (Doubleday, 2004).

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