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The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World
Read by Erin Bennett
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What really distinguishes the people who literally change the world — those creative geniuses who give us one breakthrough after another? What differentiates Marie Curie or Elon Musk from the merely creative, the many one-hit wonders among us?
Melissa Schilling, one of the world’s leading experts on innovation, invites us into the lives of eight people — Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Elon Musk, Dean Kamen, Nikola Tesla, Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, and Steve Jobs — to identify the traits and experiences that drove them to make spectacular breakthroughs, over and over again. While all innovators possess incredible intellect, intellect alone, she shows, does not create a breakthrough innovator. It was their personal, social, and emotional quirkiness that enabled true genius to break through–not just once but again and again.
Nearly all of the innovators, for example, exhibited high levels of social detachment that enabled them to break with norms, an almost maniacal faith in their ability to overcome obstacles, and a passionate idealism that pushed them to work with intensity even in the face of criticism or failure. While these individual traits would be unlikely to work in isolation — being unconventional without having high levels of confidence, effort, and goal directedness might, for example, result in rebellious behavior that does not lead to meaningful outcomes — together they can fuel both the ability and drive to pursue what others deem impossible.
Schilling shares the science behind the convergence of traits that increases the likelihood of success. And, as Schilling also reveals, there is much to learn about nurturing breakthrough innovation in our own lives — in, for example, the way we run organizations, manage people, and even how we raise our children.
“Don’t tell me it’s impossible. Tell me you can’t do it.”
What Makes Some People Spectacularly Innovative?
Why are some people so remarkably innovative? Not the one-hit wonders with a single great idea or the people who seize a unique opportunity offered by a moment in time, but the people who create one game-changing innovation after another: people who spend most of their lives generating and pursuing startling ideas, challenging assumptions, and accomplishing the seemingly impossible. Is there something special about them that makes them so willing and able to change the world? Consider, for example, Elon Musk.
Musk created and sold his first video game when he was twelve and became a millionaire by the time he turned twenty-eight. Over the next ten years he developed an electronic payment system that would be merged into a company we now know as PayPal; founded SpaceX, a company with no less of an objective than to colonize Mars; and helped to create Tesla Motors, the first new-car company to go public in the United States in more than fifty years. In 2010 SpaceX successfully launched a spacecraft into orbit and then brought it safely back to Earth, a remarkable achievement that hitherto had been accomplished only by the national governments of three countries: the United States, Russia, and China. Furthermore, he demonstrated the viability of reusable rockets, something the space industry had long said was impossible.
Musk did not come from a family with strong connections to any of these industries, nor did he come from exceptional wealth or political advantage. Musk did not grow up with any special access to computing, automotive, or space technology prior to founding these companies, nor did he spend years accumulating unusually deep experience in these fields prior to his innovations. Thus, he had no special experience or resources that enabled him to accomplish these feats—his successes seem to have been attained through sheer force of will. What made Musk both able to and driven to create such a remarkable series of profoundly important innovations?
Nikola Tesla (the man for whom Musk’s car company is named) was equally prolific, or perhaps even more so. During his lifetime he achieved more than two hundred stunningly advanced innovations, including the first long-distance wireless communication systems, alternating-current electrical systems, and remote-control robots. His fervor in pursuit of innovation was hard for most people to understand, especially given the skepticism and lack of financing he encountered throughout his life. Like Musk, Tesla had no family background or other advantage in the fields he would come to revolutionize. Although he studied physics in college, it is not clear that he ever completed a degree. Also like Musk, he left his home country as a young man and arrived in the United States nearly penniless. Tesla was an unusual man, to put it mildly. He was riddled with phobias and odd habits, and he lacked the kind of social intelligence and charisma that could have made it easier to get financial support for his projects. Yet also like Musk, he would accomplish a series of technological achievements that most observers had deemed impossible.
Albert Einstein achieved equally remarkable accomplishments in physics: during a four-month period, when he was all of twenty-six years old, he wrote four papers that completely altered the scientific world’s understanding of space, time, mass, and energy. Each was a significant breakthrough, including work on particle physics that would set the stage for quantum mechanics to overthrow classical physics. What is all the more remarkable is that he accomplished these feats while working as a patent examiner because every physics department he applied to turned him down for an academic post. His disrespect for authority had earned him the ire of his college professors, and they refused to support him in his quest for a university position. Even after writing his four remarkable papers, he faced considerable resistance: having the impudence to challenge well-established theories and being Jewish in a time of rampant anti-Semitism combined to make him the subject of frequent attacks. These attacks made his life harder, but they did not induce him to show more reverence for the work of his peers. For Einstein, bowing to authority—including the authority of social norms—was a corruption of the human spirit. He had no intention of marching to anyone else’s drum. This stance would make it harder for him to gain support and legitimacy for his ideas, yet it also freed him to think beyond the existing theories of his time. He would go on to win the Nobel Prize and become, arguably, the most famous scientist of all time.
What is it, then, that makes these people so spectacularly innovative? Is it genetics, parenting, education, or luck? Although innovation has long been a popular research topic in both psychology and business, we don’t have good answers to the question. In part this is because serial breakthrough innovators—people who are extreme outliers of innovative productivity—don’t make great research subjects. Because they are rare, it’s next to impossible to gather data on a large sample of them and run statistical analyses. And because they are busy, you would have an equally hard time getting them into a laboratory to run experiments. Thus, in business schools we tend to focus our research on problems such as how to organize innovation teams, how to choose alliance partners, and how to structure ideation exercises. Those are, after all, things we can measure and manage. The innovation research has not told us where serial breakthrough innovators come from, nor has it told us how we can foster breakthrough innovation in ourselves, in people with whom we work, or in our children.
The research in psychology on individual creativity gets us a bit closer, but most of that research has focused on the general process of creativity—how ordinary people use creativity to solve problems, for example—rather than telling us why some people become outliers. The smattering of research on creative geniuses is sparse, disconnected, and short on conclusions and implications. For example, it has suggested that there may be a genetic component of genius, which is true, though not particularly helpful if you are seeking to increase your innovativeness. Other writers have argued that true genius requires a very large number of hours of practice or very large numbers of chunks of information—a claim that is diminished by a vast number of highly visible exceptions. As noted, Elon Musk did not revolutionize space travel because he had extensive information and experience in that field—quite the opposite. When both US and Russian rocket manufacturers told Musk that his idea for economical reusable rockets was simply not feasible, he started teaching himself by studying rocket science textbooks on his own, and within months he created a spreadsheet that detailed the costs, materials, and performance specifications of the rocket he intended to build. Musk is an outsider who has done the impossible, in part because he didn’t know (or believe) that it was impossible.
Musk crosses boundaries because some of the quirks of his personality are that he enjoys tackling new, difficult problems and he doesn’t care very much about whether you think he has the ability or right to do that. This is an extremely important point—most research shows that we tend to penalize people for crossing boundaries. We discount generalists and are suspicious of people who engage in activities that seem inconsistent with their identity. However, outsiders such as Musk bring an advantage that insiders and industry veterans often lack. Outsiders aren’t trapped by the paradigms and assumptions that become calcified in industry veterans, nor do they have the existing investments in tools, expertise, or supplier and customer relationships that make change difficult and unappealing. For example, Gavriel Iddan, a guided-missile designer for the Israeli military, invented a revolutionary way to allow doctors to see inside a patient’s gastrointestinal system. The traditional approach for obtaining images inside the gut is a camera on the end of a long flexible rod. This method is quite uncomfortable, and it cannot reach large portions of the small intestine, but it was the industry standard for many decades. Most gastroenterologists have invested in significant training to use endoscopic tools, and many have also purchased endoscopic equipment for their clinics. Not surprisingly, most innovation in this domain has focused on incremental improvements in the rod, the camera, and the imaging software. However, Iddan approached the problem of viewing the inside of the gut like a guided-missile designer, not like a gastroenterologist. He did not have the same assumptions about the need either to control the camera with a rod or to transmit images with a wire. Instead, he invented a capsule (called the PillCam) with a power source, a light source, and two tiny cameras that the patient can swallow. The patient then goes about her day while the camera pill broadcasts images to a video pack worn by the patient. Roughly eight hours later, the patient returns to the doctor’s office to have the images read by a software algorithm that can identify any locations of bleeding (the camera pill exits naturally). The PillCam has proven to be safer and less expensive than traditional endoscopy (the PillCam costs less than $500), and it is dramatically more comfortable. For patients, the camera pill was a no-brainer; getting doctors to adopt it has been slower because of their existing investment and familiarity with endoscopy. The PillCam is currently sold in more than sixty countries, and several companies now offer competing products. The camera pill is a remarkable solution to a difficult problem, and it is easy to see why it came from an outsider rather than from an endoscope producer.
Similarly, it is easy to see why Uber, Lyft, Didi Chuxing, and Grab are disrupting the taxi business and why Airbnb, Homestay, and Couchsurfing are disrupting the hotel business. Although taxi companies and hotel chains undoubtedly have knowledge and assets that would be useful in these new business models, they also have assets and strategic commitments that are tied to (or designed for) their original way of doing business and making money. Change would be painful, and it is not obvious that they could outcompete the newcomers in the new business models even if they tried. These are the reasons that disruptive innovation often comes from new entrants rather than industry stalwarts, despite the fact that existing businesses with decades of experience in an industry would seem to have some advantages in resources such as cash, equipment, and clout.
However, most outsiders do not become serial breakthrough innovators. Neither do most extremely experienced people. An individual’s degree of experience may play a role in her emergence as a breakthrough innovator, but it is not clear that it is particularly important or reliable. What, then, is important or reliable? Is there some combination of traits or resources that increases the likelihood of an individual becoming a serial breakthrough innovator? Can we help people tap their own potential to be a breakthrough innovator (and would we want to)?
I first tried to address this question through standard research methods: conducting large-sample studies on innovators and gathering as much data as I could about hundreds of innovators identified by aggregating lists made by others.1 Invariably these studies proved unsatisfying. Most inventors and entrepreneurs are one-hit wonders, leaving us with doubt about how much they could teach us about being innovative. Furthermore, when you try to study a large sample of innovators, you typically find that there is very little information available about their lives, leaving you to draw only a few conclusions about their education or work experience. These studies do not give us the kind of insight into breakthrough innovation that we really want. It is easy to conclude that this is a problem that cannot really be studied or that no insights can be gleaned from trying. Perhaps the problem is too complex, or innovators are too idiosyncratic, for us to learn much of use from studying them.
The question really started coming to a head in early 2011 as people saw the visible deterioration of Steve Jobs’s health. Many, including students in my course on innovation strategy, began asking me about the fate of Apple if it lost its famous leader. I wondered too. Did Apple’s innovativeness arise from something in the organization’s DNA, or was it specific to Steve Jobs? Could his “magic” be handed down to a successor? Was it embedded in the routines at Apple? Or was it in the man himself? It was a question so intriguing that it was worth pursuing even if it didn’t lead to anything useful. I thus began to study Steve Jobs, comparing every detail I could find on him with the existing research on innovation and creativity. I had already been following Apple for years in the course of my research and teaching, but now I began to study Jobs as a person. I read biographies, watched recorded interviews, and scavenged his statements from wherever I could find them. I wanted to understand what he was really like: his talents, his weaknesses, his beliefs and biases. I wanted to understand what drove him and enabled him. I was lucky that a great deal had been written about Steve Jobs and that he had done numerous recorded interviews: it was possible to get a rich, multifaceted perspective on him.
I soon noticed some striking commonalities between Jobs and other breakthrough innovators. For example, I had written a teaching case on Dean Kamen (inventor of the Segway, the first portable kidney dialysis machine, the first wearable drug infusion pump, and much more), and the similarities between Jobs and Kamen were strange and intriguing. Both men had dropped out of college and started companies in their early twenties, and neither had extensive training in the fields to which they would contribute. Both were quirky, with eccentric traits such as wearing the same clothes every day. Jobs didn’t put a license plate on his car and routinely parked in the spots reserved for people with disabilities—those rules just didn’t apply to him. Kamen bought an island (North Dumpling), built his own power grid, and declared his intention to secede from the United States so that its rules would not apply to him. Both men also had unusual homes. Jobs didn’t put furniture in his house—nothing quite fit his stark aesthetic tastes. Kamen’s home was a four-story hexagon with at least one secret passage. Its hallways were designed to look like mine shafts, and a huge cast-iron steam engine that had once belonged to Henry Ford was built into the house’s four-story central atrium. More importantly, both men had such great faith in their own capacity for reasoning and insight that they disregarded the “rules” that constrained the problem-solving efforts of others. For example, when people told Kamen that his idea for a wheelchair that would balance on two feet was impossible, he retorted, “Don’t tell me it’s impossible. Tell me you can’t do it,” and pointed out that many of the scientific principles we take as given are just “man’s laws” that we don’t know to be actually true.2 Steve Jobs said something remarkably similar in a video-recorded interview: “Life gets a lot broader once you realize one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you, and you can change it.”3 Both men were also driven much more by idealistic goals than materialistic gain: Jobs saw the computer as a means to revolutionize human cognition the way that bicycles had revolutionized human mobility; Kamen wanted to liberate people from the constraints of disease or injury.
As I pondered my notes on these two men—both so profoundly innovative and both sharing some peculiar personal traits that broke with social norms—I suddenly understood that we could gain insight into what makes some people serial breakthrough innovators by studying a smaller sample of exceptional innovators very deeply, using what is known as a multiple case study approach. A multiple case study process begins with writing a description or story of the case (like a biographer writes about her subject) but extends well beyond that as the researcher compares the cases, working iteratively through every possible pair, attempting to recognize commonalities and differences, and capturing the categories and patterns that emerge. Because this is a study of people who are rare outliers of innovative productivity and impact, the control group (what the cases are compared to) is the rest of us.4 That is, we are looking for characteristics that the innovators have in common that stand out for being unusual, such as traits they exhibit to a much greater degree than we would expect for a person drawn at random. Any dimension that figures prominently in one or a few cases is scrutinized closely in the other cases. Humans are prone to overgeneralizing from small samples, so one of the most important tasks is to try to strip away spurious commonalities. For example, Thomas Edison and Marie Curie were the youngest children of their families, and Benjamin Franklin was the youngest son (though not the youngest child) in a family of sixteen children. People have speculated about the effect of birth order on personality and behavior since at least the early 1900s. At that time, Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Adler proposed that firstborns would be more prone to neuroticism and substance abuse because of the excessive responsibility of looking after the younger children, and youngest children would be prone to having poor social empathy as a consequence of being overindulged. It would be easy to speculate that breakthrough innovators might be more likely to be youngest children because, as we shall see, not fitting in socially is a recurring theme among such innovators. But birth order does not survive closer scrutiny: Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Elon Musk were the oldest children in their families, and Nikola Tesla and Dean Kamen were middle children. Furthermore, of the innovators studied here, the one that least exhibits poor social empathy is Benjamin Franklin. It turns out that most empirical work on birth order has found zero effect on personality or behavior, despite the persistence of the myth!
It quickly became clear that it would be important to focus on people who had innovated repeatedly so that we could go beyond “right time, right place” explanations. They also had to be world renowned as innovators so that there would be no doubt about their accomplishments. And their innovations had to be important—they had to leave an indelible imprint on the world because that is the capability that we really want to understand. For practical purposes, they also had to be people who had been extensively written about because only then would we know something about their childhoods, their educations, their hobbies, their personalities, their talents, their motives, their experiences, and more. Once we understood them deeply as people, we could compare and contrast their characteristics and backgrounds, and integrate this with what we know from the science of creativity and innovation. I hoped such an integration would help illuminate what really matters. In the end, it did that and more. It exposed both the exhilaration that the innovators experienced and the great personal costs that they bore while pursuing something that they believed was incredibly important. It revealed the opportunities and constraints that have ensured that the lists of famous innovators have historically been dominated by men from developed economies. And, perhaps most importantly, it revealed that even though some factors have made these innovators unique and inimitable, there are also ways in which we can increase the breakthrough innovation potential in us all.
How the Innovators Were Chosen and Studied
TO CHOOSE A LIST of people that I could confidently identify as profoundly important serial breakthrough innovators, I first scoured dozens of lists of the most famous innovators, looking for people who topped multiple lists and whose contributions would be indisputable. It quickly became clear that there was much more consensus about contributions to technology and science than, for example, contributions to art and music. The appreciation of art and music is a subjective experience, and people vary enormously in how they will rank an innovation in these fields. Furthermore, once artists or musicians have earned acclaim, their subsequent work receives more attention. This can lead to a self-reinforcing advantage in being considered “important.” Technology and science innovations can also have subjective components and self-reinforcing advantages, but they usually have performance dimensions that are objectively measurable, leading to greater agreement about what is important. For example, when Marie Curie discovered the most powerful radioactive substance known at that time (radium), its importance was indisputable. When Albert Einstein first proposed his General Theory of Relativity, its value was at first subject to the interpretation of his peers. However, in 1919, when Sir Arthur Addington verified that Einstein’s predictions were correct during a complete solar eclipse, the theory’s merit was no longer subjective. When Elon Musk demonstrated that a rocket could, in fact, be landed and reused—and at a much lower price than the space industry had dreamed—the value of this innovation could not be denied, even by the space industry stalwarts whose competitive positions it threatened. A small group of technology and science innovators show up near the top of every famous innovators list; the same is not true for innovation in the arts. Thus, to sidestep the sometimes contentious issue of the definition of an important innovation, I decided to limit my focus to technological or scientific innovators and let public lists identify the candidates.
Second, I limited the set to individuals who were widely associated with multiple innovations. The vast majority of people on famous innovator lists are associated with only a single important invention—for example, Percy LeBaron Spencer’s microwave oven, Leopold Godowsky Jr.’s Kodachrome color film, or Hedy Lamarr’s frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology for torpedoes. When an individual is associated with only a single major invention, it is much harder to know whether the invention was caused by the inventor’s personal characteristics or by simply being at the right place at the right time. To really know that we are gaining insight into what makes someone an exceptional innovator, it is important to identify serial breakthrough innovators who innovate for most of their lives. These are the rare people whose life’s purpose is based on making one breakthrough after another.
And, third, developing case studies of the innovators that are as complete and unbiased as possible requires both multiple published biographies of the individual and extensive first-person narratives such as autobiographies, interviews, and videos. In practice, this criteria tended to eliminate many innovators that I would have liked to study who either emerged too recently (for example, Larry Page) or lived too long ago (for example, Leonardo da Vinci). Finally, from the individuals prominent on the remaining list, I attempted to choose people from different areas of industry or science (e.g., medicine, aerospace, electricity, information technology) and from different time periods in order to avoid oversampling from particular “blooms” of innovation associated with a technological shock. Choosing individuals from different periods and fields helps to separate individual factors from contextual factors and improves the opportunity to triangulate about breakthrough innovation more generally. The final set of innovators that I chose to study and focus on in this book includes Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, Dean Kamen, Elon Musk, and Nikola Tesla, although I occasionally include examples about other innovators (such as Grace Hopper and Sergey Brin) to illustrate particular concepts.
Closely studying these breakthrough innovators reveals some important commonalities that help give us insight into what made them able—and made them driven—to change the world in such dramatic ways. Although they were extremely intelligent, that is not enough to make someone a serial breakthrough innovator. Other factors played key roles. 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. Marie Curie’s unconventionality and chronic depression led her to seek what she referred to as an “anti-natural” life,5 largely isolated from the social world and often isolated even from her children. Marie Curie was aware of her self-imposed isolation and knew that the way she had lived her life was not for everyone. Albert Einstein was similarly aware of his own detachment and isolation, recognizing both its benefits to his independence and originality and its costs to his psychic comfort. Thomas Edison’s deafness made him extremely uncomfortable in social settings, and his near-maniacal work habits meant that he spent most of his life in his laboratory, even sleeping on a table many nights. And Elon Musk, though sometimes referred to as a “playboy” in his adulthood, describes himself as bookish, nerdy, and devoid of friends as a child. In fact, he was so introspective that his family at one point considered the possibility that he was deaf. Separateness helped these innovators become original thinkers. Their isolation meant that they were less exposed to dominant ideas and norms, and their sense of not belonging meant that even when exposed to dominant ideas and norms, they were often less inclined to adopt them.
All of the innovators also exhibited extreme faith in their ability to overcome obstacles (what psychologists would call “self-efficacy”) from an early age. Consider Elon Musk’s decision (at the age of six) to walk ten miles across the city of Pretoria, South Africa, to get to a cousin’s birthday party or his later decision to personally resurrect the space program when he discovered that NASA had no plans to go to Mars. Musk is sometimes referred to as a “walking moonshot”6 because of his willingness to take on seemingly impossible goals. Many of the breakthrough innovators took on such goals because they had such high faith in their own ability to overcome obstacles that they did not buy in to the rules that other people accept as given. This is why some people referred to Steve Jobs as having a “reality distortion field” and why Dean Kamen could dismiss the four laws of thermodynamics as “man’s laws” rather than universal principles. Nikola Tesla similarly challenged what was possible and made statements about what he would achieve in the world that were so grand that people often dismissed him as having delusions of grandeur—until, of course, he proved he was right!
All of the innovators also pursued their projects with remarkable zeal, often working extremely long hours and at great personal cost. Most were driven by idealism, a superordinate goal that was more important than their own comfort, reputation, or families. Nikola Tesla wanted to free mankind from labor through unlimited free energy and to achieve international peace through global communication. Elon Musk wants to solve the world’s energy problems and colonize Mars. Benjamin Franklin was seeking greater social harmony and productivity through the ideals of egalitarianism, tolerance, industriousness, temperance, and charity. Marie Curie had been inspired by Polish positivism’s argument that Poland, which was under Tsarist Russian rule, could be preserved only through the pursuit of education and technological advance by all Poles—including women
"[A]n entertaining and enlightening romp through the lives of eight 'breakthrough innovators,' exploring their remarkable abilities, personalities and motives."
- "I love this book because it makes me think about thinking. Schilling very strongly makes the point that in a society where broad statistical approaches in education and science seem to point us toward some mediocre median, that the big innovations-the industry and civilization-changing innovations-still generally come from cranky individuals who are determined that their way is the better way. How do you make another Tesla, Curie, Jobs, or Musk? Schilling tells us how."—Robert Cringely,author of Accidental Empires, Triumph of the Nerds, and Nerds 2.0.1.
- "An interesting and well-crafted journey through the lives of those 'quirky' women and men who transformed the world through innovation."—David Brin, NASA advisor, astrophysicist, and award-winning author of ThePostman, The Transparent Society, and Existence
- "A real page-turner ... a fascinating mixture of the life stories of radical innovators, such as Elon Musk and Marie Curie, expertly deconstructing them to reveal their underlying commonalities. What transpires is both wonderfully insightful and inspiring."—Freek Vermeulen,London Business School
- "A captivating read with inspirational biographies and valuable lessons to help light that innovative flame."—Daniel Levinthal, TheWharton School, University of Pennsylvania
- "An inspiring journey of discovery. You'll finish the book understanding something of true genius."—RitaMcGrath, Columbia University
- "An exceptionally rewarding marriage of biography and social science that will change the way you think about winners and winning."—Ron Adner, TuckSchool of Business, Dartmouth College, author of The Wide Lens
- "The real paradox of Schilling's work is that even though it looks at completely extraordinary people, it may be most valuable for what it tells us about how organizations can harness the innovative power of ordinary people."—Strategy+ Business
- "Quirky is both brilliant biography and useful leadership guide. It is an easy to read but deep exploration of the lives of individual innovators and their qualities make for great history that also provides informative instruction for how we can foster these qualities today in ourselves and our organizations."—800 CEO READ
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- Feb 13, 2018
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