One of the things serial breakthrough innovators have in common is an enormous appetite for books. Elon Musk is a great example. He was a zealous reader as a child, with a particular taste for science fiction and fantasy. He pored through books by Jules Verne, JR Tolkien, Robert Heinlein, and was particularly influenced by Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. His brother Kimbal noted, “It was not unusual for him to read ten hours a day,” and adds, “If it was the weekend he could go through two books in a day.”[i] Elon himself noted, “At one point, I ran out of books to read at the school library and the neighborhood library,” Musk said, “This is maybe the third or fourth grade. I tried to convince the librarian to order books for me. So then I started to read the Encyclopedia Britannica. That was so helpful. You don’t know what you don’t know. You realize there are all these things out there.”[ii] Later, Elon would teach himself rocket science by reading rocket science texts such as Rocket Propulsion Elements, Fundamentals of Astrodynamics, and Aerothermodynamics of Gas Turbine and Rocket Propulsion.
A voracious reading habit is a common trait among serial breakthrough innovators. Albert Einstein, is another great example. Though he felt great resentment towards the regimented rules and rote memorization of his grade school, he adored studying mathematics and physics on his own. He read books like A. Bernstein’s Popular Books on Physical Science and L. Buchner’s Force and Matter, with “breathless suspense,” and by the time he was twelve was teaching himself higher mathematics from books well ahead of his school curriculum.[iii]
Thomas Edison‘s entire formal education added up to a mere three months in grade school, but he was a voracious reader, and by the age of twelve had read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Hume’s History of England, Sears’ History of the World, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and the Dictionary of Sciences. Benjamin Franklin only went to school from the ages of eight to ten, but he loved books, and whenever a little money fell into his hands, he would use it to buy books, and after reading them, would sell them to buy still more books. It was Franklin’s “bookish inclination” that led his father to conclude that he should be apprenticed to a printer.[i] This gave him better access to books, and he soon cultivated relationships with people who visited the printing house who could loan him books. He would go on to found the Library Company of Philadelphia, America’s first lending library and the predecessor of the free public library.
Marie Curie loved school and studying, and was almost always the highest ranking student in her classes. However, because women were not admitted to Universities in Poland when she was young, she invested heavily in self-education until she had saved enough money in her job as a governess to go to the Sorbonne. Last but not least, is Dean Kamen, the man who is probably best known for inventing the Segway Personal Transporter (his most famous, though not most successful invention), but who also invented the first portable drug infusion pump, the first portable kidney dialysis machine, several prosthetic limbs, and the iBot wheelchair that can climb stairs. He is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished electro-mechanical engineers in the world, and is often compared to Thomas Edison or Henry Ford. Kamen had earned mediocre grades in middle school and high school, and had frequent conflicts with his teachers. He resented being told what to do, would argue with them over the way they taught math and physics. He ended up dropping out of Worcester Polytechnic Institute before obtaining an undergraduate degree, but he taught himself science out of books, and claims that science texts are his personal choice for recreational reading.
All of the breakthrough innovators I studied invested heavily in self education. They were avid consumers of knowledge, but they followed their own rhythms rather than an instructor’s pace. They went as deep into a topic, or broadly across topics they chose rather than following the path of a syllabus. They were fueled by intrinsic motivation – a true love of learning – even if they had no love for school. Learn more about what serial breakthrough innovators have in common, and what we can learn from them about nurturing our own breakthrough innovation potential in Quirky: The remarkable story of the traits, foibles, and genius of innovators who changed the world.
[i] Vance, A. 2015 Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a fantastic future. New York: Harper Collins, pg. 33.
[ii] Vance, A. 2015 Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a fantastic future. New York: Harper Collins, pg. 33.
[iii] Clark, R.W.1971. Einstein: The Life and Times. New York: World Publishing Co. pg. 15
The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World