“Everyone who’s ever taken a shower has had an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off and does something about it who makes a difference.”
— Nolan Bushnell
Why are some people so remarkably innovative? We are not talking about the one-hit-wonders who have one great idea or those people who seized a single opportunity offered by a moment in time. We are talking about the people who created one game-changing innovation after another; people who spent 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 videogame when he was twelve, and was 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 U.S. in over fifty years. In 2010, SpaceX successfully launched a spacecraft into orbit and then brought it safely back to Earth, a remarkable achievement that had only ever been accomplished by the national governments of three countries — the United States, Russia, and China. Furthermore, he had 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 Musk 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 able 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, or perhaps even more prolific. During his lifetime he created over 200 stunningly advanced breakthrough 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. Though 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 near 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 most 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 the 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 position 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 makes these people so spectacularly innovative? Is it genetics, parenting, education, or luck? Though innovation has long been a popular research topic in both psychology and business, we don’t have good answers to this 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, for example, we tend to focus our research on problems such as how to organize innovation teams, how to choose alliance partners, or 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 (i.e., people who repeatedly come up with innovations that profoundly change the domains in which they worked) like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or Nikola Tesla come from, nor has it told us how we can foster breakthrough innovation in ourselves, in people we work with, or our children. The research in psychology on individual creativity gets us a bit closer, but most of that research has focused on the process of creativity generally – how ordinary people use creativity to solve problems, for example — rather than telling us why some people would be such outliers. There is a smattering of research on creative geniuses, but it is sparse, disconnected, and short on conclusions and implications. It has suggested, for example, that there may be a genetic component to genius, which is true, though not particularly helpful if you are seeking to increase your innovativeness. There have also been writers who have argued that true genius requires a very large number of hours of practice or very large numbers of chunks of information – an argument to which there are 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 in fact. When both US and Russian rocket manufacturers told Musk his idea for economical reusable rockets was simply not feasible, he started teaching himself rocket science by studying rocket science textbooks on his own, and within months had created a spreadsheet that detailed the costs, materials, and performance specifications of the rocket he intended to build. He was an outsider who did the impossible, in part because he didn’t know (or believe) 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. Outsiders like Musk, however, bring an advantage that insiders and industry veterans often lack. They aren’t trapped by the paradigms and assumptions that have long 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 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 then, most innovation in this domain has focused on incremental improvements in the rod, cameras, and imaging software. However, Iddan approached the problem of viewing the inside of the gut like a guided missile designer – not a gastroenterologist. He did not have the same assumptions about the need to control the camera with a rod, nor 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 than 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 now sold in over 60 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 an endoscope producer.
Similarly, it is easy to see why Uber, Lyft, Didi Chuxing, and Grab are disrupting livery service rather than traditional taxi companies, or why Air BnB, Homestay, and Couchsurfing are disrupting lodging rather than hotel chains such as Hilton and Holiday Inn. Though 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 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 like cash, equipment, and clout.
Most outsiders, however, 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, gathering as much data as I could about hundreds of innovators identified by aggregating lists made by others.[i] 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 only draw a few conclusions about their education or prior 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 it is a problem that cannot really be studied, or that there are no insights to 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’ 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 studying even if it didn’t lead to anything useful. I thus began to study Steve Jobs, comparing and contrasting 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 Steve Jobs as a person. I read biographies, I watched recorded interviews, and I scavenged quotes 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 in that a lot had been written about Steve Jobs and 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. I had, for example, previously 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 home – 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 once belonged to Henry Ford was built into the home’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. 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.” 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 sat pondering 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 his subject) but extends well beyond that as the researcher compares and contrasts the cases against each other, working iteratively through every possible pair, attempting to surface 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. 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 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 due to 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, particularly since, as we shall see, not fitting in socially is a recurring theme among breakthrough 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 big – 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 that 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 can 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 the innovators experienced, and the great personal costs the innovators bore, in pursuing something they believed was incredibly important. It revealed the opportunities and constraints that have ensured that the lists of “most famous innovators” have historically been dominated by men from developed economies. And, perhaps most importantly, it revealed that even though there are factors that made these innovators unique and inimitable, there are also ways in which we can increase the breakthrough innovation potential in us all.
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, to art and music. 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 an artist or musician has 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 have subjective components and self-reinforcing advantages too, but they also 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 “what is 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 only associated with a single major invention, it is much harder to know whether the invention was due to their personal characteristics, or something in their circumstances such as 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 was important to identify serial breakthrough innovators who innovated for most of their lives. These were the rare people whose life’s purpose was based on making one breakthrough after another.
And, third, to develop rich case studies of the innovators that are as complete and unbiased as possible, there had to be both multiple published biographies of the individual, and extensive first-person narratives with direct quotes from the innovator from autobiographies, interviews, and videos of the innovator. In practice, this criteria tended to eliminate many innovators I would have liked to study that 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 us to separate individual factors from contextual factors, and improves our 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, though I occasionally include examples about other innovators (such as Grace Hopper, Norman Borlaug, or Sergey Brin) to illustrate particular concepts.
Studying these breakthrough innovators closely reveals some important commonalities that help give us insight into what made them able – and driven – to change the world in such dramatic ways. Though they were all 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, 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 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 there many nights. Even Elon Musk, though sometimes referred to as a “playboy” in his adulthood, describes himself as bookish, nerdy, and devoid of friends as a child. He was so introspective, in fact, 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 to walk ten miles across the city of Pretoria, South Africa, at the age of six, to get to a cousin’s birthday party, or his later decision to personally resurrect the space program when he discovered NASA had no intentions of going to Mars. Musk is referred to as a “walking moonshot” because of his willingness to take on seemingly impossible goals. Many of the breakthrough innovators took on seemingly impossible goals because they had such high faith in their own ability to overcome obstacles that they do not buy into the “rules” that other people accept as given. This is why 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 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 only be preserved through the pursuit of education and technological advance by all Poles – including women. Idealism is a very powerful intrinsic motivator that can induce an individual to exert exceptional effort toward a problem. In fact, it may occupy their energy and time to such a level that it causes them to disregard motives that other individuals might find more important, such as the desire for social interaction or leisure. This might partially explain why so many breakthrough innovators were criticized for abandoning or neglecting their families (e.g., Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Marie Curie). Idealism helps to focus the innovator by making their long-term purpose very clear, helping them to make choices among the competing demands of their attention. Having lofty superordinate goals, such as Tesla’s desire to achieve global wireless transmission of energy and to free mankind from physical toil, or Musk’s ambition to colonize Mars, gave these innovators a drive and single-mindedness that helped them avoid getting caught up in other interesting problems. They often led their lives as if they had blinders on to keep their attention locked on target. It also made them resilient to failure or criticism because they believed that their goals were important and intrinsically honorable and valuable. Benjamin Franklin, for example, once had to endure a brutal attack by prosecutor Andrew Wedderburn in England’s Privy Council, in front of a jeering crowd of England’s elite. Franklin, however, remained stoic and silent during the proceedings, and never shrank from public life, because his belief that he was pursuing his duty to serve God and mankind gave him a moral high ground that helped make him resilient to such public attacks.
It wasn’t, however, just idealism that drove the innovators. Most of them also worked so hard and so tirelessly because they found work extremely rewarding. Some had an extremely high need for achievement (a personality trait associated with a strong and consistent concern with setting and meeting high standards, and accomplishing difficult tasks) and thus took great pleasure in amassing accomplishments. Many also appeared to experience the pleasure of “flow” from working incredibly hard (i.e., work was autotelic – rewarding for its own sake). Thomas Edison, for example, was competitive by nature, and enormously energetic. He enjoyed the process of achieving things, and the physical and mental activity of work gave him pleasure. Many of Edison’s projects turned out to be unprofitable and he was known to berate the inadequacies of the patent system in defending inventors from “pirates.” However, in general he expressed little remorse or discouragement about disappointing outcomes. The work itself was his primary joy. “I never intend to retire,” he stated, “Work made the earth a paradise for me.”
In sum, there are very strong commonalities among exceptional breakthrough innovators, described of course in more detail later, that make the innovators similar to each other, and atypical from the average population, or “quirky.” Studying these people, and integrating what we learn about them with existing research on creativity and innovation, helps us understand the mechanisms by which the characteristics led these innovators to create one profound innovation after another. This distinction between the characteristics and the mechanisms by which they led to innovation is important, because even though serial breakthrough innovators are rare and in many ways inimitable, we can still harness some of these mechanisms to discover and unleash innovative potential in ourselves and others. Understanding the roles played by an innovator’s “sense of separateness”, for example, points out the importance of giving people time alone to pursue their own interests and form their own ideas. It highlights how dangerous norms of consensus are to innovation, and reveals the advantages of helping people to embrace their weird sides. People also find it illuminating – and often a relief — to see just how many innovators did not do well in school precisely because of their creativity or tendency toward rule challenging. A surprisingly large portion of the breakthrough innovators were autodidacts – self-taught — and excelled much more outside of the classroom than inside. Though many people will have heard anecdotally that some innovators did not do well in school, this book shows exactly why innovators might not flourish in school, and how they were successful anyway.
I have organized Quirky around the three main themes of creativity and originality, effort and persistence, and situational advantage. Almost all breakthrough innovation starts with an unusual idea, or beliefs that break with conventional wisdom. Thus, my focus in the first few chapters is on the factors that helped to inspire the innovators to be unconventional, creative, and to generate original ideas. We will see here how the breakthrough innovators’ quirky natures made them less likely to buy into established theories and paradigms, and more likely to come up with path-breaking solutions.
Creative ideas alone, however, are almost never enough. Many people have creative ideas – even brilliant ones. But usually we lack the time, knowledge, money, or motivation to act on those ideas. We may not know, for example, whether our idea will work, or how it could be implemented. It may seem too difficult or too risky. Thus most insightful, creative ideas are brief wisps of thought that are swept away by other more immediate concerns. It is rare that someone with a breakthrough idea has the motivation, resources, and persistence to pursue it, and though a person could give her idea to someone else with better motivation and resources – an established inventor or firm, perhaps — it is probably rarer still that someone else will pursue that breakthrough idea. This is because by their very nature, original ideas are often initially hard for others to understand and value. The odds of one person’s breakthrough idea fitting well with another person’s resources, motivation, and worldview are slim. This is why when breakthrough innovations have been brought to the world, it is usually because the innovator herself has invested remarkable effort and persistence in executing the idea – often in the face of failure and opposition. Every breakthrough innovator studied here demonstrated extraordinary effort and persistence. Most worked extremely long hours, forfeiting leisure, sleep, and time with their families in single-minded pursuit of their mission. Many stuck doggedly to a solution that others had deemed irrational or doomed. Where does such fierce commitment and energy come from? Chapters 4 and 5 show that idealism, need for achievement, unusual energy levels, and “flow” provide some answers to this question.
Next, though we will see that most breakthrough innovators share some personal traits that make them more likely to generate and execute breakthrough ideas, being at the right place at the right time still matters. Chapters 6 and 7 look at the situational advantages – opportunities (and challenges) of an era, and access to resources – that facilitated the rise of these innovators. Finally, as noted above, though the book will show that breakthrough innovators often have some unique and difficult-to-imitate characteristics or experiences, there is still much we can learn from them about enhancing innovation. Chapter 8 will summarize the implications for how we can nurture and facilitate the breakthrough innovation in ourselves, people we work with, and our children.
[i] In a study I coauthored with William Baumol and Edward Wolff, we searched over fifty books and numerous online encyclopedias devoted to noted inventors, inventions, and entrepreneurs. There is significant overlap in such lists, however, and nearly our entire sample can be found in a reduced list of the fifteen sources we found to be most useful: Abbot, 1985; Culligan, 1998; Entrepreneurs.about.com; Evans, Buckland & Lefer, 2004; Feldman & Ford, 1979; Fucini & Fucini, 1985; Hallett & Hallett, 1997; Haskins, 1998; Iles, 1912; Inventors.about.com; Klein, 2003; www.invent.org; Smith, 2002; Sullivan, 1998; Vare & Ptacek, 2002. Our study ultimately included data on 513 inventors and entrepreneurs.