Discovering the potential serial innovators in our midst

By Shannon Davis

Steve Jobs. Benjamin Franklin. Albert Einstein. Marie Curie. What do these world-changers all have in common? Where did their drive to innovate come from? Melissa Schilling, PhD, had to find out.

“Innovation and creativity has been a hot area of research for a long time, but we don’t tend to study outliers and in part that’s because there’s methodological challenges with that,” she explained to the audience during her keynote address on Tuesday at SEMICON West 2018.

Melissa Schilling, PhD, New York University

So, the New York University professor created a multiple case study research project to tackle these questions, which are addressed at length in her latest book, “Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World.” Her book invites us into the lives of eight world-famous game-changers — Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Elon Musk, Dean Kamen, Nikola Tesla, Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, and Steve Jobs – and identifies the common traits and experiences that drove them to make spectacular breakthroughs, again and again. Schilling believed that once we understand what makes someone a serial innovator; we can also understand the breakthrough innovation potential in all of us.

The first common trait Schilling identified in her research was a sense of separateness – a discovery that she found remarkable.

“I thought most people would be super connected with lots of diverse connections,” she said. “I was wrong about that. Every single person I studied, with the exception of Benjamin Franklin, had this…feeling of detachment.”

Einstein, said Schilling, even went so far as to say he didn’t need direct contact with individual humans, even his own family. Marie Curie and her husband eventually sent both of their daughters to be raised by their grandparents, so that they could devote more time to their research. Dean Kamen’s feelings of separateness helped to shield him when his peers didn’t believe it was possible to create a two-wheeled wheelchair (which we now know as the Segway).

What can we learn from this? “First thing we have to learn is that we need norms that permit people to be unorthodox,” said Schilling. “We need to be able to embrace weirdness.”

Schilling pushed back against the idea of brainstorming teams in the tech world, a practice she says has potential innovators stuck putting out ideas that are more likely to get consensus from the rest of their team. She instead suggested to allow employees to work alone first, to commit to an idea and elaborate on it before sharing it with a team.

“Brainstorming teams cause people to come to mediocre compromises,” she said.

The second shared trait of serial innovators Schilling discussed was self-efficacy.

“Self-efficacy is that faith you have that you can overcome obstacles to achieve your goals and it makes you take on bigger projects,” Schilling explained.

She pointed to Elon Musks’ persistence in developing reusable rockets, in spite of NASA’s claims that it couldn’t be done, and Nikola Tesla’s dream of harnessing the power of Niagara Falls to provide electricity, despite having only seen a picture of Niagara on a postcard when he was a child in Croatia.

“Encourage people to try even if they fail,” she said, and warned against rescuing people who could benefit from learning things on their own.

The third trait Schilling outlined was one she said seven of the eight innovators possessed, which was having an intensely idealistic goal that mattered more to them than just about anything else.

“When you have an idealistic goal that people in your company can identify with, they’re going to work harder, they’re going to work longer, they’re going to think bigger, and they’re going to love it more,” she said.

And while timing and luck often did play an undeniable role in many of the serial innovators lives, Schilling was most surprised to learn that access to capital didn’t affect her research subjects’ abilities to innovate.

“Every single one of these people… started out flat broke,” she said. “They did not become innovators because they had access to capital.”

What was more important, she said, was their access to other people who had resources.

“One of the most valuable things you can do is help connect people to the other people they need,” she concluded.


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