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The Quirky Secrets of the World’s Greatest Innovators

In her book on inventive genius, Melissa Schilling delves into the personality traits that lead to breakthroughs. See also “Summer Reading: 8 Business Books – in Pictures

A version of this article appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of strategy+business.

Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World

by Melissa A. Schilling, PublicAffairs, 2018

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.

Part of that willingness to ignore the judgment of others also seems to proceed from what Schilling calls the “marked sense of ‘separateness’” that most of her subjects have felt, which was manifested as “a lack of interest in social interaction, a rejection of rules and norms, and often isolation even from family members.” This makes it difficult for innovators to have rich social lives, but also makes it easier for them to think for themselves.

Much of this model seems intuitively correct. But Schilling’s sample size is so small that it’s hard to know if the conclusions she draws from that sample about the nature of serial innovation would hold up to closer scrutiny. And even within her group of eight, not everyone fits the model. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, had a rich social life and cultivated a large network of friends, but was also an undeniably brilliant innovator. The same was true of Leonardo da Vinci. Einstein made sure to get 10 hours of sleep a night. Thomas Edison, as Schilling says, was resolutely un-idealistic, insisting on commercializing everything he could.

Innovators are 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.

So what are organizations and leaders supposed to do with this information? It seems pretty clear that the kinds of innovators Schilling is writing about are more born than made: Most of them seem to have had “quirky” traits since childhood. And although the qualities she describes may be necessary for breakthrough innovation, they alone are not sufficient. Silicon Valley, after all, is full of socially awkward, would-be idealists who work obsessively long hours and are convinced they’re right and everyone else is wrong. But it has produced only one Steve Jobs.

In fact, 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. Understanding the characteristics that enabled Einstein to come up with ideas that others couldn’t might help organizations do the same. Encouraging a diversity of cognitive and social styles, and allowing employees to maintain a measure of distance from one another, rather than insisting on constant connection, will facilitate independent thinking. Letting people come up with ideas and solutions on their own, and then aggregating those ideas, is more likely to yield interesting answers than brainstorming in groups. Casting a wide net when looking for ideas, rather than talking only to specialists in a field, amplifies the possibilities for unusual approaches. Finding a way to imbue employees with a real sense of purpose can also be valuable. An organization doesn’t need to find a breakthrough innovator if it can make itself the innovator instead.  

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