What makes some people spectacularly innovative? This is the question that Melissa A. Schilling addresses in Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World (PublicAffairs/Hachette, 2018. Although the book’s title is catchy, the answer is not that they’re quirky (though most of them were/are—as are millions of people who are not at all innovative).
Schilling focuses on eight innovators—Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Dean Kamen, and Elon Musk—and looks for significant commonalities.
Although superior intelligence is insufficient to make someone a Serial Breakthrough Innovator, exceptional creativity is likely to be more common in the presence of high intelligence. Working memory may be the link between the two. “In my work modeling cognitive insight as a network process, I showed that individuals who are more likely or more able to search longer paths through the network of associations in their mind can arrive at a connection between two ideas or facts that seems unexpected or strange to others.” Moreover, as a result of exceptional working memory and executive control, highly creative people can do this much more quickly than less creative people. Tesla and Musk are textbook examples. “Both men had such extraordinary cognitive power that they were able to process a long path of calculations almost instantly in their heads. Their conclusions appear to arrive almost by magic!”
Innovators tend to exhibit high levels of social detachment and extreme faith in their ability to overcome obstacles. They work tirelessly, often at great personal cost, and many are driven by idealism. They also benefit from situational advantages conferred by time and place—and luck.
Based on the characteristics of the eight innovators she studied, Schilling makes some recommendations for nurturing “the innovation potential that lies within us all.” No, she isn’t offering a formula for creating the next Einstein. As she notes, “The life of the serial breakthrough innovator is not for everyone.” But we can tap some of their traits, such as separateness, even if we ourselves don’t crave to be socially detached. And we can improve people’s situational advantages.