Examining the lives of serial innovators reveals strong commonalities.
Applying the research methods of large sample studies to investigate genius, Schilling (Management and Organizations/New York Univ. Stern School of Business; Strategic Management of Technological Innovation, 2004, etc.) failed to answer her overarching question: “is there some combination of traits or resources that increases the likelihood of an individual becoming a serial breakthrough innovator?” Instead, she took “a multiple case study approach” of a small sample of innovators, aiming to identify any unusual characteristics that set these individuals apart. Focusing on science and technology, she chose men—and one woman, Marie Curie—from different time periods and about whom significant biographical details were available: Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, Dean Kamen, Elon Musk, and Nikola Tesla. Except for Kamen, the inventor of Segway as well as the first portable kidney dialysis machine, among other medical breakthroughs, all the innovators are likely to be familiar to readers, and Schilling offers no groundbreaking information about their lives or work. Her interest is in illuminating factors that enabled them to generate original ideas. She distinguishes between personal characteristics (such as a sense of separateness or rebellion against authority) and mechanisms (any situational advantage that allowed them to flourish). A feeling of being different or disconnected from the crowd, she found, “typically emerges quite early in life.” Einstein, Curie, and Jobs perceived themselves as different from peers and family; although this separateness may result in “a sense of suffering,” it also helps individuals “generate and pursue big and unusual ideas.” Although they thrive in solitude, innovators benefit from “a dense personal network” through which they can disseminate their ideas. Schilling uses her findings to offer suggestions to business leaders and parents about fostering innovation. She cites flexible teams at Pixar, for example, which give team members autonomy and support. She urges parents to consider that children who struggle in a structured classroom may benefit from a more fluid curriculum as well as access to intellectual and technological resources.
Hardly revolutionary, but sensible advice on how to nurture creativity.