Is Innovation Inevitable?

Last week the New Yorker had an excellent article on the topic of innovation from author Malcom Gladwell, titled In the Air?. Gladwell argues that the conventional wisdom of the brilliant inventor and the flash of inspiration isn’t necessarily true. Instead, he demonstrates are actually very common:

The original expectation was that I.V. [Intellectual Ventures] would file a hundred patents a year. Currently, it’s filing five hundred a year. It has a backlog of three thousand ideas. Wood said that he once attended a two-day invention session presided over by Jung, and after the first day the group went out to dinner. “So Edward took his people out, plus me,” Wood said. “And the eight of us sat down at a table and the attorney said, ‘Do you mind if I record the evening?’ And we all said no, of course not. We sat there. It was a long dinner. I thought we were lightly chewing the rag. But the next day the attorney comes up with eight single-spaced pages flagging thirty-six different inventions from dinner. Dinner.”

In fact, it turns out that some ideas even appear to be inevitable – a product of the cultural and intellectual climate:

This phenomenon of simultaneous discovery—what science historians call “multiples”—turns out to be extremely common. One of the first comprehensive lists of multiples was put together by William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas, in 1922, and they found a hundred and forty-eight major scientific discoveries that fit the multiple pattern. Newton and Leibniz both discovered calculus. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both discovered evolution. Three mathematicians “invented” decimal fractions. Oxygen was discovered by Joseph Priestley, in Wiltshire, in 1774, and by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, in Uppsala, a year earlier. Color photography was invented at the same time by Charles Cros and by Louis Ducos du Hauron, in France. Logarithms were invented by John Napier and Henry Briggs in Britain, and by Joost B├╝rgi in Switzerland.

So if ideas are simply out there, waiting for someone to come along and find them, how do you best go about the process? A New York Times article from earlier this month titled “Can You Become a Creature of New Habits?” provides some insight:

Ms. Ryan and Ms. Markova have found what they call three zones of existence: comfort, stretch and stress. Comfort is the realm of existing habit. Stress occurs when a challenge is so far beyond current experience as to be overwhelming. It’s that stretch zone in the middle — activities that feel a bit awkward and unfamiliar — where true change occurs.

That stretch zone is key. Introducing new, but small, changes will challenge your brain and create new neural pathways and connections. In essence, the more you learn and have new experiences, the smarter you become. The smarter you become, the more likely you are to want to learn and have new experiences. It’s a self-feeding loop.

The takeaway? Go out and try something new. Lots of things. Lots of very different things. Stretch yourself, and you might be surprised at how over time, you start seeing connections between things you never would have saw before.

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