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Big Ideas

What It Takes To Innovate: Wrong-Thinking, Tinkering & Intuiting

A look at the characteristics that have propelled inventors from Leonardo Da Vinci to Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs to success.

Polaroid co-founder Edwin Land said, “The test of an invention is the power of [the] inventor to push it through in the face of staunch – not opposition, but indifference – in society.” Great ideas and inventions are often shunned or ignored before they are accepted. It makes sense then that inventors tend to be a hearty sort: they don’t mind failure, they don’t care what others think, and they’re willing to work really damn hard.

Surveying our favorite creators past and present, we identified the core traits of serial inventors – characteristics that any rogue creative would do well to develop:

1. Produce and test more ideas.

As author Frans Johansson illustrated in his high-energy 99U talk, groundbreaking innovators generate and execute far more ideas than their counterparts. Few demonstrate this better premise better than Thomas Edison, who held 1,093 patents – a record that’s yet to be broken. Edison knew that persistence and productivity were the key to great break-throughs, and he ran his laboratory accordingly. As creativity researcher Michael Michalko writes:

[Edison] guaranteed productivity by giving himself and his assistants idea quotas. His own personal invention quota was one minor invention every 10 days and a major invention every six months.”

Edison’s laboratory.

2. Employ “wrong-thinking.”

Great inventors engage in divergent or “wrong” thinking, which allows them to explore the full realm of possibilities for a solution – no matter how silly or far-fetched. They’re not necessarily concerned with the most logical solution, and certainly not with one that draws on “conventional wisdom.” As modern-day inventor Sir James Dyson puts it:

We’re taught to do things the right way. But if you want to discover something that other people haven’t, you need to do things the wrong way… When I was doing my vacuum cleaner, I started out trying a conventionally shaped cyclone, the kind you see in textbooks. But we couldn’t separate the carpet fluff and dog hairs and strands of cotton in those cyclones. It formed a ball inside the cleaner or shot out the exit and got into the motor. I tried all sorts of shapes. Nothing worked. So then I thought I’d try the wrong shape, the opposite of conical. And it worked.

3. Embrace failure.

True innovators are practically impervious to the notion of failure. Whereas the everyman might feel shame or embarrassment in making a mistake, the inventor sees an opportunity for learning. Edwin Land, the visionary co-founder of Polaroid and holder of more than 500+ patents, stressed the importance of viewing failure as a scientist would:

An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail. Scientists made a great invention by calling their activities hypotheses and experiments. They made it permissible to fail repeatedly until in the end they got the results they wanted. In politics or government, if you made a hypothesis and it didn’t work out, you had your head cut off.

Polaroid co-founder Edwin Land with an SX-70 camera.

4. Sketch out their ideas.

Even in our screen-obsessed era, effective innovators still hash out ideas on paper. (If you don’t believe me, check out this 99U talk from Twitter creator Jack Dorsey, who sketched out the original concept at age 15.) Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, was also an inveterate sketcher. Bell’s notebooks reveal the inner-workings of a hyperactive brain: diagrams for crazy flying machines, sound devices, and even see-saws, drawn with a whacky artistic sensibility akin to that of Henry Darger or David Shrigley.



Whacky Bell sketches, via Alexis Madrigal.

5. Trust their intuition.

Einstein always said that if he wasn’t a physicist, he would have been a musician. Fittingly, his approach to creative thinking was much more rooted in intuition and imagery than logic and equations. As Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein outline in Psychology Today:

As [Einstein] told one friend, “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come close to the conclusion that the gift of imagination has meant more to me than any talent for absorbing absolute knowledge.” Elaborating, he added, “All great achievements of science must start from intuitive knowledge. I believe in intuition and inspiration… At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason.” Thus, his famous statement that, for creative work in science, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

6. Love tinkering.

Though Malcolm Gladwell pooh-poohed Steve Jobs’ penchant for tweaking as “editorial, not inventive” in a posthumous New Yorker piece, the fact remains that almost all inventors are die-hard tinkerers. They’re fascinated with understanding how things work, and then making them better. As author Andrea Kates writes in her takeaways from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs:

From a very young age, Jobs sat at his dad’s side at the car-fixing workbench. He migrated to tinkering in the world of electronics, cutting his teeth on assemble-it-yourself kits for making ham radios and “other electronic gear that were beloved by the soldering set.” Being situated in Silicon Valley exposed him to neighbors who worked in holographs, lasers, and other new technologies and a high school teacher who introduced Jobs to transistors, coils, and circuit boards.

Various patents attributed to Steve Jobs and others, via NY Times.

7. Possess a boundless curiosity.

The “Renaissance man” par excellence, Leonardo Da Vinci was an engineer, mathematician, architect, painter, sculptor, cartographer, botanist, and, of course, inventor. Not surprisingly, the driving force behind Da Vinci’s incredible accomplishments was an insatiable curiosity. In a recent post, Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich summarizes a representative – and wildly ambitious – Da Vinci to-do list. Here illustrated by artist Wendy MacNaughton:


More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (18)
  • Chris Bird

    Sometimes I ponder how different the world would have become if Einstein really did become a musician.

  • Brett Dudo

    If not one person, then another.  Sometimes it feels like there are muses whispering into the ears of countless people.  Some respond, some nod their heads and move on, some ignore them completely.  There have been numerous occasions of people completely disconnected from one another ‘discovering’ things or finding the exact same solution for a problem within weeks, if not days, from one another.

  • TJ

    Great post! If anyone is interested more in Da Vinci, I often read through a book called “How to think like Leonardo Da Vinci” It’s a great, easy read with excellent facts to keep you thinking. Here’s the link on amazon…….

  • bassamtarazi

    Such a great post Jocelyn! It’s amazing how much life and society has turned to the idea of the “instant superstar” be it in music, technology, or innovation. People have this idea that corners can be cut and with a few “get rich quick” or “top 10 things to do to be great at _____ and make ________ dollars” books that we can succeed at breaking through, when in the end, is bloody hard work, sometimes against the current, to stick your nose our in front.

    Thanks again for the inspiring post!

  • herve leger

    I have to say, I enjoy reading your blog. Maybe you could let me know how I can subscribing with it ? I feel I should let you know I found your page through yahoo.

  • John Smith

    Nice post! Very informative indeed.

  • RosvitaRauch

    Herve, it’s not difficult. Scroll down to where these comments end and either click “Subscribe by email” or the RSS Feed button and choose whether you want the feeds delivered to your Google page, if you want them, or to your Google Reader. I hope this helps. If you need this in Spanish, I can help.

  • RosvitaRauch

    Great post! Loved the Da Vinci list.

  • Cris

    I suppose that’s what can make the difference, acting on an intiution rather than procrastinate.

  • Theo

    brilliant post thanks for sharing and caring

  • Marun2

    Re: Point #3 “Embrace failure”- > you might have heard about the term, “fail big” – “You have more success when you are more willing to fail.”

  • Bhushan

    This is an excellent list – love the richness and variety of your examples. It’s so true that entrepreneurs have to be hearty and be willing to fail along the way. I’ve noticed that the willingness to be wrong has allowed me to see things afresh and try new things. Thanks for this inspiring piece!

  • Jimperialism

    That’s the wonderful thing about reality; E=mc^2 regardless of who actually figures it out.

  • Carla Silver

    I really appreciate the graphics you chose for this piece. Great article. I work with school leaders and it is very hard for them to talk about failure. They never want to call it that and want to use some other euphemism like “challenge” or set backs.” But I think we should call it failure and not make it so dreadful. It is not the end of the world to fail at something. I loved the opening of the Jonah Leher book where he talks about how the best ideas and innovations come when someone finds themselves STUCK. . .That is what failure allows you do. Come up with a desperately creative solution.

  • Susanna Halonen

    Great points!
    I recently wrote a post on how Google encourages innovation through their working practices which echoes some of what’s said here:

  • Mike

    Great piece! “Embrace feilure” may be the best advice for those with ideas but little experience!

  • TiffGiamm

    Hi great article, very well written as well!
    I hope you don’t mind, but there is a typo in the line about Edison demonstrating a premise.
    Thanks again, loved the article 🙂

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