Why are some people so remarkably innovative? We are not talking about the one-hit-wonders who have one great idea or those people who seized a single opportunity offered by a moment in time. We are talking about the people who created one game-changing innovation after another; people who spent most of their lives generating and pursuing startling ideas, challenging assumptions, and accomplishing the seemingly impossible. Is there something special about them that makes them so willing and able to change the world? Consider, for example, Elon Musk. Musk created and sold his first videogame when he was 12 and was a millionaire by the time he turned 28. Over the next 10 years he developed an electronic payment system that would be merged into a company we now know as PayPal, founded SpaceX, a company with no less of an objective than to colonize Mars, and helped to create Tesla Motors, the first new car company to go public in the U.S. in over 50 years. In 2010, SpaceX successfully launched a spacecraft into orbit and then brought it safely back to Earth, a remarkable achievement that had only ever been accomplished by the national governments of three countries: the United States, Russia, and China. Furthermore, he had demonstrated the viability of reusable rockets – something the space industry had long said was impossible. 

Musk did not come from a family with strong connections to any of these industries nor did he come from exceptional wealth or political advantage. Musk did not grow up with any special access to computing, automotive or space technology prior to founding these companies, nor did he spend years accumulating unusually deep experience in these fields prior to his innovations. Thus, Musk had no special experience or resources that enabled him to accomplish these feats – his successes seem to have been attained through sheer force of will. What made Musk able and driven to create such a remarkable series of profoundly important innovations?

Nikola Tesla (the man for whom Musk’s car company is named) was equally, or perhaps even more, prolific. During his lifetime, he created over 200 stunningly advanced breakthrough innovations, including the first long distance wireless communication systems, alternating current electrical systems, and remote-control robots. His fervor in pursuit of innovation was hard for most people to understand, especially given the skepticism and lack of financing he encountered throughout his life. Like Musk, Tesla had no family background or other advantage in the fields he would come to revolutionize. Though he studied physics in college, it is not clear that he ever completed a degree. Also, like Musk, he left his home country as a young man and arrived in the United States near penniless. Tesla was an unusual man, to put it mildly. He was riddled with phobias and odd habits, and he lacked the kind of social intelligence and charisma that could have made it easier to get financial support for his projects. Yet, also like Musk, he would accomplish a series of technological achievements most had deemed impossible.

Albert Einstein achieved equally remarkable accomplishments in physics: During a four month period, when he was all of 26 years old, he wrote four papers that completely altered the scientific world’s understanding of space, time, mass and energy. Each was a significant breakthrough, including work on particle physics that would set the stage for quantum mechanics to overthrow classical physics. What is all the more remarkable is that he accomplished these feats while working as a patent examiner because every physics department he applied to turned him down for an academic post. His disrespect for authority had earned him the ire of his college professors, and they refused to support him in his quest for a university position. Even after writing the four remarkable papers, he faced considerable resistance: Having the impudence to challenge well-established theories, and being Jewish in a time of rampant anti-Semitism, combined to make him the subject of frequent attacks. These attacks made his life harder, but they did not induce him to show more reverence for the work of his peers. For Einstein, bowing to authority – including the authority of social norms – was a corruption of the human spirit.  He had no intention of marching to anyone else’s drum. This position would make it harder for him to gain support and legitimacy for his ideas, yet it also freed him to think beyond the existing theories of his time. He would go on to win the Nobel Prize and become, arguably, the most famous scientist of all time.

What makes these people so spectacularly innovative?  Is it genetics, parenting, education or luck? 

Excerpted with permission from the author. The book Quirky: The remarkable story of the traits, foibles and genius of breakthrough innovators who changed the world, combines the science of creativity with case studies of eight serial breakthrough innovators – Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, Dean Kamen, Elon Musk and Nikola Tesla – to identify the traits and experiences that drove them to make spectacular breakthroughs, over and over again. It also shows how we can nurture breakthrough innovation in our own lives. (PublicAffairs; February 2018).

Author Profile
Herzog Family Professor of Management - New York University Stern School of Business

Melissa A. Schilling is the Herzog Family Professor of Management at New York University Stern School of Business. Professor Schilling is a world-renowned expert in innovation strategy. Her research focuses on innovation and strategy in high technology industries such as smartphones, video games, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, electric vehicles and renewable energies. Her research in innovation and strategy has earned numerous awards such as the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award, the Best Paper in “Management Science and Organization Science” for 2007 Award, the 2022 Sumantra Ghoshal Award for Rigour and Relevance in the Study of Management, and the 2018 Leadership in Technology Management award at PICMET.

In addition to publishing in the leading academic journals, Schilling’s work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, Harvard Business Review, Bloomberg Business News, CNBC and more. Her textbook, Strategic Management of Technological Innovation (now in its 7th edition), is the number one innovation strategy text in the world. She is also the author of Quirky: The remarkable story of the traits, foibles and genius of breakthrough innovators who changed the world, and coauthor of Strategic Management: An integrated approach (now in its 14th edition).

Related posts