In “Why Quirky Wins the Day,” Melissa A. Schilling discusses her new book, “Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World.” Drawing from her research on innovators like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, Schilling explores the traits that drive breakthrough innovation, including separateness, self-efficacy, and the ability to pursue long paths of reasoning. She emphasizes the importance of embracing unconventional thinking and fostering environments that encourage individual creativity. Additionally, she addresses the lack of representation of women among famous innovators, highlighting historical barriers to women’s participation in science and technology.

If you look at the greatest innovations of this world, it may surprise you to find deviant personalities and quirky innovators behind them. Melissa Schilling, Professor of Innovation and Strategy at New York University’s Stern School of Business, was inspired to do a multiple case study on serial breakthrough innovators. She didn’t actually try to set out and find unusual or quirky people to study, but ended up being pretty surprised that almost uniformly, they all had this strange social awkwardness or social detachment, a sense of separateness like they didn’t belong or they didn’t feel connected to the social world. One interesting truth is that none of the innovators she studied placed a high priority on money. The more she studied them and the more she connected what she knew about them up to what we knew about innovation and creativity, it all started coming together that this separation is actually a big part of what enabled them to break norms, to challenge conventional wisdom, and to pursue projects even in the face of criticism.

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Why Quirky Wins the Day

My guest is Melissa A. Schilling. She is a professor of management at New York University Stern School of Business. She has a new book called Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World. Melissa, thank you so much for joining me.
Thank you for having me.

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Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World

I’m excited because your new book, Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World has come out. That’s a heck of a title.
It’s a mouthful. I have to think about it every time I say it.
You’re also a professor of innovation and strategy at New York University Stern School of Business. Is being at the school and teaching what inspired you to write the book?
Yeah. It was about 2010 when this all started. With the deteriorating health of Steve Jobs, I had a lot of students coming up to me and saying, “What’s going to happen? How much of the innovation is due to Steve Jobs himself? How much of it’s in the organization? Can it be handed down to a successor? How can I be like Steve Jobs?” Initially, I started studying just Steve Jobs. I made it a full-time preoccupation to read absolutely everything that had been written about him, to watch all the videos, read all the interview scripts, until I felt like I knew him. That’s when I realized he looked an awful lot like another innovator that I had already written a case about, which is Dean Kamen. That’s what inspired me to do a multiple case study on serial breakthrough innovators.
The title of the podcast is The Power of Quirky. It’s so interesting that you chose to talk about these people as quirky because when we see these innovators, they’re not usually these straight-laced guys. There seems to be something a little bit off-path about them. Has that been your experience?
Absolutely. I wasn’t looking for that. When I started this project, I didn’t set out trying to find unusual or weird people to study, so I ended up being pretty surprised that almost uniformly. Benjamin Franklin is an exception, but of the people that I studied, they all had this strange social awkwardness or social detachment, a sense of separateness like they didn’t belong, or they didn’t feel connected to the social world. At first I couldn’t figure out why they would all have this trait and it seems like a very peculiar coincidence for them to all have it. The more I studied them and the more I connected what I knew about them up to what we knew about innovation and creativity, it all started coming together. I realized that the separateness is a big part of what enabled them to break with norms and to challenge conventional wisdom and to pursue projects even when other people said it was impossible or in the face of criticism.
When you say separateness, a lot of them are people that are married and have families and obviously have run businesses. Define separateness for us.
Separateness is this sense that maybe you feel detached from the social fabric around you or you feel like the rules don’t apply to you, that you’re somehow different or disconnected. Even the innovators that we’re married, if you take Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs, their separateness came through very, very clearly. I have a quote from Thomas Edison’s wife where she says that Thomas Edison doesn’t have very many friends and he shuts himself off from the rest of the world, but that’s how it is for a man like him who has to do his inventions. She makes sure to bring his meals to him on time.
Chrisann Brennan, who was the mother of Steve Jobs’ child, commented that he was brilliant, and he could be charismatic, but he also had this incredible emotional woodenness and this apartness. Most people who knew Steve Jobs felt that detachment that he had. People look at Elon Musk, and if you don’t know him well, you might associate them with the Tony Stark character in the Iron Man movies and assume that he’s like a playboy, egomaniac, traditional millionaire from a movie, but that is not who he is at all. When he was growing up, he was smaller than the other boys in his class. He was incredibly nerdy and he used to be really heavily bullied. He changed schools seven times during his childhood. He remarked that he never had a chance to make friends, so he would hide out at home and read books. His former employees have commented that he has this incredible ability to be very socially detached and that he basically loves humanity but interacting with human beings individually is harder for him.
Are these characteristics innate? For example, can someone learn to think like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk even if they don’t feel that sense of separateness or some of those other characteristics you were talking about?
I want to clarify that there’s seven major commonality categories that I deal within the book and separateness is only one of them.
Could you tell us some of the other six?
Separateness is one of the first ones I dealt with because it was the one that was so surprising and so poignant in their stories, but another thing, which is probably less surprising is that they all have this incredible self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is when you have faith in your ability to overcome obstacles to achieve your objectives. It’s a very particular type of confidence. A person could seem not confident in other ways. They might not feel comfortable dealing with others or they might not feel confident about their personal appearance or something like that, and yet have a very high self-efficacy. All of these innovators had intense self-efficacy where they had utter faith that they would do what they set out to do even if other people said it was impossible, so self-efficacy is an important one.
They were all extremely intelligent, although intelligence doesn’t have a uniform correlation with creativity. I have a big discussion of when and why intelligence matters, but all the innovators I studied were quite intelligent and also had exceptional memories, which was interesting. I could explain why that matters. All but one of them. This time, the exception is Thomas Edison. They were also keenly idealistic, which means they were pursuing some higher level goal that they saw as intrinsically noble, important, and honorable. That turns out to be important because it not only organize their life with an incredible focus, but it meant that they were willing to sacrifice comfort, leisure, personal relationships, and sometimes even their family or their health because the goal was so important.
Many of them wanted to make money, but making money was not the highest purpose that they had.
None of the innovators I studied placed a high priority on money, and sometimes to their detriment. Nikola Tesla was this brilliant inventor, but he was so unconcerned with money that he was unable to achieve some of his goals because he basically never had any money. I wrote something about Elon Musk. You might have heard Tesla announced that they’re not going to pay Elon Musk for the next ten years and then they’re only going to pay him if he hits the rather remarkable goal of Tesla hitting $650 billion in market valuation.
That number, to put it into perspective, is ten times the market valuation of General Motors. It’s up there with Google. It’s an astounding goal, and until then he gets nothing. If he doesn’t hit that goal in ten years, he’ll still get a nothing. He’ll get no compensation. People were surprised by this and I said, “You shouldn’t be surprised by this at all because it’s never been about money for Elon Musk.” If you study his history, it’s never been about money. He’s taking his whole personal wealth and plowed it into ventures that he knew had a low probability of success because he thought they were important, and he hasn’t been paid in the last five years. His official salary from Tesla is the California minimum wage, so right now it’s at about $44,000 a year. He doesn’t cash the checks. It shouldn’t be surprising that he’s willing to gamble it all on the next ten years on hitting these goals because his goal is to help us move to an electric automobile future and to basically get us off fossil fuels. His goal is not to become wealthier.
[Tweet “Separateness is this sense that maybe you feel detached from the social fabric around you or you feel like the rules don’t apply to you.”]
What are the rest of the seven characteristics?
Another one is a broad category that includes a need for achievement or what Csíkszentmihályi would call flow. This means that all of the innovators found joy in the process of work itself. I don’t know if you’ve ever gotten to know a Border Collie dog. Do you know dogs at all?
I do and I know Border Collie dogs.
For those of you who don’t, a Border Collie is only happy when it’s working. You don’t have to train it to work or persuade it to work or reward it. It wants to work. Work is the reward, and if you don’t give it a job, it’ll find one of its own and you probably won’t like it, but this is how the innovators were. They were happiest when working. Thomas Edison lost a huge part of his fortune because the people who formed General Electric basically carved him out of the business. When someone pointed out to him that he had lost all of his returns from his original lighting business, he thought about it for a moment and then he commented, “We had a lot of fun doing it though.” He said work made him so happy. Work made the Earth a paradise for him and he never intended to retire. He was happiest when working, and all the innovators I studied had this trait.
They also all benefited to some degree from situational advantage. The first category of situational advantage I identified had to do with temporal opportunity or timing, being at the right place at the right time. For instance, you could identify a lot of serial breakthrough innovators that emerged with the information technology revolution. The time was right for lots of innovations to be put forward. If you were an innovative person and you were there at that time, that made a big difference. Steve Jobs identified this very clearly. He said he was very lucky to have grown up in Silicon Valley, right when these things were happening. If he hadn’t grown up in Silicon Valley, when these things were happening, we might not even know who he was.
The last one had to do with access to resources. This was an interesting one, because as a researcher in a business school, we focus a lot on money and you probably don’t find that very surprising. We’re doing research on things like venture capital and Angel investors and how can the government create financial resources for people who want to innovate or be entrepreneurs. It turns out every single innovator I studied started out with no money and never identified the availability of money as a key resource or an obstacle for them, except you could say that the lack of money became somewhat of an obstacle for Nikola Tesla later in his life.
The key resource for them was access to technological and intellectual resources. It was often people. For instance, Marie Curie benefited enormously by being married to Pierre Curie. He had created a piece of equipment that she could’ve never obtained or used that enabled her to identify radium, so that was hugely important. Steve Jobs became friends with Steve Wozniak, who is a brilliant engineer. Without Steve Wozniak, he couldn’t have realized his early goals with computers, and then later on there were lots of other people who helped Jobs execute his ideas. Finding ways to put people in connection with technological resources or intellectual resources is a whole lot more important than financial resources, and that has interesting implications for policy and business.
I have a friend who always says, “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” It’s a little bit along the lines of what you’re saying. It’s like those networks and who they know is part of what made those innovations possible.
I want to be clear. These were not people who had strong social networks. That’s another interesting contrast with a lot of the research we’re doing in business. Ever since Duncan Watt’s work on six degrees of separation that comes from Milgram’s work, people have been focused on social networks, how they’re structured, how dense they are, how short your path links are to other people. There’s a lot of awareness now that being in a good network or having a good position in your network is important, yet these people were not in good networks on the whole. They did not maintain networks well because they were not very socially motivated, and yet they were able to be successful. That’s an interesting thing that we need to study more to understand.
Are those characteristics that you mentioned innate or can people learn to think like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk?
Some of the characteristics are innate. Having an exceptional memory is probably innate. Some aspects of separateness are sometimes innate, although sometimes separateness comes from your external environment, so a lot of things can cause separateness. You could’ve been isolated as a child, you could have a physical disability. Edison’s separateness probably came from the fact that he was mostly deaf. You could have had different economic and social barriers that kept you separate. Separateness can come from a lot of things, but sometimes it comes from personality and that may be innate.
Even when the traits are innate, the mechanism that connects the trait up to innovation is often something we can tap. For instance, one of the things we learned about how separateness works for the innovators is that solitude is incredibly important. Spending some time thinking and reading and deciding what you believe about the world and coming up with your ideas unfettered from the ideas of others or the constraints of others is incredibly important for creativity, and that we can tap irrespective of our personalities.
Another thing that you find with the innovators, they naturally tended to pursue what are called long paths of reasoning, meaning that they would follow an idea very far forward in time to see its repercussions. They might follow a concept very far backward in terms of abstract reasoning to see what the fundamental principles were that drove an outcome. This came naturally to them because of their intelligence and their memory. It’s very easy to follow a path out further if you have a long memory because a lot of things stay active in your mind naturally, but we can all learn to do that. We can all learn to ask why. When we identify some cause and effect relationship, you should say, “What caused that causal factor? What caused that?” Go backward in the chain of reasoning and go forward several steps in the reasoning. “What will happen after this happens, and what happens next? What happens next?” People who actively mine these long paths of reasoning, and you can do it on paper, you don’t have to have an exceptional memory, are going to see larger scale dynamics. They’re going to become bigger thinkers. You’re going to tap that part of you that was similar to Einstein. Einstein did this naturally. He wanted to understand at a very elemental level what cause things.

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Quirky Innovators: People who actively mine these long paths of reasoning are going to see larger scale dynamics.

What do you think managers need to take away from what you’ve learned from innovators? People that are not necessarily entrepreneurs or innovating on their own, but they’re managers within more of a corporate structure, yet they still want to be innovative in the way they approach their jobs.
There are two things that are probably the most near-term implications that I would tell them about. The first one is that if you want people to come up with creative ideas, brace yourself because this is a little bit counter intuitive for people. You don’t want them in teams, not for the early work. You want them to work alone. We have been conditioned to think that teams are more creative than individuals, but there’s a lot of psychology research demonstrating that it’s not true because teams have a tendency to create apprehension about evaluation for people. It tends to cause production blocking, which means that while I’m talking, you suspend your thinking and you may never get back around to your own ideas.
You want people to work alone first. You want people to write down their ideas and elaborate them and follow them through to a pretty far extent before you bring them together in a group, because a group will tend to extinguish a lot of the wildest ideas that people have. A lot of managers don’t realize this. They think that the first thing we ought to do if we want a creative idea is have a brainstorming meeting as a group. That’s the last thing you want to do. You want to separate people and give them time to think and to work and to encourage them to put their wildest ideas down and to not fear being unorthodox and to not fear being judged by others. That’s an incredibly important one.
Another interesting implication, it’s best to explain by telling a little story about Steve Jobs when he first applied at Atari. When Steve Jobs saw an ad in the paper that said, “Make money, have fun,” he went to apply to Atari and he showed up in the lobby of Atari in sandals with dirty feet and unwashed hair and pretty strong body odor. He said, “I’m not leaving until you give me a job.” The receptionist called security and called Al Acorn and said, “What do we do about this hippy guy in the lobby? He says he’s not leaving until you give him a job.” If this had been IBM or Hewlett Packard or any of the other technology firms that were more buttoned up at the time, they would have sent them away, but Al Acorn said, “Send him in,” and he interviewed him. Steve Jobs even had the impudence to put his feet up on the desk. He was an unusual guy, but Al Acorn could spot that this was a creative and insightful person. He ended up giving him a job.
Steve Jobs turned out to be one of the more creative and insightful people we know about in our time. The lesson there is that we have to learn to embrace a little more weirdness or quirkiness. We have to realize that people who might seem unusual to us and might even make us a little uncomfortable at first, are exactly the kinds of people who are going to challenge some assumptions and come up with ideas that other people don’t come up with, which is incredibly important if you want breakthrough innovation.
That’s an important point because people tend to look for people who present their ideas and their contributions in the same way that they do, particularly managers. Part of what you’re saying is that someone may present completely differently and in a completely different way. That can be incredibly valuable and lead to huge innovation within the workplace.
A lot of people will emphasize how important it is to have social skills and be charismatic. Those things are incredibly valuable for getting around in the world and can make your life more pleasant but somebody with strong social skills is good at adhering to norms. They know what the norms are, and they know how to match them. That’s not the trait we’re looking for in breakthrough innovation because the person who comes up with breakthrough innovations is not adhering to norms.
Why don’t we see more women on the most famous innovators list?
This costs me a lot of angst early on in my study. I had set out criteria for my study that was meant to make sure that I could write rigorous case analyses. Everybody had to be at the top of several most famous innovator lists. Everybody had to have several biographies written about them. I only wanted people from science and technology because it’s much easier to measure utilitarian innovations and achieve consensus that they were important, which is why I didn’t put Picasso on my list or John Lennon on my list. Although initially, I’d considered looking at those kinds of innovations.
At the end of the day, when I applied these criteria to the lists that are out there, the only one that came up was Marie Curie. I got very anxious about that and I knew there was going to be push back on this and that people would want to see more women, they’d want to see people of color of all genders. I started looking for more women like this, but I knew in my scientist heart that I was biasing the selection process. I couldn’t put anyone in my study that didn’t meet the criteria. I studied Marie Curie, but once you’ve studied Marie Curie or Grace Hopper or some of these other women that had been innovative, you understand exactly why there aren’t more women on these lists. There are two main reasons. The first one is an obvious one, and that is that for a very long part of our history, women didn’t have access to education and they weren’t welcome in science and business.
When Marie Curie was growing up in Poland, she was brilliant. She was the top of her class at every school she went to. She won all the metals of award from her schools, but Poland didn’t allow women into university. In fact, most European universities didn’t admit women. She had to achieve a remarkable feat to get university training. She had to scrape up money she made as a governess to pay her way to go to Paris and apply to the Sorbonne and ended up being one of the first women to obtain higher education at the Sorbonne. She was one of maybe three women that got a PhD in her field from the Sorbonne the year that she graduated out of hundreds and hundreds of students. Even after she started achieving remarkable things in science, she wasn’t admitted to the Academy of Science and she was almost denied a Nobel prize, all because she was a woman. She faced these enormous obstacles.
Grace Hopper, who’s a little bit later in time, she’s the woman who invented computer programming language. She loved math, she had a doctorate in math, but she notes in her biography that women were not welcome in engineering and science and business. The only reason she was able to penetrate science and business is because she became an Admiral in the Navy and that rank essentially neutered her gender. It made it so that men would talk to her because she was an Admiral. The first reason is that there’s been a tremendous lack of access for women for a long period of time, which means you’ve had a much shorter period of recent history when it was feasible for women to have access to get on to these lists. These lists are looking at people for all history. They’re taking a large sample that goes very far back in time and most of that sampled women don’t have access to doing that work. That’s the first reason. Access, it’s basically discrimination. The second reason is going to make you a little bit more uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable and I had to think long and hard about whether I wanted to tell this part of the story, but it’s an important part of the story. It’s kids.
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Because they are care-giving. They’re being parents, mothers.
Every breakthrough innovator I looked at had this maniacal, single-minded focus on their science and on their innovation. It’s very difficult to have that maniacal, single-minded focus on innovation and have an intense focus on your children. For example, Marie Curie relinquished most of the care-giving of her children to her father-in-law. When you read the biography her daughter, Eve Curie, wrote about her, what you see is this adoration and respect. Her daughters loved her, but there’s also longing and sadness. Her daughters pined for her attention and her affection, and that is something that is very difficult for a lot of mothers to do, and probably would be for fathers to do also. Parents have this intense focus on their children. It’s biological, nature made that a design choice that was incredibly important to make sure that children survive, but historically, more women have been in the role of primary caregiver than men.
From the conversations I have with women entrepreneurs today, both people that are entrepreneurial and doing startups and people that work within corporations, that’s still to a large degree an issue.
It’s not easy to overcome. The politically correct thing to say is, “We can solve this by providing childcare. First of all, men and women should have equal responsibilities. Secondly, businesses and governments should provide more access to affordable quality childcare.” They’re wrong about that because the truth is I look at someone like myself, I’m not Marie Curie, but I have obsessive tendencies to be sure. I can afford more childcare, but I don’t want to give up more childcare duties to someone else. I want that connection with my children, that’s inside of me. I have willingly and happily embraced being the primary caregiver for my children. What that means is that I cannot be obsessive the way I used to be about my work. I can’t stay on the computer until 4:00 AM and hunt down a solution to a problem I find fascinating because at 5:00 PM, I got to dial it back and start thinking about dinner and homework. I don’t think this means that women can’t be breakthrough innovators, but it means we have to think a little bit differently about career paths. We need to find ways to make it so that women or men, both of us can, can take a pause in our career paths and then more easily re-enter later.
For instance, if you want to be a scientist, you apply to grad school early within a few years of your undergrad. When we see applications for people for the PhD program where someone has been out a long time and had a diverse career history, we tend not to take them that seriously. That’s a mistake. That means that you have to have this linear career path where you’ve had this focus since before childbearing years that is not very consistent with primary child care giving. I want to be clear. You can be absolutely successful and be a great mom or a great dad. I’m not saying that at all. Lots of people have these very close relationships with their children and are extremely successful at their work, but the breakthrough innovator is something else. If you want to see women on the top of most famous innovator list, they need to be able to have this incredible, intense, idealistic focus, and they’re going to have to do that either before they have kids or after they have kids because it’s pretty hard to do it while you’re taking care of kids.
It’s also interesting because you were talking about how the whole science and engineering was unfriendly to women. All you have to do is pick up any paper today and you see that there’s still a huge controversy, particularly in the Silicon Valley, about how friendly STEM is to women. It has changed since Marie Curie’s days. It’s gotten better no doubt, but what’s your perspective on where we are today with how much technology and science and computer is embracing women?
It’s gotten a whole lot better and right now there are women who are creating the stories that we’re going to be telling in the future about most famous women innovators. It’s already changing. We’re already knocking out this access to education and business and science that we lacked in the past. We’re also talking from an economy where most women have, if not equal access, pretty close to equal access. That’s not true in every economy around the world, so there are large chunks of the globe where women are still incredibly disadvantaged at getting access to business in science, so we still have ways to go.
Our audience are entrepreneurs, executives within Fortune 500 companies, CEOs in mid-cap companies. It’s all over the map in terms of business people who listens to this podcast. What are one or two simple things that you think everyone can start from the moment they hear this podcast to tap into their innovative potential?
The first thing I would say is sit down and think about what your big long-term, idealistic goal is. If you have some big grand ambition, you should write that down. Don’t think to yourself, “I’m only going to write things that are possible.” If you have a goal lurking in your heart or a thing you wish was changed about the world that you think is impossible, I want you to suspend that idea that it’s impossible. Assume for a moment that nothing is impossible. If nothing is impossible, what would you do in the world? Write that goal down. Think about what are the steps that it would take to get to that goal. That has to do with forming a long-term grand objective. If you have a long-term grand objective, right away, you’re more likely to be a breakthrough innovator.
The second thing you should do is start challenging assumptions. Challenge every assumption. When you walk through your day, get in the habit of challenging the fact that things need to be the way they are. This is something that Steve Jobs was brilliant at. He would say, “You look around at the world, don’t assume that it has to be that way. The people who created that world were no smarter than you and you can change it.” Say you’re walking down the street and you assume that cars have to drive on roads. They don’t have to drive on roads. What if they were hanging from rails? What if we didn’t have cars at all? What if we had conveyor belts that moved to people or Elon Musk’s pneumatic tubes that are going to blow people around the world? Challenge every assumption and get in the habit of realizing that a lot of the assumptions you take for granted are wrong. They’re just ideas that were created by other people and you might be able to change them.

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Quirky Innovators: Challenge every assumption and get in the habit of realizing that a lot of the assumptions you take for granted are wrong.

There are a couple of themes to this podcast and I always ask every guest. I like to end by asking every guest these three questions because to me, these are three themes that are important that I have found in the work that I’ve done with thought leaders and people that are thinkers from all fields. These are three things that they always have in common. The first is what I call the joy of missing out. People tend to have a fear of missing out on things. People do have a fear of missing out on things in regard to innovation. What do you think that people have a fear of missing out on in regard to innovation that in your opinion they shouldn’t? What should we have a joy of missing out on in regard to the larger innovation conversation?
The first one I have to say that studying innovators, I’ve found it to be very freeing. Sometimes I’m not particularly social and I have a kid who’s not particularly social and I felt a bit anxious about that. I felt like it was a weakness I had to overcome and that I was missing out on my full capacity by not being more social. After studying these innovators, I realized “No, the main thing you need to do is love who you are, whether or not your social.” To realize that being more separate or preferring solitude some of the time is a huge advantage for particular types of tasks and activities. It’s a wonderful quality and it’s not a quality that you’re trying to extinguish in your life. That idea that you’re missing out on something if you’re not a great social networker, you’re not missing out. You’re reaping an advantage that maybe people who need to socialize more might be missing out on.
More directly to innovation, I would say this missing out idea relates to this compulsion we have to benchmark our innovation against others. If you’re paying a lot of attention to your competitors and the types of innovations they’re doing, you’re letting your competitors hijack your innovation process and your direction for your company. You are far better off coming up with your own direction. One thing we know is that if you’re racing against a competitor who’s already started doing something that you want to emulate, you’re starting that race at a disadvantage and you’re very unlikely to come up with something unusual. What Mauborgne and Kim would call a blue ocean move that has high profit potential. You’re much better off developing your own thing that your company does that’s different from anyone else. You want to stop trying to benchmark so closely against others and don’t worry about missing out on their innovations. You want to focus on the innovations that your company can focus on.
That’s an important point because a lot of companies in my experience go, “The bar is here, and it’s set by our competitors, so we have to get to that same place,” rather than going their own path and defining it themselves. The second thing I like to talk to people about a theme is what I call living beyond the script. There are these personal scripts, professional scripts. What’s the prevailing script of innovation? How do we think about innovation? Like, “This is the script about how you innovate,” and how do we go beyond that?
If you study Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, you see good role models for people who are living beyond the script. This is going to go back to idealism. If you look at Musk and the choices he’s made, they are very different from what a standard entrepreneur would do or what a business school recommendation would be. For example, he didn’t take SpaceX public. Taking SpaceX public would have restored a massive amount of wealth to him and it would have made all the other employees at SpaceX very wealthy. People were confused by that. They’re like, “Why don’t you want to take SpaceX public?” He said, “Because my objective with SpaceX isn’t just to be a profitable space company. My objective is to get to Mars.” He knew that having a board of directors was going to make it a lot less likely for him to make the choices that would optimize getting to Mars.
That’s placing his idea of making humans an interplanetary species more important than shareholder returns. That’s definitely living beyond the script that we would follow in a typical business school course, for example. Steve Jobs too. He made a lot of decisions that people disagreed with, like not putting any ports on the early Macintosh. Steve Wozniak thought there needed to be more ports because he knew engineers like to customize their computers. Steve Jobs said no because the computer needs to be for everybody. It needs to be a tool that extends the mind of humanity and ports get in the way of that. We need something clean and simple and beautiful, so that idealistic goal that he had completely changed the script of what his company would do. It wasn’t going to produce a utilitarian product that was maximally optimized for either engineers or businesses. It was producing a product that was designed to be an extension of people.
[Tweet “If nothing is impossible, what would you do in the world?”]
The last thing I always talk about is the everyday artist. I’ve been a painter, an actor, an entrepreneur, and a branding and marketing strategist. I’ve been a writer, and I interview people that are artists and CEOs. I’ve always found that there’s a part of what everyone does that is art and a part of what everyone does that is science. I’d love to know, in what way do you consider yourself an artist in the work that you do?
This is an important and interesting question because you’ll find that a lot of people who are talented in science are also talented in some form of art or fascinated by art. Einstein played the violin, for instance. Will Bommel was a talented artist. I don’t think we understand completely the connections there, but in some ways, art is about understanding patterns and finding joy and beauty in them. For example, if I’m trying to understand an idea, I try to draw it. It’s important to me that the drawing or the pattern I identify has an aesthetic quality to it. I’m looking for the symmetry or the asymmetry that makes that drawing move and resonate with me. That’s an important part of understanding the universe. Somehow this idea of space and spatial qualities and beauty, Einstein would say musical harmony, helps us to understand fundamental principles better. I don’t think we have a good science of it yet but we will someday. We’re going to understand how art and science are intrinsically connected.
Thank you. Melissa, where can people find the book?
You can order from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or any independent bookseller.
Thank you so much for being on the podcast.
Thank you for having me. This was a lot of fun.
My guest has been Melissa A. Schilling. She is the John Herzog Family professor of management at New York University Stern School of Business. She’s also one of the world’s leading experts on innovation. She has a new book out called Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World. The book combines rich stories with deep science to show what breakthrough innovators have in common and how we can tap into our own innovation potential.

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About Melissa Schilling

TTP 022 | Quirky InnovatorsMelissa A. Schilling is the John Herzog Family professor of management at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and one of the world’s leading experts on innovation. Her research focuses on innovators and innovation strategy, and her textbook, Strategic Management of Technological Innovation (now in its fifth edition), is the number one innovation text in the world. Her new book, Quirky: The remarkable story of the traits, foibles, and genius of breakthrough innovators who changed the world combines rich stories with deep science to show what breakthrough innovators have in common, and how we can tap our own innovation potential.

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This article is copyrighted by Karen Leland and cannot be reprinted in any form, electronic or otherwise, without the express written permission of Karen Leland.
Karen Leland is President of Sterling Marketing Group, a branding and marketing strategy and implementation firm. She works with individuals, businesses and teams to enhance their business and personal brands. Her clients include LinkedIn, American Express, Apple, Marriott Hotels and others. Her ninth book, The Brand Mapping Strategy: Design, Build and Accelerate Your Brand, (Entrepreneur Press, 2016) is available online at, Barnes and, and in bookstores now.