Melissa A. Schilling is the John Herzog Chair Professor of Management at New York University Stern School of Business, a world-renowned expert in innovation strategy, and author of Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World.

What I discuss with Melissa in this episode:

  • The commonalities that unite world-shifting innovators like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein.

  • How we can embody these traits into our own lives to be more effective in achieving our goals—even if we don't consider ourselves to be "geniuses."

  • Why the list of innovators from Melissa's study isn't as diverse as she would have preferred.

  • The common innovator trait Thomas Edison did not possess (perhaps because he possessed twice as much of another trait).

  • The role of chronically elevated insulin and the ideology of Alzheimer's disease.

  • And much more!

This podcast is sponsored by my friends at Genuine Health, a Toronto-based supplement company committed to helping others achieve optimum health—naturally. Check out what they can do for you here!

If I'd chosen to name this podcast The Einstein Life or my New York Times Best Seller Edison Foods, you'd have gotten the general idea: the names of these innovators have become synonymous with "genius." Our society elevates such geniuses to positions of high esteem when they help us see the world and its possibilities in a new light, which causes some of us to wonder: what makes world-changing innovators so different from the rest of us?

Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World author Melissa A. Schilling joins us to discuss what sets innovators apart from most of us, what we can learn from their commonalities, how we can jump start our own capacity to innovate (even if we don't think of ourselves as "geniuses"), what an innovation strategy professor knows about the link between Alzheimer's disease and diabetes, and lots more.   

Not a Textbook Question

Management professor Melissa A. Schilling is so immersed in the science and data behind innovation strategy that she literally wrote the textbook for Strategic Management of Technological Innovation (now in its fifth edition). But an interesting thing happened back in 2010 when it became clear to the public that Steve Jobs, Apple's CEO and the company's public face of innovation, was in the late stages of a terminal illness. Melissa's students started asking her questions like: What's going to happen? If we lose Steve Jobs, will Apple not be innovative anymore? How much of that innovation comes from him as a man, and how much of it is myth? Can it be handed down? Can I learn it? Can I be innovative like that?

"I was really surprised," says Melissa," when I realized that we just didn't have the answer to that question. And in large part it's because our field is not well-structured to study people. I'm in a management school; we tend to study organizations and teams, but we don't tend to study individuals a lot. It's hard for us to publish that kind of work. And even in psychology, it's quite hard to do work on outliers—on creative geniuses—because it just sort of violates the standards of being able to do what we call rigorous research, meaning we want to run statistics on large samples. We want to have carefully controlled experiments. And you're not going to get Elon Musk or Steve Jobs into the laboratory to run an experiment on them!"

A Multiple Case Study for Innovation

Melissa found the questions surrounding the legacy of Steve Jobs—and what it means to be innovative—too fundamentally interesting to ignore. As an academic, she did what came naturally: she took a year-long sabbatical to study everything she could find on the subject of Steve Jobs until she felt like she "knew him as a person."

"And then at some point I recognized something really odd," says Melissa, "and that is that he had all these commonalities with this other inventor that I'd already written about, which is Dean Kamen...that's when I got the inspiration to do what we in my field would call a multiple case study research program, where you assemble a set of cases and you take yourself out of the case selection process as much as possible. You want something else—some kind of protocol—to select the cases. You don't want to select them yourself, because you might be creating bias somewhere. Then you do a full case development on each one—it's kind of like a biography on each one in this case—and you do what we call pairwise didactic comparison. So you take every pair and you find everything in common about them, and everything different about them. You look for themes and you try to discount the themes. You try to see which themes you can reject. And then what you're left with is pretty solid."

Addressing the Lack of Diversity

Aside from Steve Jobs and Dean Kamen, the other cases included for this study included Elon Musk, Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Marie Curie. If you've noticed a glaring lack of diversity in that lineup, you're not alone.

"One of the things that people have pushed back on a lot with this list is that fact that it's mostly male, and it's all what you think of as white—which is a bummer," says Melissa. "That's just history creating that. There's an incredible lack of access to science for people of color and even for women. A huge lack of access to science. When we studied Marie Curie's story, it's so inspirational and so sad at the same time. You can see how much she had to overcome. She had to overcome all of the same things that all of the other innovators had to overcome, and then so much more because she was a woman—and women just weren't welcomed into science."

When selecting from the cases available, Melissa had to make sure to draw from well-known innovators and inventors who had bountiful information about their lives available, like multiple biographies and first-hand contact materials such as direct correspondence. Unfortunately, this results in a fairly homogeneous candidate pool.

"If you...look at the last 300 years, throughout most of that period, women weren't even allowed in college," says Melissa. "Black people weren't allowed in college. Jews weren't allowed in a lot of colleges. So you had a huge access barrier there."

And while Marie Curie's father-in-law essentially raised her children while she single-mindedly focused on her scientific research and went on to become the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences, it was frowned upon by society at the time. Women were expected to take on the responsibility of caring for their family's children, so most simply didn't have the option to pursue the sciences; there's no telling how many generations of would-be innovators could have been included on the above list had they been given the choice.

"All the innovators, when you study them really closely, you realize that they...feel sort of separate from the crowd," says Melissa. "They don't belong. They don't feel like its rules apply to them. And one of the ways it becomes manifest is that they're a little bit...disagreeable. They're not going to go along to get along. They're not going to do what you expect them to do. They're going to challenge your rules and your assumptions, and they're going to stick with things even when you say it's not the right path. That's hugely important for being a breakthrough innovator, and I would say that women have always—and still to this day—pay a much higher penalty for being disagreeable."

The Unique Traits of Innovators

Over the course of her multiple case study, these are the traits Melissa found in common among most of these innovators:

Separateness. While Melissa was expecting to find diverse social networks that nurtured the minds of introverts, what she found instead was a tendency for these introverts to be loners to some degree and separate from the crowd. Nikola Tesla spent much of his childhood sick. Marie Curie battled depression. "There are various things that can lead to separateness," says Melissa. "But in all cases, what it did was made them feel like the norms that apply to you just don't apply to [them]..." Important to note: not the same as introversion.

Self-Efficacy. This can be defined as task-related self-confidence. "It's when you have a high faith in your ability to overcome obstacles to achieve your goals," says Melissa. Rather than being discouraged by failure, innovators will rally, double down, and try harder next time.

Idealism. An intrinsic motivator demonstrated by everyone on the list with the notable exception of Edison—who considered himself practical and decidedly not idealistic. "They were seeking some grand cause," says Melissa. "They were working for something much bigger than themselves. And because it was bigger than themselves, it didn't matter whether they made money at it. It didn't matter if they suffered. Sometimes they sacrificed their families and their health and certainly their leisure." Idealism also works as an ego defense against criticisms hurled at the innovator's work and rallies others to their cause.

Love of Work. If Edison didn't consider himself an idealist, he might proudly consider himself the figurehead of this trait. Hard work put Edison in a state of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow," in which a pursuit is its own reward—providing the right levels of engagement and challenge to make the person enraptured by such a pursuit feel good. "You lose all sense of time, space, responsibility," says Melissa. "You are in the moment."

Self-Education. Not all innovators ever make it through the echelons of higher education—and in fact many reject its structure entirely. But they do possess an intellectual curiosity that drives them to understand the mysteries of the world on their own terms, and they tend to be voracious readers. "They were autodidacts," says Melissa. "They liked to learn and think about the stuff they wanted to learn and think about."

Listen to this full episode to learn more about what border collies can teach us about intrinsic motivation and flow, how nonexercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) works (and how it may have been responsible for Edison's famous restlessness), why an innovator's separateness might work in the favor of his or her ideas remaining truly innovative, why many innovators prove to be mediocre students when held to the standards of someone else's educational pace, the resource seemingly least important to most innovators, how we can become innovative even if we don't consider ourselves outstanding in the IQ department, how the data collection for innovation strategy informed Melissa's paper about the correlation between Alzheimer's disease and diabetes, and much more.

Resources from this episode:

Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World by Melissa A. Schilling

Melissa at Twitter

Melissa at NYU

Melissa's website

Unraveling Alzheimer's: Making Sense of the Relationship between Diabetes and Alzheimer's Disease by Melissa A. Schilling, Journal of Alzheimer's Disease

Strategic Management of Technological Innovation by Melissa A. Schilling

The Emotion Behind Invention by Dean Kamen at TEDMED 2009

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Code Name Ginger: The Story Behind Segway and Dean Kamen's Quest to Invent a New World by Steve Kemper

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

Tesla: Man Out of Time by Margaret Cheney

The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World by Randall E. Stross

Albert Einstein: The Biography of a Genius Who Changed Science and World History by Adam Brown

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson

Madame Curie: A Biography by Eve Curie and Vincent Sheean

Why Women Are Rarely Serial Innovators by Melissa Schilling, The Wall Street Journal

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: What's the Difference? by Sophia Bernazzani, HubSpot

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Nonexercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT): Environment and Biology by James A. Levine, American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism


Genius Foods: Become Smarter, Happier, and More Productive While Protecting Your Brain for Life by Max Lugavere and Paul Grewal M.D.

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