What do breakthrough innovators Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and even Benjamin Franklin all have in common? According to Melissa Schilling, Professor of Innovation and Strategy at New York University's Stern School of Business, it turns out they were all quirky.

A Case Study in Creativity 

"I was inspired to do a multiple case study on serial breakthrough innovators," says Schilling, "but I didn't set out to find unusual or quirky people to study." However, what Shilling found was that almost uniformly, they all possessed a strange social awkwardness and a sense of separateness. 

The more Schilling studied these innovators, the more she discovered that their sense of separation was actually a big part of what enabled them to break norms, challenge conventional wisdom and to pursue projects even in the face of criticism.

I interviewed Schilling recently on my Thought Talk podcast about the lessons we can take from these leading innovators. Here's what I learned. 

Separate Does Not Mean Alone

A lot of the innovators Schilling interviewed are married and have families, but as she points out, the quality of separateness she found was a general detachment from social fabric and a feeling like the rules didn't apply to them. "Even the innovators that were married, their separateness came through very clearly," says Schilling. 

Schilling points to a quote from Thomas Edison's wife where she explains that "Thomas Edison doesn't have very many friends and 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."  

Another example is Chrisann Brennan, the mother of Steve Jobs' daughter, who commented that while Jobs was brilliant, and could be charismatic, he also had an incredible apartness. 

Your quirky challenge: Consider one business challenge you have been struggling with. Go Thomas Edison on it and block off some time in your calendar to go off alone and work on it. 

Throw in a dash of Steve Jobs by asking yourself, "If I were to solve this problem by breaking the rules, what would some of my potential solutions be?"

Self-efficacy Is Key

Schilling's definition of self-efficacy is having faith in your ability to overcome obstacles to achieve your objectives. She points out that it's a very particular type of confidence that was key in the innovators she studied. 

"Many of these innovators might not feel comfortable dealing with others or confident in their personal appearance, for example, but they all have a very high self-efficacy. An utter faith that they would do what they set out to do even if other people said it was impossible." 

Your quirky challenge: Think about a situation, challenge or goal other people have told you would be difficult to resolve or achieve. Now crank up your quirky and write down all the reasons why you have what it takes to make what you want happen. Read that list every day for a month until your self-efficacy quotient is up a few degrees. 

Idealism vs Intelligence

While the innovators Schilling studied were quite intelligent, she says they were also keenly idealistic. "They were all pursuing some higher-level goal that they saw as intrinsically noble, important and honorable," she says. As it turns out, that was critically important because it

allowed them to organize their life with an incredible focus. "This also meant, however, that  they were willing to sacrifice comfort, leisure, personal relationships and sometimes even their family or their health because the goal was so important," says Schilling. 

Interestingly enough none of the innovators Schilling studied placed a high priority on money. For example, Schilling points out that Elon Musk's official salary from Tesla is the California minimum wage, making it about $44,000 a year. 

"And he doesn't cash the checks," says Schilling. "It shouldn't be surprising his goal is not to become wealthier, it's to help us move to an electric automobile future and to basically get us off fossil fuels." 

Your quirky challenge: What is your big idea, the one thing that if you could change it with your business you would? Make a list of the overarching contributions you would like to make, and see which ones resonate. 

While we all can't be an Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, or Thomas Edison, we can practice and embody many of the qualities it takes to create breakthroughs and innovations in our day-to-day businesses. Now get out there and let your freak flag fly and get your quirky on. 

Published on: Jun 28, 2018