Have you ever wondered what fueled breakthrough innovators like Elon Musk, Dean Kamen, Nikola Tesla, Marie Curie, Jeff Bezos, or Steve Jobs to take on huge problems and stick with them tenaciously?  In my research on breakthrough innovators it became very clear: Almost all of them were pursuing an idealistic goal that they perceived as honorable, valuable, and far more important than money. Elon Musk wants to solve the world's energy problems and colonize Mars. Dean Kamen wants to relieve human suffering. Nikola Tesla wanted to free mankind from labor through unlimited free energy and achieve international peace through global communication. Marie Curie believed that Poland (which was under Russian rule) could only be preserved through the pursuit of education and technological advance by all Poles - including women. Steve Jobs wanted computers to revolutionize the way people think.

Having an ambitious idealistic goal helped these innovators to think bigger, work harder, and persist longer. Having a grand idealistic goal we are working toward can make us more innovative and achieve more. Here are four main ways that cultivating a grand idealistic goal pays off:

1. An idealistic goal motivates you to think bigger and work harder.

An idealistic goal that is intrinsically noble and important is a powerful motivator. It can induce people to tackle big problems and to work with extraordinary fervor and tenacity. Furthermore, people find hard work more rewarding and fulfilling when it serves a noble purpose. They will often willingly sacrifice leisure, money, and other creature comforts to achieve their idealistic goal.

Consider, for example, Dean Kamen, who developed a form of the Stirling engine that can generate electricity using any source of heat, such as burning methane from cow dung, and used it to run another of his inventions, the Slingshot, which can purify any liquid into clean drinking water.  Though both machines were proven to work, he struggled to find a commercial partner to manufacture them, and ended up contributing most of the investment himself. As he notes, "The big companies long ago figured out - the people in the world that have no water and have no electricity have no money." Kamen adds, "If you include all the money we've spent on Stirling, and all the money we've spent on the water project, it probably is in the area of $50 million. And I'm a little company, and that's a lot of money. But I believe in it. I just believe in it. It might fail, but you've got to try. Look at the state of the world...It's a mess. What if we can fix it?"

2. An idealistic goal keeps you focused.

Idealism helps keep a person focused on a long-term goal, improving their ability to make choices among the demands competing for their attention. Such goals become an organizing structure for their life, helping them maintain a clear vision of the future, and to prioritize their efforts.

Consider Elon Musk's refusal to take SpaceX public. There have been numerous times when Musk's endeavors would have benefited by having more capital, yet he has resisted the urge to take SpaceX public because the board of directors of a publicly-held firm would undoubtedly force him to make changes in the company that would improve its profitability at the expense of its chances for reaching Mars. As he wrote in a letter to his SpaceX employees, "Creating the technology needed to establish life on Mars is and always has been the fundamental goal of SpaceX. If being a public company diminishes that likelihood, then we should not do so until Mars is secure."

3. An idealistic goal can make you more resilient.

When a person is pursuing an idealistic goal that they believe is honorable, they are better able to disregard harsh judgment or failure, and persevere in the face of criticism.

Marie Curie is an apt example. During Marie Curie's time women were not welcome into science and it was considered distasteful for them to play professional roles. As a result, Curie was subject to intense criticism and discrimination. She was excluded from the Academy of Science, and was nearly denied a Nobel Prize simply because she was a woman. At one point Lord Kelvin even attacked her in the press and argued that radium, which Curie had discovered, was not an element at all. Curie, however, firmly believed her life's purpose was to pursue science, and so she put her head down, dug in her heels, and carried on. Albert Einstein would later write about her, "Her strength, her purity of will, her austerity toward herself, her objectivity, her incorruptible judgment - all these were of a kind seldom found in a single individual . . . Once she had recognized a certain way as a right one, she pursued it without compromise and with extreme tenacity."

4. An idealistic goal can rally wider support.

A lofty and honorable goal that has broader implications for society or other cause that people find meaningful can induce others to lend their support, even if that support is costly. For example, employees will be more loyal, on average, to an organization with a goal to eradicate cancer than an organization with a goal of taking market share from competitors.

Tesla Motors provides a good example. I was asked recently whether it was appropriate for Musk to pursue his idealistic goals at Tesla. After all, Tesla is a publicly-held firm - shouldn't his responsibility be to maximize shareholder value? I pointed out, among other things, that a large portion of Tesla shareholders own the stock because they believe in Musk's mission, i.e., part of their value comes from the idealistic goals. Furthermore, Musk has been extremely honest about his intentions, even going so far as to say "I didn't really think Tesla would be successful. I thought we would most likely fail. But if something's important enough, you should try even if the probable outcome is failure." Most Tesla investors thus likely recognize Musk's idealism and are willingly on board.

Idealism has its costs and risks. Sometimes a person's focus on an idealistic goal can cause them to overlook other important practicalities. Nikola Tesla's focus on creating global wireless communication, for example, caused him to neglect other commercial opportunities that could have helped support his mission. In the end his communication tower was torn down for scrap because he couldn't pay a hotel bill!

It should also be clear that idealism is not uniformly positive. Not everyone agrees on what is noble, for example, and there have been atrocious acts of history committed by people who sincerely believed they were acting on a moral ideal. Furthermore, many of the innovators I studied led difficult lives, and imposed difficult lives on those around them, because of their intense focus on an ideal. Like most powerful tools, idealism can sometimes be dangerous. That shouldn't, however, dissuade us from looking for the positive ideals we can work toward.  

As Dean Kamen sums it up, "I don't work on a project unless I believe that it will dramatically improve life for a bunch of people," and "I do not want to waste any time. And if you are not working on important things, you are wasting time."  

Published on: Apr 19, 2018