In May, Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute and former chairman and CEO of CNN, came to my hometown to deliver the commencement address and pick up an honorary degree at The College of William & Mary. You probably know him for his best-selling biographies, including Steve Jobs (Simon & Schuster, 2011) and Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (Simon & Schuster, 2003).
Given Isaacson's obvious interest in the personality traits, innovative thinking, and entrepreneurial flair of geniuses, I expected his address to celebrate mavericks or, as Apple put it in the memorable "Think Different" ad campaign, "the crazy ones." But he threw a changeup.
"We taught you here to be individual achievers. We celebrated individual achievement and even singular visionaries," Isaacson told William & Mary's graduating class of 2017. "What we forgot to tell you is that in the real world it's not about singular achievement. It's about teamwork. It's about being able to collaborate. When you get to the real world, you are going to learn that innovation is a team sport and that success is a collaborative effort."
By way of proof, Isaacson offered up three of the most far-reaching inventions of our time: the computer, the microchip, and the Internet. "Nobody knows who invented them, and the reason is they were invented collaboratively by great teams," said the author of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 2014).
Not only does innovation depend on peer-to-peer collaboration, but so do organizations, including nations themselves. Ben Franklin, the first recipient of an honorary degree from William & Mary, knew that well, according to Isaacson.
"[Franklin] was the glue who pulled together a team of founders. It wasn't just like you needed a George Washington," he said. "You also needed young, smart people like Madison and Jefferson, and passionate people like Samuel Adams and his cousin John, and somebody like Franklin who knew how to build a team."
The Declaration of Independence is the product of teamwork. "If you look at the greatest sentence ever written by mankind, the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, you see the collaborative effort," explained Isaacson. Indeed, if you examine the draft at the Library of Congress, you'll see the handwriting of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and John Adams in that sentence.
Isaacson went on to remind the new grads of William & Mary that inclusivity is a necessary condition of collaboration. "We taught you that you were special, you were exclusive," he said. "[But] when I was graduating, Reverend Peter Gomes, who was the minister of the chapel where I went, said, 'What we forgot to tell you is it's not about exclusivity, it's about inclusivity.'
"It's about how many people you include in the journey, not how many people you climb over in the journey," continued Isaacson. "There are probably people of my generation concluding their speeches at college graduations by saying, 'Follow your passion.' I am saying aim higher. It isn't about your silly little passion. It's about connecting your passion to something larger than yourselves--to a community, to a nation, and to a world to make sure all of that's connected."
"When Steven Jobs lay dying six years ago, I asked him, 'What was your mission? What did you try to do?'" concluded Isaacson. "He said, 'I thought that life is like a river. And I used to think when I was young that it mattered how much you were able to take out of the river, all the wonderful products and ideas and services that other people had put in the river. If you were successful, you got a lot out of that river. What I've learned now, it's not about what you take out of the river but what you put into the river."