I’ve read a number of books about creativity, and my research tells me that most of them are wrong. The authors go on and on about things such as collaboration, juxtaposition of ideas, and looking for patterns. There may be some truth in what they say, but they miss the point.
The simple truth: most creative people are highly individualistic.
A recurring lesson from the history of wireless is that creative people don’t accept conventional wisdom. As inventor Edwin H. Armstrong was fond of saying, “It ain’t ignorance that causes all the trouble in this world. It’s the things people know that ain’t so.” For example, Armstrong invented frequency modulation (FM) radio after a respected Bell Labs engineer said it wasn’t worth doing.
Creative people don’t have to be right about everything. James Clerk Maxwell’s theory correctly predicted electromagnetic waves. But it was based on the false assumption that space is permeated with a medium for the waves to propagate through—the luminiferous ether.
There are a couple of myths that need to be dispelled. One is that not knowing too much can help—that people who are too well trained develop blind spots. My research suggests the exact opposite. It’s the people who know a field inside and out who are most likely to push beyond its existing limits.
Another myth is that great ideas sometimes just come to discoverers and inventors by chance. Scientists and inventors will often tell you that, but it’s not true. The typical story goes like this: “I was working on idea x for a long time without making progress. So I decided to give it a rest. A little while later, the solution suddenly popped into my mind.” The lesson is that creative ideas don’t just roll off an assembly line. They may need to percolate for a while. I don’t call that luck—I call it checking back later.
A particularly popular myth is that new technologies can’t take off until there are industry-wide standards. This confuses cause and effect. The standards-setting process is extremely political and companies often use it to jockey for better position. If a small company invents a better mouse trap, then the first thing the market leaders will do is call for a standard. At a minimum, it buys them time to catch up. If they are shrewd, they can use the standards-setting process to offset or completely undermine the newcomer’s competitive advantage.
The final lesson is that timing is everything. This is something Thomas Edison understood quite well. It’s not enough to have a great idea; it has to be the right idea at the right time. Nor does the best technology always succeed. Sometimes just good enough for the moment wins.
Coming: The History & Future of Medical Technology