Teenagers in Our Midst: Why Are World Class Innovators So Surly?

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With the passing of Steve Jobs and with it recent reminders of how not only bright and creative, but arrogant and obnoxious he could be, I got to thinking: Why are great innovators at times so insufferable? Jobs, Zuckerman, Ford, Edison…they have all had a reputation for often being rude and difficult to work with. Is it just the conceit of one’s own genius, the presumed right to dominate “lesser” people? There may be an element of truth to that. Certainly their success makes it easier for them to get away with behaving badly, in ways the rest of us mere mortals probably could not. But I have a different theory, one with its roots in more general patterns of human development.

There are two times in nearly everyone’s life when we seem to be genetically predisposed to rude and selfish behaviors. The first is as toddlers, typically around the age of two (the “terrible twos” as they’re often called). The other is as teenagers (no further explanation is needed). These also happen to be the times in our lives when we are most exploratory and experimental, when we tend to take the greatest risks. At both ages, we may fight fiercely for our personal independence, for the right to make our own choices and commit our own mistakes without anyone’s interference.

Interestingly, these were the times in our lives when we were most scientific and innovative in our approach to learning, when we stopped taking what others told us at face value and sought our own answers. We wanted to conduct our own experiments, gather and analyze our own data, and draw our own inferences. It’s when we felt least constrained by any prior information or presumed truths. A toddler at this stage will defiantly shout, “No!” to almost anyone else’s directives. A teenager dismisses the assertions of adults with a defiant shrug and roll of the eyes. These are times of great personal intellectual ferment coupled with intensely held emotions. I want to go my way! I want to figure it out for myself! I don’t care what you think!

What’s interesting about these life stages is that self-centered emotions may be a necessary component. After all, what were the typical responses we encountered? Wasn’t it resistance, admonitions to listen to others, and attempts to control us, to somehow force us to stop behaving in those ways? Without a fierce sense of independence, wouldn’t most of have folded and conformed? That’s exactly what nearly all of us eventually did as those life phases passed. But usually not before we spent some period of time when being anti-social became a subconscious habit.

Are you noticing, as I have, how well these life stages describe the conditions needed to be truly innovative? Isn’t intellectual independence a required frame of mind? Isn’t the courage to take risks a necessary precondition? Isn’t a rejection of the status quo and accepted norms part of the process? And, isn’t the reaction of others a predictable resistance that if not rejected, stops innovation cold? So is it any surprise that great innovators have erected the same emotional defenses we all constructed during those periods in our lives?

Years ago, in the movie Network News, a brilliant, driven young producer kept running into resistance as she tried to promote her ideas with her superiors. Finally, a senior executive got so exasperated with her self-assured persistence that he remarked sarcastically, “It must be nice to be the smartest person in the room.” Without a moment’s pause, she blurted out, “No, it’s awful!”

I’m not trying to excuse bad behaviors. I’ve never liked having to deal with obnoxious people, whether it’s been my boss or my teenager. I try to never behave that way myself. But maybe surly is an understandable, if unpleasant, characteristic of great innovators…and maybe we should cut our kids a little more slack.

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