For Innovators, It’s The Un-Serenity Prayer

Innovator Mindset blog author Dennis Stauffer has just been named 9th among the Top 40 Innovation Bloggers in the world by the editors of the Innovation Excellence global community. A humble, “Thank you!” to those of you who voted.

It’s strange what we sometimes remember. Like a conversation I had early in high school with a classmate who was forcefully advocating social change. I took a more cautious position and he asked if I really thought the world couldn’t stand a little improving. I remarked that I thought things were generally okay. To that, he blurted out, “Oh please! Deliver us from satisfied people!” Even then, long before I made innovation a personal focus, I realized he had a point. Resignation is not always a good thing. Too much serenity has its drawbacks.

The Serenity Prayer, long a staple of 12-step programs, speaks to the importance of acceptance.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

While it mentions change, it’s long been interpreted as emphasizing serenity. (We don’t call it the Courage Prayer.) American Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is believed to be the author of this widely-misattributed passage that dates from 1943. But earlier variations have been found, including one by Niebuhr that reverses the key thoughts:

Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.

It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it but I think it captures the spirit of innovation better than his later version. The different sequence places less emphasis on accepting the status quo and more on the courage to change it. His different word choice is also interesting. We tend to see wisdom as something we acquire through years of experience and reflection, a broad understanding that does not change. Insight is more immediate and dynamic, more specific to context, more amenable to revision based on new information…more typical of innovation.

By simply rearranging the same key ideas and tweaking his terminology, Niebuhr crafted two significantly different messages. One, that serenity is paramount; the other that the courage to change is the greater value. For whatever reason, Niebuhr apparently settled on the version that emphasizes serenity. But for innovators, it’s all about dissatisfaction with the status quo, about seeking improvements, about the courage to pursue the new and different. Apple would have been a very different company—or might not have existed at all—if Steve Jobs’ early spiritual journey had led him to value acceptance and serenity over courage and change. Where would we be if serenity had been the chief pursuit of Edison? …of Ford? …of Gandhi? …of King?

Interestingly, this earlier “courage first” form of the prayer matches other early expressions of these sentiments by women involved in education and volunteer activities in the 1930s. (i.e. innovators?)

For an innovator, the emphasis is not on the pursuit of serenity tempered by the courage to change, but rather a push for change that’s tempered by a realistic assessment of the challenges we face. The tradeoff is the same but an innovator has a different preference…a preference for activism, for taking risks, for Un-Serenity.

As we begin this new year, how personally committed to innovation are you? What are you dissatisfied with enough to find the courage to change it? Which do you value more, serenity or courage?

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What’s Your New Year’s Vision?

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Thanks!    Dennis Stauffer

I’ve never been big on New Year’s Resolutions. I don’t find them very motivating and apparently I’m not alone, judging by the number of people who crowd into my health club in January who are gone by April. Resolutions just don’t stick with me. The few that I’ve made over the years, I’ve quickly forgotten. Resolutions tend to be about “fixing” something (usually ourselves). The most popular resolutions according to the polls are about dieting…which says something about their effectiveness. (If those resolutions worked, wouldn’t we have moved on to another topic by now?)

I think one reason for the enduring popularity of New Year’s Resolutions is simple peer pressure. We adopt them partly because we think everyone else does and we don’t want to be left out. I’m not immune to this sort of pressure. (Hence this blog post.) So I’ve been musing about finding an innovative way to practice this tradition. The answer I’ve come up with: Instead of a New Year’s Resolution, why not a New Year’s Vision?

Innovators don’t just fix things when they’re broken; they imagine new realities and then achieve them. So instead of resolving to lose weight, what about developing a clear vision of ourselves as being fit and energetic?

Instead of resolving to stay in better touch with old friends (a personal favorite of mine), how about seeing ourselves as curious about other people’s lives and helpful whenever we’re needed?

Instead of resolving to keep our home or office more tidy (a common issue for many creatives) what about developing a clear mental image of just what a more ordered life looks like and the joy of knowing where we’ve put things?

Or better yet, make the vision less focused on “me” and more focused on “us.” What would we like to see improved about our family, or community or the world and how can we be part of making it happen?

Granted, the steps required to get there may be much the same. To become fit, we will probably need to watch what we eat and get more exercise. To keep things more tidy, we’ll have to do more picking up after ourselves. But resolutions tend to focus on the drudgery of those tasks, whereas a vision pulls us toward a desired outcome. Isn’t that likely to be more motivating? Isn’t creating a better future a more compelling goal than just correcting what’s wrong? Isn’t that what innovation is all about…being less reactive and more proactive…not just solving a problem, but creating new value?

So now, while you have some time to think about it, what’s your New Year’s Vision going to be?

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The Universal Challenge of Entrepreneurs and Innovators

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I recently spoke to a room full of 85 diverse entrepreneurs. I invited everyone who had started any type of venture…as founder or partner…private or public…for-profit or non-profit…solo or joint…to please stand. For this audience that included pretty much everyone in the room, as I expected. Then I asked everyone whose venture had played out as they anticipated when they began to stay standing. If they had the same product…same technology…same market niche…same customer profile…same revenues…same growth rate—in other words if their business matched their business plan—would they continue standing, and would everyone else please sit down.

Not one person remained standing…and I don’t think anyone in the room was surprised. I heard a few chuckles at even the thought that there might be anyone who could make such a claim. Niccolo Machiavelli wrote, “There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new order of things.” He was talking about politics and government but it applies equally well to any new venture. It is the universal experience of everyone who has ever tried: It’s not going to go exactly like you think it will. You will have to make adjustments.

I’m not saying that having a vision and a plan to get there are unimportant. On the contrary, those things are crucial. But it’s just as important to be skilled at rapidly learning from experience and adjusting, in an iterative process of gradually discovering success. Anyone who goes into a new venture believing the important questions have all been answered, that no revisions are needed, is almost certainly doomed to fail.

This, in my opinion, is a flaw of far too many business mentors. These are often business executives who have had to make just the sort of adjustments I’m describing. Unfortunately, their take-away from those experiences is often that they have now found the answers, so everyone should do what they did. They would be more effective if they helped those they mentor develop the capacity to find their own unique solutions.

In education, where is the emphasis on developing this essential cognitive capability? Where is it in the curriculum of MBA and entrepreneurship programs? And if aspiring entrepreneurs are not being taught how to develop such a critical skill, what’s the likelihood of their future success? If there is any one attribute that every entrepreneur or innovator needs, it is this ability to learn and adjust and figure things out on the fly…and the successful entrepreneurs who I’ve talked to all know it.

It’s also clear that some people are better at this than others. Sure, some individuals manage to get there on their own but most of us could use a little guidance in how to optimize this personal capability. I believe it’s something that anyone can learn to do but it’s not inevitable. The challenge is to not only recognize that we need to be doing it; but to become proficient at it.

As an entrepreneur or innovator, what are you doing to develop this cognitive skill set, in yourself and in your team? Have you even given it much thought? In a sense, it comes down to business savvy—not whether you have it or not, but how skillfully you can develop and apply it. In today’s business environment, doesn’t everyone need to be innovative and entrepreneurial? Isn’t everyone facing this universal challenge?

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To Innovate, You Have to Believe

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“There are no atheists in fox holes,” the old saw goes. It’s an assertion that no doubt offends atheists, who I assume hold their beliefs with the same conviction as anyone else. I have a similar observation to make about innovation (one that I don’t think will offend anyone): There are no unbelievers among innovators.

Innovation isn’t just about being clever or imaginative, or inventive or even being knowledgeable about innovation tools and processes and adopting best practices. It requires believing, and on many different levels.

It requires believing that a desired outcome is achievable and therefore worth pursuing.

It requires believing in our own abilities and perhaps the abilities of our team to achieve that outcome.

It requires maintaining those beliefs despite the critics and naysayers and setbacks.

And it requires another kind of believing.

We understand quite a bit about what cognitive and behavioral tasks are required for innovation.  We understand that to generate innovative ideas, we need to be willing to let go of what we may already know and believe. We understand that we must have the courage to attempt things that may not work, to experiment and explore and take risks. We understanding that we need to make careful skeptical observations, and find ways to overcome our own mental inertia in order to consider fresh ways of interpreting what we observe and experience.

But just understanding all that isn’t enough; we have to actively engage those attitudes and practices. Awareness isn’t enough; we need to personally adopt the right mindset.

This is not automatic. There are those who know exactly what innovation requires and choose not to go there. They’re familiar with what’s needed but lack the courage, or curiosity or mental flexibility to do it. There are those who pay lip service to the importance of change yet cling to the known and the familiar. Without an emotional investment in an innovative outcome, and a genuine commitment, any real progress is unlikely if not impossible.

Henry Ford once observed that, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” He understood that such beliefs are frequently self-fulfilling. But the issue is bigger than personal motivation, because all of the benefits of an innovator mindset accrue only to those who actively adopt it, not to those who just understand it.

You have to believe.

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Creating an Innovation Mindset – It’s All About the Assumptions

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I’m more than a little skeptical whenever I hear someone claim that their facilitation process or coaching protocol or innovation model is based on how our brains work. (As though they know?)

The latest brain research fascinates me and we are certainly discovering many important things about what’s going on inside our heads. But exactly how does the brain work? Despite significant progress, we just don’t know, and we certainly don’t understand it well enough to copy it. The best we have are some good insights, some useful approximations and many intriguing theories. However, we do know that some of those theories about our brains are remarkably useful. There are a number of assumptions and beliefs we can adopt that have very powerful practical benefits. We may not fully understand why some approach is effective, but we know it works.

For example, after a century of measuring and studying IQ, we still don’t have a clear understanding of exactly what intelligence is. There’s still debate about whether intelligence is innate or developmental, whether we have one or multiple intelligences, and how to best measure whatever it is (or they are). But decades of research in educational psychology has found that students perform better when they think their intelligence can be developed, rather than something they were endowed with at birth. The logic of this is clear: believing that one cannot change one’s intelligence provides little incentive to try. Whereas believing that one can become smarter by working at it is a powerful reason to do so. It works.

More than 50 years of creativity research and practice demonstrates that certain working hypotheses have the power to dramatically improve the creativity of individuals and teams. When we assume that there are no bad ideas and consciously suspend judgment, we’re able to generate far more creative options. We know that finding diverse kinds of stimulation and seeking to connect disparate concepts often prompt fresh insights and creative breakthroughs. These and other working hypotheses are part of what we call brainstorming or creative problem solving. We still don’t know exactly why these strategies succeed. We don’t really understand what’s happening inside the brain as a result. But we know these are some of the most reliable ways to spark our creativity. They work.

So while the brain’s biological and cognitive functions are still unclear; we do understand the importance of mindset—that collection of theories or mental models we hold about how the world works. In our research at Innovator Mindset we’re measuring these mental models and also the larger patterns or paradigms that these mental models combine to create. We know what type of mindset tends to resist innovation and what type promotes it. We can identify these different mindsets, distinguish between them and measure their relative strength. But what’s most encouraging is that we’re able to identify the specific mental shifts that people (and organizations) can make to enhance their capacity to innovate. We can provide specific cognitive feedback that identifies and addresses any gaps that may exist. It works.

We don’t yet understand the inner workings of our brains well enough to prescribe the design of innovation processes and techniques. But we do understand what attitudes, assumptions and beliefs are productive and counterproductive. And that may be just as useful. What are your theories about your own mind? Don’t worry about whether they’re true or not. We don’t know anyway. Instead, ask yourself: Are they useful? Do they work? What assumptions can I make that will enable me to be more innovative? What will make me become more effective? What matters is what works.

Our mindset has a way of becoming self-fulfilling. We have good reason to be curious about how our heads work, but what seems to matter even more is how we think our heads work.

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Who is More Valuable, Inventors or Innovators?

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This past week’s issue of Time magazine is headlined: The Invention Issue, and the lead feature article is called Reinventing the Inventor. In large font, Lev Grossman writes:

In the age of Steve Jobs, it’s all about perfecting the final product. Nobody remembers the guy who had the idea in the first place.

It’s a curious statement to make, I thought, so I read on. Grossman sees this as a new and disturbing phenomenon and lays the blame for it squarely at the feet of the late Steve Jobs. He dismisses Jobs as a mere “optimizer.” Grossman imagines a time when we revered our inventors and asks, “When did scientific innovation stop being sexy?”

I couldn’t help wondering: Are we still that confused about the nature of innovation? (Apparently.)

To begin with, let’s recall that many famous “inventors” were not the first to invent all sorts of things that have been credited to them. Despite all the legends, Thomas Edison was not the first to invent the light bulb or sound recording or motion pictures. Henry Ford was not the first to invent the automobile. Americans are so fascinated with the notion of the genius inventor, we tend to create them where they don’t exist (or at least our media does).

The true inventors who have been accurately credited, folks like the Wright brothers for the airplane and Alexander Graham Bell for the telephone, are remembered and romanticized partly because such cases are so rare. They were breakthroughs whose value was so obvious and so immediate that they quickly attracted attention at the time. As many inventors will attest, that’s not typical. Most people couldn’t name the inventors of the helicopter, the jet engine, the computer, the ball point pen, the saxophone, the zipper and countless other technologies we use every day.

We have long honored those who successfully bring an idea to maturity rather than the originators, and I don’t think we’re misguided when we do that. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m a great admirer of inventors and I love following the latest scientific breakthroughs. They are central to innovation and technological progress. But anyone who’s spent much time involved in real world innovation knows that coming up with an idea—even a prototype—while important and commendable, is often the easy part of the process. No better sources than Ford and Edison emphasized the crucial role of determination and hard work in bringing those inventions successfully into our lives.

It’s hard to overstate the importance that “optimizers” like Jobs have played. If the computer mouse had stayed a primitive prototype at Xerox PARC, would anyone care? Jobs saw its potential and made it commonplace. No one seems to have much interest in knowing who invented the tablet computer, but we all know where the iPad came from. We know because it provides tangible value not just a technological advance.

Inventions fill patent files by the thousands every year, and some are truly breakthrough ideas worthy of our awe. But innovation is about creating real value and relatively few of those inventions will ever make that cut.

We should honor our inventors and perhaps we don’t do that enough, but having an original idea is just one early step toward successful innovation. We rightly and very pragmatically withhold our thanks and praise until we can see a clear benefit. So we prize innovation more than invention. It makes perfect sense to do that and it’s nothing new. It would be misguided and counterproductive to do otherwise. Giving full credit for an innovation to the inventor implies that invention is all that’s required. No one knows better than an inventor what a huge myth that usually turns out to be.

The next time you have a great idea or invention, worry less about who may get credit than about what sort of collaborators you can attract to help you turn your idea into a genuine innovation.

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Innovation Requires Mass Customization – of Ourselves

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We hear a lot these days about mass customization as a consumer trend, about how technology now allows us to mass produce products that are customized to the needs and desires of individual consumers. Examples range from smart phones with thousands of available apps to shoes that can be designed and ordered online to the ingredients in a fast food sandwich. So, why stop with consumer products? To fuel innovation, we need to be talking about mass customization of people.

In one sense we already are an example of mass customization. No two of us are exactly alike. We differ in everything from hair and eye color to height, aptitude and disposition. Yet we are all a product of the same means of production (unskilled but reliable).

In our education systems and employment practices we prize standardization. We’re grouped by date of manufacture (age), features (grades and test scores) distribution channel (school) and market niche (career path) and within each of those lanes we turn out a largely uniform product (doctor, lawyer, project manager, accountant, truck driver, mechanic, computer technician). This made sense when we had predictable jobs to fill that provided stable employment, but that’s no longer the case in many fields. And our uncertainly going forward is increasing. It’s hard to prepare students for the jobs of the future when we don’t know what they are.

Training large numbers of people to do the same job is no longer an efficient system—especially when the job they’re trained to do may disappear. To be successful in the future, individuals and organizations need to be able to constantly adjust, changing (customizing) themselves to meet ever evolving requirements. What’re needed are transferable skills like the ability to adapt and invent and problem solve…and innovate.

We need educational systems that produce personal flexibility and creativity rather than standardized test scores. We need organizations that realize that personal competency is a moving target that needs to be constantly updated and that doing that is itself a crucial skill. And we all need to recognize that our most important personal competency is the ability to continually customize ourselves.

Innovation is a global economic imperative. To achieve its full benefits we need people who can evolve just as quickly in the way they think and work. What do you think? What do you see our schools and our careers looking like in the future, and how do we get there?

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For an Innovator, Is Anything Ever Impossible?

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Let’s do a little thought experiment. Take a brief flight of fancy with me and imagine that we’ve somehow managed to transport a shinny new 787 jetliner to ancient Greece. We’ve taken the current state-of-the-art in aviation technology and placed it thousands of years back in time. Would it still fly?

Sure. Why not? It couldn’t refuel and there’s unlikely to be anywhere for it to land. It might start a new religion. But there’s no reason why it would not be able to fly. Much has changed in the world since those days long ago but the fundamental laws of physics are not among them. There’s been no shift in the nature of the universe that has somehow made flying machines possible. In reality, it’s always been possible. All that was needed was the ingenuity to figure out how to create such a device. The only relevant difference is our knowledge.

That’s not the way we usually think about what it means for something to be “possible,” is it? But it is how an innovator thinks about it. An innovator doesn’t allow current knowledge to determine what can’t be done. An innovator thinks: if a jetliner was “possible” in ancient Greece, what’s possible today that we just haven’t yet figured out?

The Novelist Eden Phillpots captured this notion, writing: The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.

Can we ever be sure that anything is truly impossible? I don’t think so. Not that every idea should be pursued. Some ideas are more promising than others, but existing knowledge should never the soles criterion for deciding which ones are worthwhile. There may be some things that are utterly impossible—now or ever—but we have no way of knowing what they are.

What have you concluded is impossible? Are you sure? How do you know? Maybe it’s just something that hasn’t yet been figured out. (And maybe you’re getting close.)

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Innovation Essentials: Knowledge as Answers or Possibilities?

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What’s your personal theory of knowledge? Is it something that gives you answers or possibilities? Of course, the short answer is, “Yes.” But if you had to choose, if you had to state a preference, I suspect you could, and for many it would be: answers. Not that most of us have given this a great deal of thought. It’s what’s known as an implicit theory, a largely subconscious belief, but one that nonetheless impacts how we think and behave—and how well we innovate.

We’ve been conditioned to think of our knowledge as predominantly a source of answers, answers to all sorts of questions, whether the topic is pop culture trivia or basic arithmetic, world history or how to clone cells. It’s a pairing that has been deeply ingrained into our subconscious by the way we’ve been educated. Whenever we learned something in school we were tested with a list of questions. If we knew the answers, we had acquired that bit of knowledge. If we didn’t know the answers, we had not. Hence:

          Answers = Knowledge

          No Answers or Wrong Answer = No Knowledge.

So we make a point of collecting lots of answers.

This simple matching is one of the greatest impediments to innovation. It leads us to believe that every question has one correct answer, so any other options must be wrong. It prompts us to think that when we have the correct answer, we don’t need to go any further because we already know what we need to know. It implies that if we change an answer then the previous one must have been wrong.

This interferes with innovation on many levels. An “answer mindset” explains the widely observed tendency of people with a lot of expertise to find it difficult to innovate within their field—because that often requires changing the answers. It’s why entire industries can become trapped by their own orthodoxies about how their business is supposed to work. (Think of the music recording business not so long ago.) It’s why new ideas are so often met with reflexive resistance: “That’s not the right answer.” And it’s why the first thing that any skilled facilitator does when leading an ideation session is lay down some ground rules designed to prevent people from shooting down new ideas like so many clay pigeons…because they sound like wrong answers.

It’s seems so logical to use our knowledge to determine what won’t work, by sorting the right from the wrong answers. It’s a strategy that works the vast majority of the time (partly because it’s often a self-fulfilling prophecy). But it’s among that small number of exceptions that innovation is born.

An “answer mindset” often creates conflict. When we believe that our knowledge is comprised of answers and we disagree with someone (when they give different answers) we conclude that someone has to be wrong (them). So we fall into arguments, undermining collaboration, teamwork, and the pursuit of a common purpose. Sound familiar?

Innovation requires that we make the subtle but very powerful shift away from thinking of knowledge as answers and instead think of it as possibilities, things we know that could work, options we can pursue, ideas worth investigating, a starting point on the path to greater insight. Seen this way, our knowledge becomes a broad deep pool of such possibilities, a truly high value asset without the downside problems that I’ve described.

It’s a more humble way of applying our knowledge, one that recognizes both its value and its limitations. It positions our knowledge as something that we think might work instead of something we already know will work. It allows us to more readily consider alternative perspectives and interpretations and ideas. It keeps us open to revising and updating all those answers that we’ve collected…and isn’t that what innovation is all about?

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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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