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The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun

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Chapter 4. People love new ideas

Imagine it's 1874, and you've just invented the telephone. After hi-fiving your friend Watson, you head down to Western Union— the greatest communication company in the world—and show your work. Despite your excellent pitch (a century before Power-Point), they turn you down on the spot, call the telephone a useless toy, and show you to the door. Would you have given up? What if the next five companies turned you down? The next 25? How long would it take to lose faith in your ideas?

Fortunately, Alexander Graham Bell, the telephone's inventor, didn't listen to the folks at Western Union. [69] He started his own business and changed the world, paving the way for the mobile phone in your pocket. Similar stories surround innovators like Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, whose page rank ideas were turned down by AltaVista and Yahoo!, the dominant search companies of the day. George Lucas was told all kinds of no by every major Hollywood studio but one, for the original Star Wars screenplay. And, don't forget that Einstein's E=mc2, Galileo's sun-centered solar system, and Darwin's theory of evolution were laughed at for years by experts around the world.

Every great idea in history has the fat red stamp of rejection on its face. It's hard to see today because once ideas gain acceptance, we gloss over the hard paths they took to get there. If you scratch any innovation's surface, you'll find the scars: they've been roughed up and thrashed around—by both the masses and leading minds— before they made it into your life. Paul C. Lauterbur, winner of the Nobel Prize for coinventing MRI, explained, "you can write the entire history of science in the last 50 years in terms of papers rejected by Science or Nature." [70] Big ideas in all fields endure dismissals, mockeries, and persecutions (for them and their creators) on their way to changing the world. Many novels in classics libraries, including James Joyce's Ulysses, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye were banned upon publication; great minds like Socrates and Plato even rejected the idea of books at all. [71]

The love of new ideas is a myth: we prefer ideas only after others have tested them. We confuse truly new ideas with good ideas that have already been proven, which just happen to be new to us. Even innovators themselves read movie reviews, consult Zagat restaurant ratings, and shop at IKEA, distributing the burden of dealing with new ideas. How did you choose your apartment, your beliefs, or even this book? We reuse ideas and opinions all the time, rarely committing to the truly new. But we should be proud; it's smart. Why not recycle good ideas and information? Why not take advantage of the conclusions other people have made to efficiently separate what's good and safe from what's bad and dangerous? Innovation is expensive: no one wants to pay the price for ideas that turn out to be not quite ready for prime time.

There is an evolutionary advantage in this fear of new things. Any ancestors who compulsively jumped over every newly discovered cliff or ate only scary looking plants died off quickly. We happily let brave souls like Magellan, Galileo, and Neil Armstrong take intellectual and physical risks on our behalf, watching from a safe distance, following behind (or staying away) once we know the results. Innovators are the test pilots of life, taking big chances so we don't have to. Even early adopters, people who thrive on using the latest things, are at best adventurous consumers, not creators. They rarely take the same risks on unproven ideas as the innovators themselves.

The secret tragedy of innovators is that their desire to improve the world is rarely matched by support from the people they hope to help.

Managing the fears of innovation

What's the most stressful thing that can happen? Juggling hungry cocaine-addicted baby tigers? Doing standup comedy in front of your coworkers and in-laws? Well, if you believe the studies, it's the big five: divorce, marriage, moving, death of a loved one, and getting fired. [72] All stressful events, including tiger juggling, combine fear of suffering with forced change. A divorce or new job demands that your life change in ways out of your control, triggering instinctive fears: if you don't do something clever soon, you're going to be miserable (or dead). Although it's possible to endure the big five simultaneously, a notion that quiets most complaints about life, surviving just one devastates most people for months.

Now imagine some relaxing events: reading a funny novel by the ocean or having beers with friends by a midnight campfire. They're activities with little risk and guaranteed rewards. We've done these things many times and know that others have done them successfully and happily in the past. These are the moments we wish we had more of. We work hard so we can maximize the amount of time spent on the planet doing these kinds of things.

Innovation conflicts with this desire. It asks for faith in something unknown over something known to be safe, or even pleasant. A truly innovative Thanksgiving turkey recipe or highway driving technique cannot be risk-free. Whatever improvement it might yield is uncertain the moment it's first tried (or however many attempts are needed to get it right). No matter how amazing an idea is, until proven otherwise, its imagined benefits will pale in comparison to the real, and nonimagined, fear of change.

This creates an unfortunate paradox: the greater the potential of an idea, the harder it is to find anyone willing to try it (more on this in Chapter 8). For example, solutions for world peace and world hunger might be out there, but human nature makes it difficult to attempt them. The bigger the changes needed to adopt an innovation, the more fears rise.

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries…and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.

—Niccolo Machiavelli



[69] Bell is often credited as the inventor, but Elisha Grey merely failed to file his patent a few hours sooner. Second, Western Union did reject Bell's proposal, but it's unclear how strong their rejection was. (If they saw its potential, would it have been wise to tell Bell on the spot?) See http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/bltelephone.htm.

[70] Kevin Davis, "Public Libraries Open Their Doors," BIO-IT World, February 2007, http://www.bio-itworld.com/archive/111403/plos/.

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