What It Takes To Innovate: Wrong-Thinking, Tinkering & Intuiting

by Jocelyn K. Glei
Edwin Land with his concept for polarized headlights.
Polaroid co-founder Edwin Land said, “The test of an invention is the power of [the] inventor to push it through in the face of staunch – not opposition, but indifference – in society.” Great ideas and inventions are often shunned or ignored before they are accepted. It makes sense then that inventors tend to be a hearty sort: they don’t mind failure, they don’t care what others think, and they’re willing to work really damn hard.Surveying our favorite creators past and present, we identified the core traits of serial inventors – characteristics that any rogue creative would do well to develop:

1. Produce and test more ideas.
As author Frans Johansson illustrated in his high-energy 99% talk, groundbreaking innovators generate and execute far more ideas than their counterparts. Few demonstrate this better premise better than Thomas Edison, who held 1,093 patents – a record that’s yet to be broken. Edison knew that persistence and productivity were the key to great break-throughs, and he ran his laboratory accordingly. As creativity researcher Michael Michalko writes:

[Edison] guaranteed productivity by giving himself and his assistants idea quotas. His own personal invention quota was one minor invention every 10 days and a major invention every six months.”

Edison’s laboratory.

2. Employ “wrong-thinking.”
Great inventors engage in divergent or “wrong” thinking, which allows them to explore the full realm of possibilities for a solution – no matter how silly or far-fetched. They’re not necessarily concerned with the most logical solution, and certainly not with one that draws on “conventional wisdom.” As modern-day inventor Sir James Dyson puts it:

We’re taught to do things the right way. But if you want to discover something that other people haven’t, you need to do things the wrong way… When I was doing my vacuum cleaner, I started out trying a conventionally shaped cyclone, the kind you see in textbooks. But we couldn’t separate the carpet fluff and dog hairs and strands of cotton in those cyclones. It formed a ball inside the cleaner or shot out the exit and got into the motor. I tried all sorts of shapes. Nothing worked. So then I thought I’d try the wrong shape, the opposite of conical. And it worked.

3. Embrace failure.
True innovators are practically impervious to the notion of failure. Whereas the everyman might feel shame or embarrassment in making a mistake, the inventor sees an opportunity for learning. Edwin Land, the visionary co-founder of Polaroid and holder of more than 500+ patents, stressed the importance of viewing failure as a scientist would:

An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail. Scientists made a great invention by calling their activities hypotheses and experiments. They made it permissible to fail repeatedly until in the end they got the results they wanted. In politics or government, if you made a hypothesis and it didn’t work out, you had your head cut off.


Polaroid co-founder Edwin Land with an SX-70 camera.

4. Sketch out their ideas.
Even in our screen-obsessed era, effective innovators still hash out ideas on paper. (If you don’t believe me, check out this 99% talk from Twitter creator Jack Dorsey, who sketched out the original concept at age 15.) Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, was also an inveterate sketcher. Bell’s notebooks reveal the inner-workings of a hyperactive brain: diagrams for crazy flying machines, sound devices, and even see-saws, drawn with a whacky artistic sensibility akin to that of Henry Darger or David Shrigley.


Whacky Bell sketches, via Alexis Madrigal.

5. Trust their intuition.
Einstein always said that if he wasn’t a physicist, he would have been a musician. Fittingly, his approach to creative thinking was much more rooted in intuition and imagery than logic and equations. As Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein outline in Psychology Today:

As [Einstein] told one friend, “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come close to the conclusion that the gift of imagination has meant more to me than any talent for absorbing absolute knowledge.” Elaborating, he added, “All great achievements of science must start from intuitive knowledge. I believe in intuition and inspiration… At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason.” Thus, his famous statement that, for creative work in science, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

6. Love tinkering.
Though Malcolm Gladwell pooh-poohed Steve Jobs’ penchant for tweaking as “editorial, not inventive” in a posthumous New Yorker piece, the fact remains that almost all inventors are die-hard tinkerers. They’re fascinated with understanding how things work, and then making them better. As author Andrea Kates writes in her takeaways from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs:

From a very young age, Jobs sat at his dad’s side at the car-fixing workbench. He migrated to tinkering in the world of electronics, cutting his teeth on assemble-it-yourself kits for making ham radios and “other electronic gear that were beloved by the soldering set.” Being situated in Silicon Valley exposed him to neighbors who worked in holographs, lasers, and other new technologies and a high school teacher who introduced Jobs to transistors, coils, and circuit boards.
Various patents attributed to Steve Jobs and others, via NY Times.

7. Possess a boundless curiosity.
The “Renaissance man” par excellence, Leonardo Da Vinci was an engineer, mathematician, architect, painter, sculptor, cartographer, botanist, and, of course, inventor. Not surprisingly, the driving force behind Da Vinci’s incredible accomplishments was an insatiable curiosity. In a recent post, Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich summarizes a representative – and wildly ambitious – Da Vinci to-do list. Here illustrated by artist Wendy MacNaughton:


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