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 99U 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:
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:
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:
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 99U 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:
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:
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: