“I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.…Unless you have a lot of passion about this, you’re not going to survive. You’re going to give it up. So you’ve got to have an idea, or a problem or a wrong you want to right that you’re passionate about; otherwise you’re not going to have the perseverance to stick it through.”
–Steve Jobs, as quoted in Quirky
If I were to ask you who the first woman to win a Nobel Prize was, maybe you’d know the answer: Marie Curie. If I were to ask you about the second time a woman won the Nobel Prize, would you know? Good guess if you said it was Marie Curie again (and in a different field of science no less!). The third time? If you posited Curie yet again you’d be wrong. But if you guessed her daughter, congrats: you’re three for three. (Her family now has a total of five if you’re counting.)
This is just one of the fascinating pieces of innovator lore you’ll learn when reading NYU business school professor Melissa Schilling’s 2018 book Quirky, which explores common traits among some of the most successful innovators of all time. The litmus test for Schilling to enter such a coveted club is much higher than merely hitting the innovation jackpot and changing the world one time. For Schilling, being a super-innovator means being serially successful in a variety of fields. Think Einstein, Franklin, Edison, Tesla, Jobs, Kamen, Musk, and yes, of course Curie, and these are the folks to which Schilling devotes her study.
What we learn from Schilling’s book is that while there’s no formula for entrepreneurial genius, there are many common traits which seem to help. With great detail and fascinating stories of their lives, Schilling summarizes: “Nearly all of the innovators exhibited very high levels of social detachment that enabled them to break with norms, an almost maniacal faith in their ability to overcome obstacles, a passionate idealism that pushed them to work with intensity even in the face of criticism or failure, and more.”
Schilling’s argument about creativity requiring social detachment and isolation is a strong one. She makes the case especially against group brainstorming meetings, offering numerous compelling reasons why they’re less effective than asking people to brainstorm on their own and then return to the group with thoughts written down.
But perhaps among the most important traits these serial breakthrough innovators possess is the ability to be far more impervious to social criticism than the average human. Schilling describes, for example, a brutal public criticism Franklin endured, noting that the inventor remained stoic and continued to be part of public life “because his belief that he was pursuing his duty to serve God and mankind gave him a moral high ground that helped make him resilient to such attacks.”
Similarly, when Curie won her second Nobel Prize in 1911, it was discovered that she was having a secret affair with a married man. In addition to being savaged in the press and literally confronted by an angry mob outside her home, the Nobel committee requested that she not pick up her prize in person for fear of bringing controversy to the proceedings. Curie went anyway and received her prize in person, and a few years later, it’s estimated that more than a million soldiers benefited on the battlefield from her mobile x-ray invention, meaning she likely is responsible for saving tens of thousands of lives, if not more.
In other words, if you find yourself being publicly attacked yet you’re still convinced of the critical importance of your work to the world, it’ll be difficult and painful, but just keep moving forward with the faith that you can still serve. As one serial winner not studied by Schilling, Rocky Balboa, says: In life, “it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; that’s how winning is done.”
There’s so much more worth writing about from Quirky, but in the interest of keeping this review short, I’ll just say that if you’re interested in what made some of the most successful innovators of all time successful, check out Schilling’s book. You’ll learn a lot, and if nothing else, you’ll be able to impress people at parties with incredible facts about how badass Marie Curie was.