An enigma called Innovation

The biggest secret of innovation is that anyone can do it. The reason is simple: It’s just not that hard. Look up the word “innovate” in any dictionary and see what it actually means, instead of what you think it means. You’ll find something like this: To innovate is “to introduce something new.” That’s it. It doesn’t say you need to be a creative genius or a workaholic. It’s just three little words: introduce something new.

The key word in the definition is “new.” The common trap about newness is the assumption that new means something the universe has never seen before. This turns out to be the  most ridiculous assumption in the history of mankind. Here’s proof: Name any great innovator, and I guarantee they borrowed and reused ideas from the past to make whatever it is they are famous for.

Even in today’s high-technology world you can find easy connections between what we call “new” and ideas from the past. The World Wide Web and the Internet get their names from things thousands of years old. The first webs were made by spiders, and the first nets were used to catch fish by indigenous people around the world, thousands of years before the first computer The trick to innovation is to widen your perspective on what qualifies as new. As long as your idea, or your use of an existing idea, is new to the person you are creating it for, or applies an existing concept in a new way, you qualify as an innovator from their point of view, and that’s all that matters.

The easiest place to start is with things you do every day. Simply ask: Who else does this, and how do they do it differently? If you only know one way to do something, you’re making a big assumption. You’re betting that of the infinite ways there are to do it, the single one you know is the best. The problem is that people have to go out of their way to find  alternatives and put into practice.Many great innovators asked better questions than everyone else, and that’s part of why they were successful. It wasn’t genius, whatever that means, special top-secret brain exercises they did every morning, or even how much money they had. It was through the dedicated pursuit of answers to simple questions that they found ideas already in the world that might be of use.

Asking questions is one thing, but trying to answer them is another. There is no substitute for firsthand experience when creating things. The unique aspects of who you are, including qualities you may not like about yourself, are an asset when it comes to creative thinking. No one can see the world exactly the way that you do. This means that if you can experience, watch, or make something yourself, you may discover lessons and make observations that other people failed to notice. Those observations are the seeds of innovation. You might see an old idea or tool in a way no one else in your family, business, or city has before done before. The knowledge we have today about the universe did not come from magic books that have been sitting around waiting for us since the dawn of time. It came from curious people who not only asked questions, but followed them to places others weren’t willing to go.

Progress depends on people thinking independently and following their curiosity as far as they can, including doing things others around them refuse to try. Since long hours of work might be required to satisfy your curiosity, what’s important is how you respond to failure. Can you find the courage to respond not with embarrassment or regret, but with more questions: Why did this fail? What can I learn now? What will I do differently next time? If you have a convincing answer to each of these, you are probably well on your way.

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