Editor's Choice

Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World

February 23, 2018


Melissa Schilling examines the role of individual genius in innovation, along with how we can cultivate and harness our own and enhance it in the organizations we lead.

Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World by Melissa A. Schilling, PublicAffairs, 336 pages, Hardcover, February 2017, ISBN 9781610397926

Most of the books on innovation we have championed here over the past few years have belied the idea that such advances are an individual pursuit. Books like The One Device have taken the lone genius off the cultural pedestal, giving us a broader understanding of the evolution, interconnectedness, and interdependence of ideas and inventions that lead to breakthroughs like the iPhone, and the collective effort necessary to bring them into the world. And yet, we see the creative genius in Steve Jobs, and while he may not have invented the iPhone, it wouldn’t exist without him.

So what is the role of individual genius in innovation, and how can we cultivate and harness our own, and enhance it in the organizations we lead or work in? Melissa Schilling, the John Herzog Professor of Management and Organizations at New York University’s Stern School of Business, has taken a crack at that important question in her new book, Quirky. For starters, while it is instructive to acknowledge the cultural and intellectual history of ideas and innovation, the most effective idea generation process is an individual brain working in isolation. Brainstorming, a practice now embedded in business culture, is just bad practice. A preponderance of evidence from studies done on the topic show that “brainstorming groups produces fewer ideas, and ideas of less novelty, than the sum of ideas created by the same number of individuals working alone.” In fact, the majority of breakthrough innovators that Schilling focuses on in the book had a sense of “separateness” in general—a social detachment from others, which helped shield them from conventional wisdom, or made them more prone to resisting it. It is just one thing that she found common across her main subjects—Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, Dean Kamen, Elon Musk, and Nikola Tesla—that she believes made them spectacularly innovative.

Using a multiple case study approach, she dives deep into the lives of these exceptional innovators in science and technology to explore how these traits manifested themselves.  As with almost all the quirky qualities discussed in the book, a sense of separateness from others comes with both benefits and costs to the individual. Schilling discusses the tradeoff of such social isolation needed to avoid conventional thinking and generate novel ideas with the need for a strong network of people to implement them. For instance, Albert Einstein, rejected by academia, surely found it easier to reject the conventional thinking and accepted norms it produced that those within felt more pressure to abide by. But the initial response to such heterodox thinking was the sound of crickets. It took a subsequent paper by the more academically embraced Max Planck, building on the theory of relativity, to bring recognition and legitimacy to Einstein.

Though not a theme of the book, half of the group were also immigrants, which points to the fact that:  


Economic, cultural, and language barriers can also create a sense of separateness, offering a partial explanation for why immigrant communities are so often identified as a source of innovation and entrepreneurship …


Another commonality (there are seven, and a chapter is devoted to each) among Schilling’s subjects is extreme confidence, a high level of what’s called self-efficacy. Breakthrough innovators are “more likely to view difficult tasks as something to be mastered rather than avoided,” and to believe that they are capable of mastering them. It leads to an interesting conclusion on the role of risk taking in innovation:


Many researchers have argued that innovators and entrepreneurs are often more “risk seeking” or “risk tolerant” than most people; however, if the innovators or entrepreneurs have high self-efficacy, it might not really be risk seeking or risk tolerance that we are observing. What appears to be risk tolerance may simple be a different assessment of risk based on the individual’s differential belief in her ability to overcome difficult obstacles.


For instance, Schilling shares the story of Elon Musk failing to find a manufacturer for the rockets he wanted for SpaceX. Not only could they not be had for the $8 million he was willing to pony up for two of them, he was told that what he was asking for, a reusable rocket, was simply impossible to build. Most people would have accepted the assessment and expertise of actual rocket scientists on the matter, but not Musk:


While the rest of “Team Musk” (which included two aerospace engineers, Jim Cantrell and Mike Griffin, and one of Musk’s buddies from college, Adeo Ressi) sat having drinks and nursing the wounds of defeat, Musk was furiously typing away at his computer. Before they could ask him what he was doing, he spun around and showed them a spreadsheet with detailed cost calculations and performance characteristics for a modest-sized rocket that would significantly undercut the prices charged by existing launch companies. As the men looked at him, dumbfounded, he stated “Hey guys, I think we can build this rocket ourselves.” A moment that would have humbled and disheartened just about everyone else spurred Musk to take on more of the problem himself.


That seems crazy, which leads to another commonality, and the question of whether breakthrough innovators are smarter and more crazy than the average person. Schilling answers “yes” and “probably,” discussing the role of intelligence, working memory, and openness to new experiences in innovative thinking. She also explores some of the biological bases of creativity that are being studied now that neuroscientists are able to image brain activity. She points to Nikola Tesla’s sensitivity to light and vibration as evidence that his prodigious creativity may have been enhanced by a dopamine imbalance—which also left him plagued by mania and obsessive compulsive disorder throughout his life. And while most of the innovators on Schilling’s list weren’t actively plagued by such psychopathology, she suggests that they most likely had atypical brain chemistry, and why the idea of the “mad genius” might persist:


Genius does not require madness, nor does madness imply genius, but because both can be influenced by similar neurotransmitters, it is not surprising that people have long intuited a connection between them.


All but Edison were (or are) driven by idealism as an intrinsic motivator, and each of them had an innate industriousness, desire to achieve, and enjoyed their work above all else. Like all of the traits discussed in the book, these traits had both costs and benefits. It is deeply satisfying to pursue one’s ideals and to find satisfaction in working hard, but it also led each of them to personal sacrifice—often compromising their family lives (which Tesla and Kamen opted out of altogether to focus on their work) and even their own health. Albert Einstein, overcome by exhaustion, took to his bed for two weeks in 1905 after publishing his theory of relativity. Marie Curie, while studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, “on more than one occasion … fainted at her lab table and had to be reminded to rest and eat.” Marie Curie also, like Benjamin Franklin, never patented her discoveries and processes, refusing to commercialize or profit financially from them in the belief that they should be freely available for the good of society. She also, like most of the men in the book, pursued her work at the expense of time with her children, turning their care over to her father-in-law—“a cheerful and loving man without whom the daughters would have led bleak lives.” Of course, this was not viewed the same way it would have been were she a man, and though she won two Nobel Prizes in two separate fields—the only person to have done so at the time—she was widely criticized for her personal life, which Schilling suggests “does much to reveal to us why there is a paucity of women on lists of famous innovators.”

All were also beneficiaries of the challenges and opportunities specific to their time. Marie Curie was born at a time education was not open to most women. But her parents were devoted to educating her and her sisters, in part because they lived at a time when Tsarist Russia was attempting “to erase all traces of Poland’s literature, language, culture, and other aspects of its heritage,” going so far as to remove Polish history and literature from schools, and insisting students be taught in Russian. Each also had access to intellectual and technological resources, giving them a situational advantage to capitalize on their intelligence and drive to achieve.

Schilling pulls lessons from them for how we work. She examines how making time for solitude encourages introspection and independent thought, and why it’s important to embrace quirky and socially unconventional people in our organizations to bring in alternate perspective and novel ideas. We can help challenge existing norms and paradigms by giving teams autonomy and not insisting on consensus. We should provide employees ample time alone, away from others and their regular responsibilities, to tap into their intrinsic motivation and allow them space to develop creative ideas. We can build self-efficacy by encouraging them, allowing risk taking, and learning from failure when it occurs. We can inspire ambition and idealism by setting lofty goals. We can increase access to intellectual and technological resources within companies. She even suggests community laboratories and other citizen scientist efforts to give more people access to those resources in society.

Quirky is both a brilliant biography, and a useful leadership guide. It is an easy to read but deep exploration of the lives of individual innovators and their qualities is a great history that also provides informative instruction for how we can foster these qualities today in ourselves and our organizations.

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