Traits and foibles of industry game-changers

BY Jim Pawlak

"Quirky — The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of the Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World" by Melissa A. Schilling (PublicAffairs Books, $28).

When we think of inventors and innovators, "eccentric" often describes them. Schilling explored the eccentricities and other characteristics of game-changers (GCs) and found that while "ordinary folks" share many of their traits, they don't think they can, so they don't try. Those who changed the game believed they could do it and did. Here are some highlights:

Questioning and confidence — While the rules of math and physics are immutable, the rules made by men are not. By constantly questioning the conventional, GCs fixated on change. "Why not?" and "What's Next?" drove them. Elon Musk created his first computer game when he was 10. He saw the business-to-consumer and business-to-business potential of the internet and created (with help) Zip2 (city guides) and PayPal. He sold his interest in those and created Tesla, SpaceX (on Feb. 7, it launched the world's most powerful rocket) and Solar City (commercial and residential solar panel installation).

Driven by achievement — GCs work on problems until they solve them (i.e. Thomas Edison found over 10,000 ways not to invent the lightbulb). They took on the most challenging tasks often in the face of negative feedback, which only increased their efforts. They see difficulty as "an indicator of opportunity for gain rather than a threat of failure." Their primary motivations weren't praise or saying "I told you so" to doubters; intrinsic satisfaction drove them. Work was about "mastering skills, excelling at activities and completing tasks."

Always learning — Many of the GCs Schilling researched had difficulty with formal education and were home-schooled or self-taught. They were also readers with a wide range of interests. Elon Musk stated: "I was raised by books. Books, and then my parents." GCs found that reading helps them connect the dots from various sources to flesh out their ideas.

In the concluding chapter, Schilling offers advice to managers and business owners on using employees' quirkiness to build creative and innovative teams.