How to become an innovation outlier

Is common creativity enough, or do you want to become an innovation outlier? My current favourite book on creativity is “Runaway species”. Creativity as a fundamental part of our software, and we can all do it. But then there is another perspective which deals with the innovation outliers. The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world and do. How do you become an Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Nikola Tesla, Madam Currie, Albert Einstein, or Benjamin Franklin? Why are some people so remarkably innovative?


Hence “Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World” What makes some people spectacularly innovative? Now there is a question. Everyone who’s ever taken a shower has had an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off and does something about it who makes a difference. The author analyses these people and tries to find commonality so we can mirror ourselves against these titans. The book reminds me of “Mastery” by Robert Greene. The book splits into three parts. The innovators, the biology of creativity and the lessons and suggestions for an organisation.

Common traits

What do the innovation outliers have in common?

  • Most of the serial breakthrough innovators sleep significantly less than the average for the population.
  • They all exhibit very high levels of social detachment.
  • What was more notable about these people than their range of interests was their drive to find fundamental principles, whether they be in physics, math, virtue, or social progress.
  • The innovators were encouraged to work and earn money relatively early in life.


They all had grit. Their successes seem to have been attained through sheer force of will. It is rare that someone with a breakthrough idea has the motivation, resources, and persistence to pursue it, and although a person could give such an idea to someone else with better motivation and resources—an established inventor or firm, perhaps—it is probably rarer still that this “someone else” will pursue the breakthrough idea. Grit makes innovators stand out.

Why do you need grit?

Grit is needed is because, by their very nature, original ideas are often initially hard for others to understand and value. The odds of one person’s breakthrough idea fitting well with another person’s resources, motivation, and worldview are slim. That is why when breakthrough innovations have been brought to the world, it is usually because the innovator has invested remarkable effort and persistence in executing the idea—often in the face of failure and opposition. Every breakthrough innovator studied here demonstrated extraordinary effort and persistence.


They persevere. What separates the successful innovators (and entrepreneurs) from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance. Unless you have a lot of passion, you’re not going to survive. Innovators as mental Navy Seals.

They worked hard

All of the innovators also pursued their projects with remarkable zeal, often working extremely long hours and at great personal cost. Most of them also worked so hard and so tirelessly because they found work extremely rewarding. Many also appeared to experience the pleasure of “flow” from working incredibly hard (i.e., work was autotelic, rewarding for its own sake). The strong belief in the importance of working hard is a characteristic running through the lives of all of these innovators.


All of the innovators also exhibited extreme faith in their ability to overcome obstacles (what psychologists would call “self-efficacy”) from an early age. That is why some people referred to Steve Jobs as having a “reality distortion field”. Steve Jobs had such great faith in their own capacity for reasoning and insight that they felt free to disregard the “rules” that constrained others. That faith in themselves enabled them to think big, fearlessly tackling projects that seemed impossible to others. Believing in their ability to overcome obstacles.

Self-reinforcing effect

Perseverance and self-efficacy can be self-reinforcing: those who persevere at tasks are more likely to accomplish them, reinforcing their confidence in their ability to achieve what they set out to do. It should not be surprising, then, that numerous studies have shown that self-efficacy can lead to greater risk-taking and entrepreneurship.


Most were driven by idealism, a superordinate goal that was more important than their own comfort, reputation, or families. Idealism helps focus innovators by making their long-term purpose very clear, helping them to make choices among the competing demands of their attention. All of the innovators exhibited an intense idealism and an intense focus on a superordinate goal, and this sense of purpose profoundly shaped their behaviour.

Ego defence

Idealism is all the way in which it provides a level of ego defence. It helps the innovator to persevere in the face of harsh criticism that many people would find decimating. Idealistic innovators believe that the goals they are pursuing are extremely important and intrinsically honourable and valuable, so they are better able to disregard harsh judgment or failure as merely transitory burdens to be endured.
All of this raises an important question: do we want to nurture idealism in ourselves and others?


They were fuelled by intrinsic motivation, a true love of learning, even if they had no love for school. All of the breakthrough innovators invested heavily in self-education. Most of the breakthrough innovators were avid and omnivorous readers, and some were polymaths with skills in numerous areas. Elon Musk, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, and Benjamin Franklin acquired much of the technological and intellectual resources they needed (at least early in their careers) from books. Leaders are readers. You can subscribe to my newsletter here.

Achievement driven

Some had an extremely high need for achievement (a personality trait associated with a strong and consistent concern with setting and meeting high standards and accomplishing difficult tasks), so they took great pleasure in amassing accomplishments.


They were avid consumers of knowledge, but they followed their own rhythms rather than an instructor’s pace. They went deep into a topic or broadly across topics they chose rather than following the path of a syllabus. A surprisingly large portion of breakthrough innovators were autodidacts and excelled much more outside the classroom than inside. That is because they do not accept the norms. Norms of consensus are dangerous to innovation and reveal the advantages of helping people to embrace their weird sides. People also find it illuminating, and often a relief, to see just how many innovators did not do well in school precisely because of their creativity or their tendency to challenge rules.


Musk, for example, is an outsider who has done the impossible, in part because he didn’t know (or believe) that it was impossible. Outsiders aren’t trapped by the paradigms and assumptions that become calcified in industry veterans, nor do they have the existing investments in tools, expertise, or supplier and customer relationships that make change difficult and unappealing.

By nurturing the independent thinking of the breakthrough innovators, separateness helped them to generate and pursue big and unusual ideas.


Many of the most prolific breakthrough innovators exhibit a marked sense of “separateness,” perceiving themselves as different or disconnected from the crowd. By not belonging, they were buffered from the norms that help to bring groups of people to consensus and foster cooperation. When separateness is a result of or results in, social isolation, individuals are less exposed to conventional wisdom; their ideas can develop less contaminated by those shared by the crowd. Furthermore, perceiving oneself as separate can also make an individual more prone to resisting conventional wisdom even if amply exposed to it. When an individual is not well integrated into the social fabric, there is less to lose by being unconventional.

Group thinking

There is a lesson in there for brainstorming and group thinking. Brainstorming groups have been extremely popular in both businesses and business schools, and doubts about brainstorming’s efficacy border on heresy. However, dozens of subsequent laboratory studies found results opposite: brainstorming groups produced fewer ideas, and ideas of less novelty, than the sum of the ideas created by the same number of individuals working alone.

  1. First is the free-rider issue: the possibility that some people may shirk when others in the group start generating ideas.
  2. Second is evaluation apprehension. People may self-censor many of their ideas in group brainstorming sessions for fear of being judged negatively by others.
  3. The third explanation is production blocking. As people take turns voicing their ideas, those bringing up the rear may forget their ideas before having a chance to voice them.

Isolation and no-rules

Maybe, as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His or her mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when they are not conscious of it. Separateness can also give rise to a sharp tendency to disregard or rebel against rules. All innovators do not buy into the rules that other people accept as given.

The biology of creativity

As neuroscientists have gained capabilities to explore the activities of the brain in greater detail, they have started to pay more attention to the relationship between the neurotransmitter system and creativity. Norepinephrine and dopamine. Those are two of our happy hormones. The same set we hit when we are gaming. Read “Reality is broken“.


Norepinephrine helps to connect many of the threads of research on highly creative individuals. Many of the seemingly disconnected strands of research on creativity, personality, intelligence, patterns of association, psychopathology and are likely to be tightly connected once we better understand the chemical and physiological processes of the mind.


The evidence is amassing about the relationship between dopamine and/or glutamate and divergent thinking. Dopamine has been shown to reduce latent inhibition: the automatic preconscious process whereby stimuli thought to be irrelevant are blocked from conscious awareness. In a related line of research, psychologists have found that highly creative people typically have lower levels of latent inhibition and thus tend to respond to stimuli that others would ignore.  Elevated dopamine levels can also cause individuals to attend to and retain cognitive stimuli that others would dismiss. Dopamine levels that are modestly higher than normal might thus enable more defocused attention and unusual associations, resulting in creative outcomes.


Highly creative people are overrepresented among the families of people with schizophrenia, suggesting a genetic link. Schizophrenics and highly creative people score similarly in a range of creativity tests, and creative people score quite highly on tests of psychotics.


An overly active dopamine system (or administration of drugs that increase the production or availability of dopamine) also produces symptoms resembling mania. Tesla, for example, had an interesting combination of exceptional intellectual ability, extraordinary working memory, and probable neurotransmitter irregularities that gave rise to symptoms of mania, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and oversensitivity to sensory stimuli.

Addictive behaviour

Both mania and elevated dopamine are also associated with an increased likelihood of addictive behaviour. “Hypomania” (basically a mild form of mania), which may be caused by moderately elevated levels of dopamine, has been repeatedly linked to creativity.

Mad or genius (or both)

In sum, if modestly elevated dopamine or norepinephrine can promote creativity but excessive levels can lead to psychopathology, this sheds light on the legendary, and controversial, the association between madness and genius. 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.


Most important innovators are noted for being exceptionally intelligent. We also know that a significant component of intelligence is the memory. Memory is usually divided into (at least) two interdependent types: working memory and long-term memory. Working memory provides an interesting connection between creativity and intelligence. Superior working memory and executive control are extremely valuable in general cognitive functioning. Research in neuroscience suggests that neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine and dopamine directly affect the functioning of working memory and cognition.

Speed of association

Highly creative people usually follow the same association paths as less creative people, but they do so with much greater speed that they exhaust the common associations sooner, permitting them to get to less common associations earlier than others would. In other words, the ability to hold many things in one’s mind simultaneously and manoeuvre them with great facility enables a person to explore many possible associations rapidly.


Sigmund Freud noted that primary process thinking was most likely to occur just before sleep or while dozing or daydreaming. Innovators fantasise more, remember their dreams more clearly, and are more vulnerable to hypnosis. Other psychologists built on these ideas about the role of primary process thinking by positing that some people are more prone to using it or have more control over the primary thinking process.


Individuals who score high on the openness to experience dimension tend to have great intellectual curiosity, are interested in unusual ideas, and are willing to try new things.


They are also typically more tolerant of complexity and ambiguity than the average person. People with low scores on this dimension hold more-conventional beliefs and may be uncomfortable with novelty, complexity, and ambiguity.

The lessons and suggestions for business

  • Build self-efficacy. One of the most powerful ways to increase creativity, and other positive outcomes, at both the individual and organisational level is to help people build their sense of self-efficacy.
  • The powerful role of idealism highlights the value of cultivating grand goals in the organisation that people find personally meaningful.
  • Find out what your people like to do. Then you give them an opportunity to do that, within the goals of your organisation. That’s simply allowing their intrinsic motivation to become profitable for the organisation.
  • If you can tap into people’s intrinsic motivators, those rewards that activate their need for achievement or the activities that enable them to experience flow. It will increase your flow score. Read “Stealing fire“. It should also increase innovation and productivity for the organisation while simultaneously increasing the satisfaction of the employee.
  • Making consensus the objective runs the risk of making orthodox solutions the objective as well. An organisation that seeks more-original ideas should instead make it clear that the objective is breakthrough innovation, not consensus.
  • Consider the payoff value of a person working alone on her own projects, tapping into her intrinsic motivation (it has been the source of several of Google’s most famous products).
  • We can increase breakthrough innovation by finding ways to widen the public’s access to technological and intellectual resources.
  • Foster innovation by creating ways for people with ideas to gain access to those with the expertise needed to refine or execute those ideas.
  • Give people flexible roles and autonomy, and demonstrating a tolerance for the unorthodox
  • Attract and nurture creative people by giving them considerable autonomy.
  • When you want employees to come up with breakthroughs, give them some time alone to ponder their craziest of ideas and follow their paths of association into unknown terrain.
  • A creative idea can be fragile, easily swept away by the momentum of a group conversation. Almost every team suffers from some degree of groupthink.
  • An idea that initially seems a bit better than others can sweep through an organisation, killing off competing ones that could ultimately be better with some development. The result can be a “monoculture” where there is too little variety left in an organisation to generate new solutions.
  • Research spanning fields as diverse as evolutionary biology, small-world networks, “skunkworks” in innovation, and organisational learning have all shown that dividing the organisation into subgroups and buffering them from one another can help to generate more innovation.
  • Separation from the main organisation is also often used to keep a new project secret until it’s ready for the public.


Exceptional innovators are mental Navy Seals, entrepreneurial, slightly mad, read books and are driven by ideals. If you want my take, I think there is something very interesting in biology and the link between happy hormones, drugs. gaming and flow. Expect some Xbox games in teaching creativity soon.

sensemaking cover


Sense making; morality, humanity, leadership and slow flow. A book about the 14 books about the impact and implications of technology on business and humanity.

Ron Immink

I help companies by developing an inspiring and clear future perspective, which creates better business models, higher productivity, more profit and a higher valuation. Best-selling author, speaker, writer.

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