How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected
The Fusioneers, collected knowledge, skills, people, and more, according to their own unique design — their talents, interests, and curiosity. Some failed school, some didn’t finish. All learned beyond school and in multiple disciplines. Some learned by teaching, some collected degrees. All never stopped. Many kept a “little black book” of ideas, problems, solutions, etc. Many collected experiences. They collected people — often a broad, eclectic array — who helped them not only implement new ideas but create them, as well. Their collections formed a unique mental workshop integral to what they all did later, although they didn’t know it at the time (so, they didn’t know the value of what they were collecting while they collected). As technology takes over our standardized work, we will need to focus more on creating the novel. To do so, we will need unique and diverse minds, assembled by “collecting the dots.”
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
- Steve Jobs 
Collect the dots, connect the dots. You’ll connect better if you start with a good collection. The Foley artist from Star Wars and Wall-E, for example, doesn’t start hunting for the sounds he needs after commencing a movie project. Like most artists, he’s more gatherer than hunter. He collects interesting sounds as he comes across them and then, while working on a movie, connects the sounds in his head with what he’s working on. He hunts within his collection before hunting outside. 
How does he decide what sounds to collect? After all, he’s surrounded by sound all the time (as we all are). He has no measure of usefulness to guide his collecting, since he never knows what he’ll need. So, he simply keeps what he finds intrinsically interesting.
Do most of us collect that way? Actually, we do. People create all sorts of physical collections of everything that tickles our senses, from stamps to stuffed toys, spices to scents — even sound, since most of us have collections of music.
We also create virtual collections of ideas and skills. However, the beginnings of that collection are usually based less on interest and more on what someone else has decided is important. For most of us, childhood learning is curated by schools.
However, schools are not for everyone. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, was not allowed to go to school because he was the son of a single mother. Young Thomas Edison’s mother was told he’d never be able to go to school. Einstein was considered mentally deficient when he was little and didn’t do well in school. Beethoven’s parents were told he was too dumb to be a composer. Isaac Newton’s parents were told he was “the most unlikely student they ever had.” 
“I was at the foot of my class.”
- Thomas Edison
“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.“
- Mark Twain
The Fusioneers, having opened themselves to their own unique talents, interests, and curiosity, collected knowledge, skills, and more — curated according to their own design. Their parents generally encouraged and supported their interests, instead of force-fitting their own.
Some failed school (or, actually, school failed them). The serial entrepreneur, for example, failed his O-levels and A-levels (his secondary and pre-university “leaving exams”). The National Geographic photographer attended four high schools because he kept flunking out. That said, the serial entrepreneur did graduate (at age 56) with a master’s degree, attended Harvard four times (for executive programs), and has been invited to teach at Singularity University. The photographer did ultimately graduate from high school in an experimental program for gifted students (rising from D- grades to straight-A). He also finished university — a photography program he and an art professor custom-designed.
Some didn’t finish. The celebrity chef dropped out of school at age 13 (but avoided truancy problems by entering cooking school). One dropped out of arts & law because university was “too regimented.” Another has a collection of unfinished degrees, including math, economics, chemical engineering, and journalism (he did finish a Masters of Computer Science). He “started, got the value out of it, but didn’t really see the need to finish.” The executive producer was 75% finished with his Arts-Administration MBA when he left to take a job he would gladly have taken post-program (also allowing him to start repaying student loans).
Inquisitive, sceptical, and deep-thinking, they learn beyond school. For example, the international relations author gathers insights “on the ground” while traveling — insights that are integral to his new theories and books. The autism audiologist was actually a chemical engineer but spent years pouring through research papers learning about autism, looking for a new pathway to diagnosis. The celebrity chef supplemented his already-crazy work hours in haute cuisine by reading and learning from everyone he could.
They learn from multiple “schools” or disciplines. By the time the dance and executive educator finished at UCLA, she had taken classes in every building, including disciplines such as chemistry, physiology, biology, arts, humanities, English literature, mythology, music, dance, and theatre. Another applied for doctoral degrees in business and plasma physics. While one Fusioneer was studying art and quantum chemistry, her friend asked, “What kind of a job are you going to get with that?” she replied, “It’s a liberal-arts college. Can’t I study what I want?” Fusioneers learn what they want.
Some learn by teaching. The computational structural biologist actively teaches and mentors, and she finds it helps her think laterally, since she frequently teaches concepts by analogy. The composer, inventor, wealth manager and more teach and mentor (formally and informally), helping them deepen their knowledge, keep it top-of-mind, and build a network of people to tap on as needed.
Some collect degrees (whether intentionally or not). The DNA scientist studied for PhD, master’s, & bachelor’s degrees all at the same time. In fact, he has not one but two bachelor’s degrees, to go along with his PhD, master’s, diploma, and 10 different certifications, including law, technology, business, complex systems, linguistics, and theology. The computational structural biologist already had bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD degrees but then earned another master’s and continues to take courses on Coursera and EdX.
They never stop. Whether their learning earns them a degree (or certificate) or not, they continue collecting new knowledge, skills, etc. The Nokia intrapreneur, for example, continually learned new technologies, kept them at the back of his mind, then scanned the world looking for new ways to use them. The computational structural biologist described a learning cycle, whereby she would fix something, learn from the experience, then fix something else, learn, etc. They don’t just live life — they learn it.
“I’m not a collector….
Oh, these notebooks where I write down my ideas?
I have over 300 of them.”
- Mihnea Moldoveanu
The “little black book” was a common theme. Instead of girlfriend phone numbers, the books were places to note down ideas as they occurred (e.g. the executive producer); books & articles people recommended (e.g. the photographer); problems to solve (e.g. the inventor); and both problems and solutions, either to enact later or to give someone else to pursue (e.g. the integrative thinking researcher quoted above).
Many “collected” new & interesting experiences. The med-tech accelerator collected abandoned prototypes and non-commercialized technologies, never knowing which would become useful later. Overall, they collected ideas from books & articles, interactions with people, and basically everything they came across. One used technology to gather ideas, by posting provocative statements and questions on Facebook (the inventor).
Collecting is different from researching. When they needed more information or help to solve a problem, they gathered purposefully, and what they gathered was added to the mental workshop. However, collecting for its own sake, without a problem at hand, out of curiosity and a desire to learn, is a hallmark of fusion.
Most of them collected people and actively built social capital. Many were described as good with long-term relationships, maintaining that network well. The fast-food entrepreneur, for example, was a YPO/WPO President. The nun keeps in mind people she’s come across and contacts them again when she has a new project that needs help. The coffee connector collects business cards and even hands out other people’s business cards when two people in his network could help each other. Another continually connected with others at his incubator space (and beyond), later tapping on them when his startup encountered new problems.
Their networks were often called “eclectic” or “wacky” (e.g. the enlightened incubator). The joint venture executive, in fact, had earlier co-founded a cross-industry dot-com, and he described “first Tuesdays.” Around the world, on the first Tuesday of the month, “techies,” venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs would gather, connect, drink, and discuss. Every alternate Tuesday night, he and his co-founder began inviting the smartest doctors, architects, process engineers, lawyers, social anthropologists, dentists, and others, to drink and talk. Contacts and ideas he collected were then incorporated into his dot-com. His youth was devoted to experiencing, listening, and learning.
Their networks are not mercenary. They collect contacts that resonate — people who genuinely intrigue them — not just targeted, professional networking. Their interest in others is genuine, and the network is key not only in implementing but also in generating new ideas.
“Chance favors the prepared mind.”
- Louis Pasteur
Collecting odd bits (or not-so-odd) into a unique mental workshop was key to what they all did later. Whether or not each one had a mind like a steel trap, each had a mind like a lint trap. In fact, we all do, whether we collect independently or not.
In an age in which we can Google whatever information strikes our fancy, is there still a role for knowledge-acquisition and schools? I believe yes, since we craft new creations using our own mental workshops.
Having tools at hand (or knowledge) facilitates carpentry (or creativity) and influences what we build. To connect the dots, you’ll want to have collected them first. If a few are missing in the ultimate design, you can hunt for them, but you begin the creative process with what’s at hand.
Schools can be a great place to learn, since experts have curated the material and crafted a design — usually much better than a novice can. However, they generally follow a design of topics (a curriculum) for standardized learning across students in order to create standard-skilled people they can then certify. This is useful for producing industrial-age employees and certified professionals but can be over-regimented.
Instead of using schools to force-fit students into pre-designed moulds, schools may increasingly be used for exploration — self-discovery — then deepening knowledge and skills according to each student’s unique design.
As robots take over more of our standard physical and intellectual labour, they will take over parts of our jobs, and uniqueness will become more important to human development. Machines require repeated examples in order to learn. However, crafting the novel (for now) remains essentially human — and will require unique minds.
So, schools that want to remain good venues for learning will have to reduce their fact-stuffing and memorization but retain enough so students collect a fertile conglomeration of tools, materials, and skills — and learn to remember and use memory. No one has been able to replicate the super-computer between our ears, and memory is essential to what it does. But we don’t need to waste time replicating the Internet (or bots). Schools will also need new interdisciplinary degrees and certifications — some form of shorthand to quickly represent the odd array each person collects into a unique workshop.
So, don’t worry about the connections you’ll make later. For now, collect the dots that are inherently interesting to you, develop your own filter (assuming you have a mind like a lint trap), and supplement the curated collections you’re required to have with interest-based collections that make your mind — and its products — uniqu/e.
What do you find intrinsically interesting and naturally remember, without effort?
What have you already collected? When you connect them, what does it create?
Are you a hunter or a gatherer? Need to spend more time gathering? What will you gather (collect) more of, and how?
Collect even though you don’t know the ultimate value. Diversify your mind, since you don’t know what you’ll need.
Maybe it’ll make all the difference in your life.
1. one who innovates across domains of industry, field, country, social class, etc.
◦ s radical innovator, interdisciplinary creator, T-shaped person, borderless freethinker, boundary-crossing integrator, oddball;
I thank the participants in this study (Fusioneers and Friends) for your insights, sharing, help, and patience. You inspire me, and I am honoured to know you. Special thanks go to Gladys Lee for her marketing excellence and video- and podcast-production brilliance, as well as the host of creative professionals involved in producing the videos and podcasts (you’re all listed on YouTube, iTunes, etc.). I extend a warm thanks to Fusion Research Assistant Dr. Lee Poh Chin for her continually-wise and dedicated contribution to this research, as well as i2i Executive Shareff Uthuman for managing the rats-nest of global research travel and budgets. I thank Nitish Jain and the S P Jain School of Global Management for supporting this research — you’re the foundation that enables the whole project. You are all God-sends. It takes a village to write a paper.
 Fisk, Peter. Gamechangers: Creating Innovative Strategies for Business and Brands; New Approaches to Strategy, Innovation and Marketing. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2015. Quote from http://www.thegeniusworks.com/2016/02/what-is-innovation-connecting-the-dots-the-ones-other-people-miss/.
 Bernstein, Julie. Spark: How Creativity Works. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2011.
 Michalko, Michael. Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. Novato, CA (USA): New World Library, 2011.
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