How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected
If you want to get great work done — and make it creative — the following might help: do poorly at school, do very well at school (getting multiple degrees & certifications), play, go to sleep, pray & meditate, power-wash the pig-house, lap-swim, take a walk, jump horses, take a shower, play piano, be bored, and “think” with your heart, not your head. What’s the common thread? Inward focus. If you work alone, guard your inward, non-interruptible time. If you’re creatively stuck or creating with others, focus outward (“outsight”). Most importantly, tap into your own unique design (not just the bits you tap for a job/career), and share that with the world. If you stick to it authentically and cultivate your inner life, you’ll land where you’re valued and create what only you can create.
“The man who has no inner life is the slave of his surroundings.”
- Henri Frederic Amiel
Something inside made a difference. Every Fusioneer found something in his or her inner life that enabled (or drove) change his or her surroundings.
The motivation wasn’t money. None of them expressed a burning desire to be rich — even the one who became a billionaire. He, like the wealth-management Fusioneer, wanted independence. In fact, all of them can be described as strongly independent, whether they have a great deal of wealth or, like the nun, have none at all.
The Nokia intrapreneur wanted to be the first in the world to launch an innovation. The diagnostic scientist and the happiness expert both sought happiness. All could do something else to earn a living. But all chose what they do in life and basically love what they do — even when they struggle, tire, or get discouraged.
Many feel what they do is a profound calling (e.g. the scientists and social entrepreneurs), describing their work with words like mission, purpose, meaning, impact, legacy, and improving or saving lives. Those who don’t claim a particularly noble mission simply find joy in being who they are and crafting what they create.
Some described the urge to create, some liked challenge. Since their creations were new and success unpredictable, motivation had to be internal, not external.
Those who had done poorly in school had an advantage, in some regard, like the serial entrepreneur (who failed his exams), the celebrity chef (who dropped out), and others. They did not pursue school marks and other external rewards. They learned to work for their own reasons, learned how to learn on their own, and learned how to work outside of formal systems (like schools and companies). That said, some used school well to learn what they wanted to learn, earning doctorates and multiple masters’ degrees in the process — qualifying them to work in research and development or craft something new.
In short, they’re not trapped in already-existing systems. They can create their own.
They may not know if what they set out to do will work, and since their motivation is inside not outside, they can choose to pursue the “impossible” (or at least unknown). Some were told what they wanted to do either couldn’t be done or was a waste of time.
The diagnostic scientist and his team, for example, hit roadblock after roadblock, each one seemingly killing their integrated diagnostic test. Patient and persistent, they listened to well-meaning friends in the scientific community declare that integrating 24 tests into 1 was scientifically impossible.
However, every morning after a setback, they “resurrected” it and kept moving forward. Now, they have a product that can save over 10 million lives a year from sepsis alone and USD 1.2 Billion in healthcare costs. His father, in fact, had taught him about the fruit of work and “something within” when he was a child:
“Whatever you work for, the work is the fruit — not school marks or money or anything else. So many scientists have done things of great difficulty and brought it to the world. Why? It all came from something within themselves that nothing outside could stop. Those that never came to fruition were because of personal shortcomings of individuals. At the end of the day, you must overcome something within yourself to bring a new creation to the world.”
- father of Dr. Ravi Kumar Banda, Founder of XCyton
One of the “somethings within” possessed by all the Fusioneers was curiosity. A few were described as child-like or playful in their inquiries. They genuinely engaged and understood deeply because they were truly interested — even passionate.
“One of the huge mistakes people make is that they try to force an interest on themselves. You don’t choose your passions, your passions choose you.”
— Jeff Bezos
They spent years learning and honing skills in the various disciplines they chose. Having understood at depth, these innovators realise that many disciplines are working on the same phenomena, just with different language.
Some developed deep understanding through modelling (e.g. the sports scientist and the corporate anthropologist) or by studying a field at sufficient depth to understand its underlying models and theories that might be useful elsewhere.
When models don’t fit reality, they don’t just ignore it and move on. If the sports scientist had done that, he wouldn’t have found the insights that helped his diver win the highest score in Olympic history. The international relations author travels the world looking for inconsistencies between theory and reality that indicate new understanding (new theory) is needed. The quantum-chemist found a phenomenon that had no theory — and created a new theory and field in the process.
Sometimes, deep thinking enabled them to break through assumptions, not just connect one domain with another. The autism audiologist, for example, realised that instead of being an effect of autism, the inability to process sound may actually cause it. Pursuing an “effect” as a “cause” led to a whole new line of inquiry that could revolutionize autism detection and treatment.
They “play.” The sport scientist described how he was “playing around with the numbers” when he found the inconsistency that led to his Olympic-winning diving recommendation. The photographer-author-publisher takes his books apart and puts them back together repeatedly until he’s satisfied. Indeed, in design thinking and other creative approaches, “playing” and “messing around” with things is inherent to learning and creating.
Playing can be a good way to get your work done.
“The uninspired can’t help you figure out the unimagined.”
- Eddie Yoon (Harvard Business Review, 2016)
Inspiration is credited for creative breakthroughs, but what is it, exactly, and how can we tap into it?
In his book, The Act of Creation, A Study of the Conscious and Unconscious in Science and Art, Arthur Koestler suggests that we receive inspiration and insight when we suspend rational thought, such as during dreams or trances.
Two of the 30 Fusioneers had dream inspirations, and one is an expert spiritualist, who can purposefully enter a trance-state when needed. The first dream-inspired Fusioneer was a scientist who could not take high-enough quality pictures with a new microscope. He flipped through the manual not noticing anything in particular, and after a number of failed attempts, thought he would have to call the manufacturer overseas the next day. But the needed switch appeared in a dream, clearly residing underneath a small plate on the side of the device. He ran to the office, found the switch, flipped it, and took the pictures.
The second, one of the social entrepreneurs, dreamed of a new library for village children. She saw the building design clearly and drew it when she awoke, fired and inspired to build it. She founded Books for Hope, and one library eventually grew to 26, serving 30,000 kids across Indonesia.
Sleeping can be a great way to get your work done.
Beyond paying attention to dreams, that founder learned to call on-the-spot decisions “placeholders” so her startup staff would not be frustrated when she ruminated over an issue subconsciously and later reversed the decision.
In fact, idea incubation (subconscious rumination) is well known, and several of the Fusioneers spend significant time alone, “unplugged,” ruminating, or “wasting time” in seemingly mindless ways. The healthcare accelerator, for example, retreats to his “cave” and some time later “pops out” with last-minute solutions, after everyone else has struggled to solve the problem or anxiously doubted it could be solved. Apparently, you have to be patient with the “pop.”
The executive educator described the difference between lap swimming and water aerobics. When she swims laps for her morning exercise, she simultaneously has a “staff meeting” in her head and has to rush to her office without interruption to record her ideas. Water aerobics is a good workout, but there’s no creative “staff meeting,” since her attention is focused outward on the instructor.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.”
— Walt Whitman
Other Fusioneers discussed meditative activities, such as walking, which research has shown enhances creativity (Oppezzo & Schwartz, 2014). The autism audiologist produced his best ideas and much of his master’s degree while walking around — even getting in trouble with his supervisor for apparently goofing off — until he explained his ideas, progress, and how they came about. Indeed, the multi-Emmy-award-winning executive producer says he’s “useless” without his morning walk in the woods.
Power-washing the pig-house gave the farm-tech entrepreneur many good ideas, and others extolled the virtues of horse-jumping, showering, late nights, piano-playing, and general boredom (Zomorodi, 2017). For many of them, inspirations pop up at seemingly-random times throughout the day, and are written down for later.
Even randomly looking around can yield insight if you’re good at seeing patterns and making connections. One Fusioneer described an epiphany when looking down from a mezzanine at the people below. Having honed her pattern-matching skills in art school, she saw people moving in a pattern she’d seen in quantum chemistry. She then saw the same pattern elsewhere — again and again. She quit her job, went back to school, developed new mathematical modelling methods and software, and founded a new field.
Insight vs. Outsight
When cognitive neuroscientist John Kounios (2012) studied the neuroscience behind such epiphanies, he uncovered a remarkable insight about insight:
“Analytical thinking is preceded by ‘outsight,’ i.e. focus on environment. EEG readings prior to creative insight showed less visual cortex activity (visualizing the environment) and more temporal lobe activity (processing words and concepts). This is the mind turning in on itself. This is the mind disengaging from the world. This empowers a person to imagine new and different ways to transform reality creatively into something better.”
- John Kounios (2012)
So, unplugging from the outside world and tuning into your internal world is helpful to creativity. Some of the Fusioneer examples above include interacting with the outside world, but the key is attention. When doing water aerobics, a swimmer must pay attention to instructions from the class leader (outsight). Once you’ve learned to swim, however, the mind can disengage and is open to insight.
In fact, when we learn, we use our logical, analytical mind (Daniel Kahneman’s “System 2”), but once we’ve learned it, we switch to our creative, intuitive mind (“System 1”). The coffee-connector Fusioneer noticed the difference between the two when show-jumping horses. When he consciously thinks (slow, analytical System 2), he cannot make the jump. When he “doesn’t think” (i.e. engages fast, intuitive System 1), he jumps successfully.
The serial-entrepreneur Fusioneer says “thinking” is slow (Kahneman’s “System 2”), so he uses emotions to help him “think” (“System 1”). The integrative-thinking researcher also uses emotions as key information and seeks emotional resonance with others. Like the international-relations author, he probes his own emotional reactions to enrich his understanding. The wealth and wellbeing expert also reaches inside, comparing whatever he learns against his inner values.
Beyond inward-focused, meditative activities of course, is meditation itself — and prayer. So many of the Fusioneers shared the importance of their faith in what they did, that the podcast narrator said he was getting tired of reading it, story after story.
Many are Christians and include prayer as part of their daily lives (especially the nun). One scientist was Hindu and meditated an hour and a half every day during exercise. Another claimed no particular faith but then mentioned he did meditate, and another mentioned being a spiritually-disciplined, practicing Jew. One is an advanced practitioner of Shamanism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Native-American spirituality, who not only could enter an advanced trance-state but appeared to pray/meditate even while being interviewed.
Whether praying, meditating, or something else — and whether at regular times or just before creative work — the majority of Fusioneers actively cultivated their inner lives and believed it important to do so.
Even something seemingly outward-focused like looking can actually be inward-focused — if you’re not actively engaged with what you’re looking at. Case in point: the chemist casually looking (just before the creative epiphany) or the producer walking in the woods each morning — seeing but not focused (outward) on seeing.
So, should we continually focus inward for creativity and limit our outward focus? No — outward focus can help creativity, too.
Research has shown that making performance or learning more difficult (such as with an unfamiliar or damaged musical instrument, or a harder-to-read font) actually improves performance and learning through the need to pay attention (Harford, 2015). In one study, outward-attentive students who couldn’t “filter out” distractions (like TV or radio) were at a disadvantage when writing their essays, but were:
“…vastly more likely to have some real creative milestone in their lives, to have published their first novel, to have released their first album. These distractions were actually grists to their creative mill. They were able to think outside the box because their box was full of holes.”
- Tim Harford (2015)
So, outward attention is useful for collecting grist for creativity and for learning something someone has already created. However, the neuroscience remains. The act of individual creativity — post-collecting/post-learning — is enhanced by focusing inward. The outward-attentive students had to get away from TV and radio to write their essays.
Performance is more complicated.
“Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget all that bullshit and just play.”
— Charlie Parker, Jazz Musician
Once a musician has mastered the instrument and the music, does he focus inward? Csikszentmihalyi’s work on creativity and “flow” suggests that he does.
However, Harford (2015) extolls the creative virtues of messes and frustrations that (obviously) draw our attention outward. Jazz musician Keith Jarrett, for example, recorded the world’s best-selling piano album and the best-selling solo jazz album on an out-of-tune piano he didn’t want to play. Ambient composer Brian Eno has been the catalyst behind great rock albums by disrupting musicians’ creative process with “The Oblique Strategies” — a set of uncomfortable changes musicians often hate (such as switching instruments with the rest of the band), but which get them “unstuck” when they’re creatively stuck.
Perhaps the key is comfort. When we’re comfortable with what we do (like jazz virtuoso Keith Jarrett), we’ll not be reaching out to create something radically new. When we’re getting nowhere with our comfortable-old approaches (like musicians creatively stuck), we need to be pushed to try something uncomfortable.
Outward attention is also necessary in a group setting, and group problem-solving can result in more creative solutions than working alone. In fact, diverse groups seem to require even more outward attention than uniform groups, and they also produce more creative results.
In one study, when a group contained an unfamiliar member, participants were not as happy with their experience or as positive about their performance, but they actually performed significantly better than groups that already knew each other (Harford, 2015). Another study showed that groups of scientists from different backgrounds solved problems more quickly than uni-disciplinary groups. (Moldoveanu, 2015, p. 17).
So, to enhance creativity, you may want to be part of a group brain — especially a diverse one — which will require connecting outward to the rest of the group. If you’re creating something alone, you’ll want to focus inward before — and during — your creative time.
Beyond choosing when to use inward- or outward-focus, it’s also necessary to guard it. The collective cost of interruptions can be high, and companies adopting quiet-focus “library rules” in designated times and places see a significant boost in productivity (Fried, 2016).
Sudden shifts from the inner world to the outer — interruptions — can also be extremely frustrating and draining. Research by the executive educator and resilience pioneer (Greenblatt, 2009) noted that focus-time management boosts both effectiveness and energy.
All the Fusioneers were noted for high energy, as well as hard work. They were described as enthusiastic, fun, lively, well-liked, passionate, optimistic, full of ideas, strong, driven, and determined. One of them works best when he’s working two full-time jobs. Another refuses to slow down:
“He’s 74 years old and works 15 hours a day, every day. He works harder and travels more than anybody I ever met.”
- Ian Parker, CFA Executive
Some are extroverts. Some are introverts. All are energized by what they do and are recognized for energizing others, even making others happier (like the composer). Similar to Csikszentmihalyi’s interviewees, they experienced joy in what they do, even though there were also times of exhaustion (e.g. the ecosystem founder) or anxiety (which the photographer transmutes to nervous creative-energy).
Many engage in work-play, unable to tell if they are working hard or not. The positive psychologist uses examples from “life” in his “work” and doesn’t really know if finding something meaningful in life means he’s working in his “off” hours. As the resilience pioneer would recommend, they manage their energies and integrate “work” and “life.”
They don’t waste energy carrying around inflated egos or being someone they’re not. Some were noted for being the same person all the time, and all were extremely, uniquely themselves.
“He’s shown that you can really be yourself — uniquely yourself — and succeed.”
— Karan Khemka, Georgetown classmate and friend, speaking of Fusioneer Parag Khanna
Being unique, what they produce is also unique, and although their successes are highlighted here, their creations don’t always garner immediate acceptance. The scientific app developer, for example, found it hard to publish papers, since they didn’t fit into a single, existing genre. After repeated frustrations, he founded his own journal (sponsored by a well-regarded publisher) and publishes high-quality papers by other frustrated cross-domain researchers, at the same time growing a new field.
They adhere to their uniqueness and eventually find themselves in situations where that uniqueness is valued, even if various stops on the journey don’t make sense at the time or don’t “succeed.”
“See what they all have in common? … There’s no one type of scarer. The best scarers use their differences to their advantage.”
— Mike Wazowski, Monsters University (Pixar Animation Studios, 2013)
All the Fusioneers created something that leveraged their diverse backgrounds and unique selves. The Nokia intrapreneur spoke of being “the right person in the right place at the right time.” Who he was on the inside matched what was needed on the outside.
He had found the right “outside” by maintaining and presenting his authentic “inside.” Creative “flow” is not just an inner creative process. It is also a “flow” between our inner worlds and outer.
“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”
- E. E. Cummings
Although openness to inspiration, insight, and outsight are important to manage for innovation, the Fusioneers’ real source of innovation appears to be their openness to their own unique design. Their creativity is founded on their curiosity, internal motivation, and willingness to discover and use their full range of talents in the things they create — not force-fitting who they are and what they learn to pre-defined jobs and careers.
Some had humble beginnings — failing school, dropping out, or simply poor (e.g. too poor to buy soccer shoes). Some were well off — one born into an extended family worth USD 5.8 Billion. That didn’t matter as long as they pursued who they were, who they could be, and what they could create.
By remaining authentic (and whole), they wind up in places where they are valued, working on problems no one else can solve, or opportunities for which they are uniquely skilled. By doing what they love, they maintain their energy and sense of purpose. They bring what’s inside themselves outside — not slaves to their surroundings — by first cultivating themselves.
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
- Mahatma Gandhi
What are you curious about or care about? Would you pursue it without reward, even if it’s “impossible”?
What gives you energy? What takes it away? If you only did the former, what would “life” and “work” be like?
When do you unplug your mind so it can work?
What is your unique design?
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.
Personal Note on God, Daemons, & Genius: Like the Fusioneers, I also focus inward for inspiration, although I’m not sure whether it’s really focusing inward or outward to God. I feel it’s both — through me to Him. I begin my mornings with prayer-time and exercise alone. The fusion model came into my head while swimming, and I regularly stop my aerobic routine or meditative walk to write down ideas as they come on what I’m researching or writing. I feel they come from God and that my time each morning with Him is the most important part of my day. Apparently, the ancient Greeks and Romans also thought creative ideas come from outside — a divine spirit. Socrates believed he received wisdom from a spirit speaking from afar. The Greeks called them “daemons.” The Romans called them “genius.” (For more, see Elizabeth Gilbert, Your Elusive, Creative Genius, TED.com, 2009.)
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Collins, 2013.
Fried, Jason. “Restoring Sanity to the Office.” Harvard Business Review, December 29, 2016.
Greenblatt, Edy. Restore Yourself: The Antidote for Professional Exhaustion. Los Angeles, CA: Execu-Care Books, 2009.
Hartford, Tim. How Frustration Can Make Us More Creative. www.ted.com, 2015.
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Macmillan), 2011.
Koestler, Arthur. The Act of Creation, A Study of the Conscious and Unconscious in Science and Art. Hutchinson & Co, 1964, reprinted by Last Century Media, 2014.
Kounios, John. The Neuroscience Behind Epiphanies. TEDTalentSearch, June 26, 2012 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7uyw5y_tHEM).
Moldoveanu, Mihnea & Olivier Leclerc. The Design of Insight: How to Solve Any Business Problem. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015.
Oppezzo, Marily and Daniel L. Schwartz. “Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 2014, Vol. 40, №4, 1142–1152.
Yoon, Eddie. “What Superconsumers Can Teach You,” Harvard Business Review, December, 2016 (www.hbr.org).
Zomorodi, Manoush. How Boredom Can Lead to Your Most Brilliant Ideas. www.ted.com, 2017.
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