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Where Does Innovation Come From?

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The theme of Vanity Fair’s inaugural New Establishment Summit in San Francisco was “The Age of Innovation.” As overblown and overhyped as the word is these days, even a cynic like me has to admit it would be nice to know where innovation actually comes from.

Perhaps it’s even more important to understand where innovation doesn’t come from.  

It doesn’t come from a blog, a book or an article. It doesn’t come from inspirational quotes and stories. It doesn’t come from LinkedIn Influencers or anyone you follow on Twitter. It doesn’t come from motivational speakers. And it most certainly doesn’t come from any kind of self-improvement or personal productivity.

Having worked with innovative people for decades in the high-tech industry, this, I can tell you with great certainty, is where innovation comes from.

Innovation comes from inside you. Ideas, inspiration and innovation only seem to come from outside you, but they don’t. They always come from inside you. The only exception is small teams...but only intimate groups in real time in the real world, never large-scale or online collaborations.

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It comes from obsession. Albert Einstein believed light was special, unique. He was obsessed with light. Elon Musk is obsessed with manned space travel and electric cars, among other things. Every successful founder I’ve ever known was inspired by obsession. If you’re obsessed, you never need to be inspired by anything else.

Innovation comes from history. Microprocessor architecture comes almost entirely from the way mainframe and minicomputers were designed decades ago. So much innovation comes from ancient history it isn’t funny. Why reinvent the wheel when you don’t have to?

It comes from perseverance. According to my literary agent, authors tell her success is a matter of keeping yourself in the chair. Steve Jobs said, “You've got to have an idea or a problem or a wrong that you want to right that you're passionate about, otherwise you're not going to have the perseverance to stick it through. I think that's half the battle right there.”

Innovation comes from focus, discipline and patience. These days, everyone is obsessed with squeezing every ounce of personal productivity and self-improvement out of themselves. That only takes you further away from innovation. Innovation comes from focusing on one thing and letting everything else fade to black. It’s the big picture that drives you and that’s also what drives you to come up with unique solutions to tough problems.  

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It comes from the need to prove yourself. The human mind is surprisingly powerful, especially in terms of the need to prove yourself. While it usually manifests early in life, the motivation tends to stick with us and often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It doesn’t even seem to matter if you know to whom you’re proving yourself – your father, yourself or teachers who said you’d never amount to anything.  

Innovation comes from your subconscious. Brilliant ideas often come when you least expect them or when you’re not even paying attention. They may come to us in dreams, during meditation, in the shower, or when we’re otherwise preoccupied with some menial or repetitive task that allows our deeper emotions and thoughts to engage. And no, distracting yourself with games or social media does not qualify.

It comes from identifying problems. Over the course of my career I’ve noted how innovation comes from how people identify problems. Granted, there has to be a solution but the problem comes first and foremost. The reason is simple. Without a pressing problem, there’s no real need of a solution. And until you correctly identify the problem, your solution is suspect and lacking innovation. Always focus on the problem. What do people need or want to do that they can’t currently do or do cost-effectively?

The most important thing to know about innovation is that it’s not the same as invention. I might even go as far as to say that, in the world of startups, invention is sort of immaterial. Just come up with problems that need to be solved and solutions that are unique and that people can actually use. More often than not, that will do the trick. 

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