Why Self-Awareness Is Key to Innovation
To be truly innovative, learn to harness your enthusiasm. But first you have have to overcome the mental challenges.
Fifteen years ago, I had an idea that took hold. Over the course of several sleepless nights, this seedling blossomed into a fully-fledged concept for a product I wanted to build. As an experienced software engineer, I'd never considered myself a creative — much less an entrepreneur. But for some mysterious reason, the energy and confidence I had in my idea let me see possibilities rather than dead ends.
That's the power of innovating.
Of course, this is not one of those stories where the stars aligned and everything came together perfectly from the get-go. Even though my company, Jotform, has garnered millions of users worldwide, there were plenty of hurdles in the process of growing. One of the things I tell my mentees is that coming up with a powerful idea is only half of the equation; the other involves harnessing all of your unbridled passion and developing your critical thinking skills.
Overcome the mental challenges of innovating
Innovators can be their own worst enemies, co-authors Cyril Bouquet, Jean-Louis Barsoux and Michael Wade argue in their illuminating story for Harvard Business Review. They write that they're often "Derailed by personal traits, such as confidence and optimism, that are essential to creativity but can be toxic when taken to an extreme, and by emotions such as fear, doubt, regret, and frustration, which are typical when trying something new but can too easily stall or destroy an effort."
Innovating is not an easy undertaking. But there's an unprecedented joy in being a beginner — with each day offering an opportunity to try something new. Here are three strategies to help you overcome the psychological challenges that come alongside your newfound enthusiasm.
1. Let your fears be a driving force
Despite my confidence in my product — those early days of founding my business were fraught with a lot of what ifs? I felt like I'd been thrown in the deep end — taking on new responsibilities I wasn't necessarily equipped for.
Marketing, operations, finances and even some ad hoc design work — I lived by the principle of faking it till you make it, but was constantly plagued by fear.
According to the HBR co-authors, this line of thinking can crystallize into a general foreboding that can bring you to a standstill. So what's the alternative? Instead of suppressing your fears and carrying on as usual, the researchers recommend leaning into what we can stand to learn. "Fear isn't just an inhibiting force; it can be a powerful teacher, signaling that you are underequipped or underinformed," they write. "So pinpointing the source of your angst is critical to addressing it."
2. Become a student of failure
Jotform wouldn't be the company it is today if we hadn't placed value in failure from the very beginning and even to this day. To give an example: We worked arduously on an idea for three years — testing and failing and re-testing — which eventually turned into our tool Jotform Tables. In befriending failure, it gave us valuable insights into what didn't work, and then what eventually did.
Entrepreneur contributor Chris W. Dunn notes that "Through failure, you uncover gaps in yourself, your strategies, your systems, your business and your team. You learn where your weaknesses or limitations are and what needs to change or be improved."
But according to experts, in order to become a student of failure, we first need to dissect it. "The trouble with failure," the HBR researchers observe, "is that it generates negative emotions that impede learning: denial, anger, despair, and self-blame. Innovators are especially prone to those feelings because they identify so closely with their projects."
To avoid this pitfall, the co-authors recommend taking a closer look at areas that went wrong and why? Only by coming to terms with our disappointment and taking a critical approach can we take the first step toward moving forward.
3. Don't let an overactive imagination derail you
When you're in the throes of a new idea, it's tempting to go into hyperdrive — overthinking irrelevant ideas to death or jumping from one outcome to the next. "Drive—a mix of tenacity and passion—is another core quality needed to breathe life into big ideas," write the HBR researchers. "But as with creativity, you can overdo it."
Excitement and energy will serve you well, but successful entrepreneurs understand the need to control their curiosity and set limits when it comes to the testing and implementation stages of their project.
4. Commit to downtime
Most leaders associate innovation with passion and determination, but contrary to popular belief, rest and reflection are what actually helps you envision new solutions and helps you question your assumptions.
Joshua Harris, founder of Agency Growth Secrets, recommends finding a relaxing, methodical physical activity that takes your focus away from thinking about your business. "Taking Sundays off has always been beneficial to allow me to rejuvenate, recover, and get ready for the next week," he tells Business Insider. "By finding relaxing activities and slowing down, you can avoid burnout and operate at your peak."
The bottom line: self-awareness is key to innovation
In the first year of building my business, I went through periods of anxiety, confusion and discouragement — all while firmly believing in my vision. There were also times I would get carried away in my excitement.
Needless to say, I've come a long way since those initial days.
Still, after all these years, the lesson I keep coming back to whenever I'm caught up in a new idea is to harness my impulses. Above all, the HBR co-authors advocate for self-awareness: "Whatever your own strengths and weaknesses, you can manage them only if you know what they are."
Armed with those insights in hand, success is guaranteed.
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