Photo: Aamir Mohd Khan. Source: Pixabay
There’s a story about the birth of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. She wasn’t born normally. Instead, her father Zeus had an enormous headache. He implored the gods to provide relief, so one of them split Zeus’s head open – and out popped Athena, fully formed, fully dressed, and ready for battle. Since she came from Zeus’s head, Athena was thought to be the goddess of wisdom and technology.
That’s how we often think ideas arrive: fully formed, directly from our heads. And inspiration does hit us at surprising times, in surprising places. Erwin Schrodinger came up with his Nobel Prize-winning equations while on a ski vacation with his mistress near Davos, Switzerland. He had been trying to understand the wave-function of electrons. Perhaps the sight of rhythmic ski tracks waving down the mountainside inspired his famous wave equations, in which all matter can be evaluated as both waves and particles.
“Wave Equations” in the snow. Photo: Webwizzard. Source: Wikimedia
Ideas don’t come to us in a vacuum, however. There’s an iterative process of inspiration, trial, error, perspiration, inspiration, trial, error, and so on. A recent study of 1.7 million patent applications showed that the children of patent holders are nine times more likely to hold patents themselves than those of non-patent-holders. Income matters, as does geography. If you’re from a neighborhood with other patent holders, that matters a lot, too. And it helps to go to MIT or RPI or Carnegie-Mellon Institute, and live in San Jose or San Francisco, California, rather than Fresno or Modesto
Innovation is a plant that needs to be nurtured. It requires originality, self-expression, collaboration, risk-taking, autonomy, and imagination. It’s not just a matter of imagine-it-and-they-will come. Growing up, I could imagine all kinds of neat gizmos. I didn’t have the innovative infrastructure, however, to make them happen. The entire creative process – from illumination to preparation to incubation to verification (“There and Back Again”) – consists of multiple interacting cognitive and emotional processes. And that requires a supportive social fabric. There’s a reason George Washington Carver came up with his 105 recipes using peanuts after he joined the up with others at the Tuskegee Institute.
Original faculty of Tuskegee Institute. Photo: Frances Johnston. Source: Library of Congress.
Our knowledge-based economy runs on innovation. But innovation doesn’t create itself. It requires people who are ready to fashion a new reality out of the old.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
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