How to innovate! (Don’t be too innovative.)

As a society, or species, (or whatever we are), we tend to laud forward thinking creative geniuses. When we find one, we hoist them onto a pedestal and treat them as an (to quote this article) “Übermensch [who] stands apart from the masses, pulling them forcibly into a future that they can neither understand nor appreciate.” This is true across all disciplines. Think of Einstein, Beethoven, Picasso, on and on.

So how does one become a genius? Clearly you have to innovate, to do something no one else has done. But there’s a catch here. You can’t be too innovative. You can’t be so ahead of the curve that nobody can really grasp what you’re saying or doing.

Let me propose a thought experiment. Jimi Hendrix travels to Vienna around 1750 and plays his music. Would he be lauded as a genius? Would his guitar playing be heard as the obvious evolution of current trends in music? No, he’d probably be regarded as an idiot making hideous noise and he might be burned at the stake.

But, let music evolve for around 220 years and yes, Jimi is rightfully regarded as a genius. His sound was made palatable by those who came before him, mainly electric blues guitar players of the 50s and 60s. (Obviously there are a lot of other factors (like race and class and sex) relevant to whom gets crowned a genius but I’m painting in broad strokes here.)

So the trick to being a genius is to be ahead of your time but not too ahead. The world of science and medicine is filled with examples. Gregor Mendel famously discovered that physical traits could be passed from one generation of life to another. In what was a major breakthrough in our understanding of biology, he theorized what we came to call genes. He published his results and was met with pretty much total indifference. It wasn’t until his work was rediscovered decades later that we applied them. Mendel was too ahead of his time.

The book “The Mind’s I” notes the mathematician Giovanni Girolamo Saccheri who contributed to the discovery of non-Euclidian geometry. His ideas were so controversial that even Saccheri himself rejected them! (At least he did according to the book; there seems some debate on this. See the last graph on the Saccheri wiki page.) Talk about being too ahead of your time.

But perhaps the best example of this sort of thing is Ignaz Semmelweis. The Hungarian physician…

…discovered that the incidence of puerperal fever could be drastically cut by the use of hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics.

That’s right, he basically came up with the crazy idea that doctors should wash their hands after touching sick people. Unfortunately…

Despite various publications of results where hand-washing reduced mortality to below 1%, Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time and his ideas were rejected by the medical community. Some doctors were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands and Semmelweis could offer no acceptable scientific explanation for his findings. Semmelweis’s practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory and Joseph Lister, acting on the French microbiologist’s research, practiced and operated, using hygienic methods, with great success.

Oh well. Semmelweis probably still had a great career and life right?

Umm, no.

In 1865, Semmelweis was committed to an asylum, where he died at age 47 after being beaten by the guards, only 14 days after he was committed.

Don’t be too ahead of the curve folks.

2 Responses to “How to innovate! (Don’t be too innovative.)”


  1. Manisha Shahane

    I loved this post, and I think you bring up some great points! One thing I would add is that I think that whether or not one decides how far ahead of the curve, so to speak, one aims to be is determined by one’s goal. I think society benefits when people work from the edge of their limits and expand, even though they/their work may not be recognized in the span of their own lifetimes. Of course, if the creator has a goal of achieving a particular kind of recognition in the course of his lifetime, it definitely makes sense that piggybacking on the previously/most recently accepted idea is likely to be most accessible and understandable, provided his peers feel that his thinking is forward enough without going too far in some direction that his peers perceive is something that has been tried and which has failed, or which seems too esoteric and not really adding to the current conversation that is taking place. If the creator is able to recognize the value of his work without relying solely on external validation, then it’s possible that future generations may be able to recognize its merit in a way that his peers couldn’t recognize at the time in which he was living. So, actually I think your post highlights a need for being all the more supportive of creators to work from their personal edges, and for creators to develop the confidence necessary to support themselves on the long miles when they are walking alone and no one is there to cheer them on. Also, I want to add that I’m not passing judgment on creators who may seek to be recognized for the merit of their work and contribution in the course of their lifetimes, but I think that we as a society might be limiting ourselves if somehow that becomes the only goal that is perceived as laudable for those on a path of creation, invention, innovation, etc. I am using voice-over recognition for the bulk of this post, so I hope that it reads clearly. It certainly is a very interesting mode with which to communicate, versus the way I might communicate this if I were writing. In fact, earlier today I was in the waiting room in the doctors office, and I had been typing a response here also using my mobile device, but then I was called in sooner than expected by the office (wow! Go figure) and so I had to abandon my post … and I think that it got lost … so here I have quickly tried to re-convey what some of my thoughts were earlier today. So, thanks again for sharing your post, which actually is motivating me to find all the more courage to lean into working all the more from my edge and a place of vulnerability …

  2. Wil

    Yeah, that’s an interesting point that there’s really two components to what we call genius – the actual content of the ideas and the recognition of the content by the populace. And they are intertwined. If I come up with a cure for cancer but can’t get anyone to buy into it, I really have accomplished anything. It’s a bit like stand up comedy – if I tell a great joke but nobody in the audience laughs (or worse, there is no audience) that joke has, in a sense, failed.

    It’s almost a zen koan – if a comedian tells a joke and nobody laughs, is it funny?