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Why the Best Innovators are Students

07/30/2014

Every field of work (and life) has its innovators and experts–the sharpest minds in the game. And if you share the ambition to achieve something great, you may aspire to join their ranks. But what are the steps that actually get people there? Who were great innovators before they became masters in their field?

The truth is these individuals  start out the same way as the rest of us. No one is born as an iconic leader, scientific mastermind, Olympic athlete, or savvy entrepreneur. They start in the same place: full of questions, concerns, hopes, dreams, and challenges. So, what separates their path?

As I meet and speak with a wide range of remarkable individuals, I’ve noticed one definitive commonality between all of them: the most innovative people are the greatest learners. This doesn’t just mean students in a traditional classroom (in fact often it’s often the opposite), but rather the most proactive people in pursuing firsthand knowledge in a chosen area.

Experts-to-be let intellectual curiosity lead them and surround themselves with smarter people who can share stories and lessons. The most impactful learning comes from these sources, as well as their own hands-on experiences.

Most distinctively, if you pick the brain of an renowned individual in any field you’ll realize they never stopped learning. They never stop seeking out more research and the ideas of smarter minds.

And it applies to all fields. Ludwig van Beethoven, born with incredible musical sense, didn’t produce many of his most historically acclaimed (and innovative) pieces until after decades of study and improvement alongside composer Joseph Haydn, his father, and others.

Elon Musk, one of the most noted living entrepreneurs, has invented radically new cars and space shuttles by becoming a student again and again after startup successes in entirely unrelated industries.

Even billionaire investor Warren Buffett credits his business savvy to constant study, claiming, “I just sit in my office and read all day.” For the most innovative, learning doesn’t stop when you leave a traditional learning environment.

Anyone has the potential to spark great thought and work. As IDEO founder David Kelley once said to me, “creativity starts with being curious, and everyone can be curious.” The icons we look up to want to keep being students. Any of us can become true innovators and experts in our field if we commit to meaningful, mind-sharpening experiences, and seeking out opportunities to spend as much time as possible learning from those ahead of us.

That pivotal transition into holding true expertise happens when you are able to share substantive insights with those a few steps behind you. Experts are great storytellers–they share their opinions and mentor others–and it’s not just for altruistic reasons. In words attributed to Albert Einstein, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Sharing what you’ve learned forces you to build stronger mental frameworks and answer tough questions. It drives you to remain a student and not become complacent with early success.

If you devote yourself to becoming a great student, you will create and do great things. People may or may not deem you as an expert, but your listening ear and thoughtful work will spark the type of conversations that lead to better places and momentous ideas.

So, what are you learning?

A formula for greatness

07/16/2014

Greatness is elusive. Sometimes, it’s easy to spot. Other times, it takes a lifetime to notice. There are few things so sought out, yet so widely defined.

In order to define greatness, we must know average. And in order for us to know average we have to recognize what is ordinary or normal.

Look around to find what is considered normal. Is it a product, an experience, a sound, a taste?

Nothing begins great, but everything has the potential to cross the chasm from mediocre to memorable – from mundane to magical.

Find those things. Hunt for them.

You’ll know them when you see them. You will feel them. They will glow with potential. They will groan with fatigue. They will pale in comparison to your vision of what they could be.

But, what produces greatness?

Energy + Commitment

With enough energy and commitment, anything can be great.

When you find something worth improving, spend days, weeks, years, a lifetime resisting average. Know what fuels you and fill up often.

When you grow tired, remember this is just the beginning.

When people doubt…
When resources are sparse…
When hope is absent…
When applause is faint…
When time plays its dirty tricks and loneliness finds you…

Those moments are when you can rise above ordinary reactions and impulses and to apply energy and commitment. These are the opportunities for greatness to surface.

It doesn’t matter where you begin, but that you define and reach the end.

So go, be great.

The push and pull of today

07/09/2014

Some days feel massive. Conversations are like stalled cars and certain projects are oblong boulders needing to be pushed uphill. They are the days that highlight our faults and destroy our hopes.

But, the depth and breadth of our character is not developed on light days.

Remember that giant obstacles are rarely moved at once. Over time, hope will surface when things of magnitude begin to nudge and inch forward. They may require incessant pushing and pulling, but after a few heaves and help from willing bodies – bit by bit – you will see progress. And the movement will be contagious. You’ll see yourself grow better, stronger, and more ready than ever to face what comes next.

So, put your back into it. You may be closer than you think.

Homeward

06/04/2014

One of my greatest fears is being lost.

That’s hard to admit for someone who loves to explore. Frankly, getting lost rarely happens. It seems that I always have access to a phone, computer, or a person who can point me in the right direction.

But every so often, especially while traveling abroad, I’ll find myself in the middle of nowhere, racking my brain to piece together signs and landmarks while retracing steps.

Once while I was in Barcelona, I decided to leave my friends at the AirBnB we had rented and venture out for a late night walk through the Gothic Quarter. I stopped into a few bars, tried to speak and use sign language with an array of strangers, and continued exploring the town in all of its beauty.

As the night went on, I realized that I had no idea where I was. The Gothic Quarter, with its intertwining roads and quirky buildings, made it impossible to recognize anything, especially at night. It was getting late, I couldn’t call my friends, I didn’t know the language, and everyone around seemed to be intoxicated beyond comprehension.

I was lost. The one thing I knew was that I needed to get home.

When someone is on a mission to get home, there isn’t much need for translation. The combination of facial expressions, finger pointing and slightly desperate vocal tones are enough for anyone to understand. You may be lost, but the mission is written on your forehead.

This is the beauty of a mission that comes from deep within you. It is something that you can’t help but pursue. It points you in the right direction. It keeps you awake. It calls other people to help you. And it may even invite other people to join you until you reach your destination – which is exactly what happened to me that night.

Your home becomes your mission. And eventually, your mission becomes your home.

Some days, you will feel like you’re heading in the right direction. Other days, you’ll feel entirely lost. Whatever the day, know your mission.

And don’t look too hard. Just look for the places that feel like home.

[This post was written for June's Leap Topic: Mission. Originally posted at: http://www.leapyearproject.org/homeward/]

You have today.

03/05/2014

Days are a tease. Mornings inspire us with bright lights and flashes of color, giving us reason to rise. We switch from slumber to speeding through time, doing everything possible to act upon what matters most – to pursue success in its million forms. In one instance everything is aligned. The deal has closed, the project was approved, he or she said “yes,” everything is right. Then, in seemingly the very next moment, everything goes awry and we must start again.

All of that work, all of those hopes, all of those grand visions…squashed and seemingly squandered.

The best part of our days is not that they begin, it’s that they’re always followed by another day. Each day, then, is an opportunity to begin again.

No matter how many times you’ve tried or how many times you’ve failed, it’s not the end.

You have today.

Be Daring

02/19/2014

Do you know the feeling of watching someone who’s about to attempt something dangerous?

You notice the sweat bead on their foreheads as they prepare. Everything around them is being tested, primed, pumped, and prepared for their feat – all of it in slow motion.

Anticipation builds.

As time counts down, everyone moves to the edge of their seat. Will they succeed? Will they fail? The more at stake, the greater the anticipation.

Then finally, they’re off!

At this point, no matter what happens, that person has done something remarkable. They have dreamt and done. They have wondered and attempted. They have seen and dared.

As we watch these people and events, we become curious, “could that be me?”

The only thing stopping us from daring, is never moving past that question. We examine it like a priceless piece of art, when really, that question is nothing more than the beginning of the amazing exhibition that is the rest of our lives.

So, go ahead. Try something grand. I dare you.

And, if you do it, you’ll be daring us.

You are not a machine.

02/12/2014

Do you know why you work harder? Longer? Too much?

I wonder if it’s because you spend too much time with a machine.

It’s been said that people are most influenced by the five people we spend the most time with. What if that was true about our devices?

The only way for you to see the world, and yourself more clearly, is by spending more time with people than with things. Otherwise, you’ll let those things play a role they were never meant to play. Rather than becoming a helpful tool and part of your environment, those things become a destination, or worse, an example.

Remember, you can’t just be flipped open, scanned for endless information, rebooted in seconds, and light your way through dark rooms on a seemingly never-ending source of rechargeable power.

You’re not a combination of replaceable parts.

You are more than the sum of your output, speed, and appearances.

You are not a machine.

So, stop acting like one.

You should quit

02/05/2014

Yep, you read that right. You should stop right now.

Stop that new project, quit that new habit, and forget about achieving your new goal. At the end of the day, it isn’t worth it. Even if it does turn out well, no one will care. You probably won’t earn much more and the overall social gain will be minimal. In fact, people will just see how hard you work and demand more of you for less.

Quit while you’re ahead and just do the easiest thing to please yourself.

Find a quiet job that doesn’t ask too much, purchase whatever you want as often as you want, and do what makes you happy in any given moment. Doing hard things is overrated.

You should quit.

This will inevitably go through your mind at some point when you’re starting something meaningful or doing something worthwhile. You’re not alone. If you start hearing these thoughts, don’t quit. Not yet.

Never quit when you’re tired, alone, or down. These thoughts are just that…thoughts. They are as immaterial and fickle as the wind.

Decide now that you will only quit when you’re in sound mind and good company.

That’s the only time you should quit.

Save Stories, Not Things

02/02/2014

Our lives dance between the material and the immaterial. We love what we can touch but we long for what we can feel. These things are only heightened in today’s age of mind boggling technology and mass connection.

In a great act of defiance, there has been a resurgence of makers – those who step away from the 2-dimensional to create things that have textures and aromas, things that are passed and shared. These people are craftsman, bakers, builders, artists, musicians, chefs, farmers, and carpenters.

Together, they make the things that fill our homes and are passed down for generations.

Still, as special as those things are, they are exponentially more valuable when accompanied by their stories.

It is our stories that have the great and immeasurable power to bring hope and direction to this life and the lives of those to come. They console us when we grieve and accompany us when we succeed. Time will pass, and so will we, but our stories will remain.

Our challenge, then, is not to conjure the immaterial or to create more of the material, but rather to live, tell, and cherish the stories that have inspired us.

We are lost without the stories we’ve believed.
And, we are moved by the stories we now see.

Awe & Fear

01/29/2014

When we were kids, everything was new, big, and amazing. We didn’t even know what we could know. Everything was beyond us, yet everything was seemingly right in front of us.

In one moment, we would be frightened to the point of screams and tears, and within seconds we could be giggling with delight.

When did that stop?

How long did it take for the scales to tip in the direction of everything becoming mundane and normal? When did being awed by what we don’t know become being afraid of what might happen?

For me, it happened in the sixth grade when I realized that I was a bit heavier than the other boys my age. I stopped wanting to explore because the more I was seen, the more I would realize how inadequate I was.

The reason I stopped being fascinated and awed by what I didn’t know was because I felt that I needed to measure up to those things, or become more like them. That’s when I became afraid.

But, when I stop comparing – when I pursue a relationship out of love, or experience something for the sake of learning, or explore a new place to simply soak in the surroundings – when I remove myself from the picture, I become less afraid.

In fact, like the little boy I once was, I am filled with awe.

Removing fear, then, entails nothing more than removing yourself.

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