We all want to be good at what we do. Some of us strive to be the best.
But what if our goals were loftier? Not better. Not the best. What if we strived for innovative remarkability?
Being the best is doing it better than others. Innovative remarkability is more. It’s doing it different, accomplishing what can’t be done… if you believe others.
Once, I achieved innovative remarkability… unintentionally. I got lucky.
My junior year in high school (Cincinnati Country Day) I took a high level math course. It was different than anything I’d experienced.
Our textbook gave us the questions AND the answers. The challenge was to “prove” the answer by constructing a sequence of formulas that tied the hypothesis to the result.
One day our teacher, Dr. Yeiser, asked me to go to the blackboard and write out the sequence of formulas to prove a problem. I hadn’t studied the assigned chapter. I was in trouble.
My classmates’ eyes were focused on me. My brain locked. It literally froze. With sweaty palms I walked to the front of the room with no idea what I would do.
Then, to my astonishment, I envisioned a simple solution. With perspiring palms, I picked up the chalk, carefully writing out a one-step answer.
The class sat in silence, shifting their eyes from my answer to their open math books.
Dr. Yeiser stood at the back of the room staring at the blackboard for what seemed like an eternity. Actually, it was probably less than a minute.
To my great relief, he looked at me and said, “Mr. Hague, that appears to be correct. Where did you find it?”
“I just thought of it, sir,” I stammered. With that, Dr. Yeiser did something he hadn’t done before. He ended class ten minutes early.
I thought nothing about it until a few days later when I was handed a note requesting that I report to Dr. Yeiser’s office. I was not thrilled. My past experiences seeing teachers after school had not been positive.
Nervously, I arrived at his office. Dr. Yeiser politely asked me to sit down. I expected the worst.
How surprised I was when he said, “Mr. Hague, the other day you solved that problem in a simpler way, a solution I hadn’t seen before. Congratulations.”
Obviously, I was ecstatic. But also perplexed. I succeeded because I hadn’t studied. Weird!
Because I wasn’t prepared, I was forced to think freely, originally. If I had studied, I wouldn’t have envisioned a simpler solution.
I really didn’t deserve the teacher’s praise. My success was a result of being unprepared. Not a good lesson to learn when you’re in high school. But there was a less obvious lesson.
Being an innovator was exhilarating! But as I learned in later years, there is a downside. Innovators may be glorified in books, but in real life, being an innovator is darn risky.
Innovators are often considered quacks, sometimes even ridiculed… unless they succeed. Then they are applauded. It’s like beat them down until they prove you wrong.
Schools reward us for learning what is, rather than inventing what isn’t. Businesses pay us to implement existing directives rather than innovate new directions.
Imagine how much more innovation there’d be if risk takers received accolades for trying, even when they failed? But too many fear change, so that’s unlikely to happen.
I got lucky in math class, more so than I realized. The exhilaration I felt (albeit from luck), gave me the thick skin I needed to innovate in the years ahead.
I’ve learned that innovation can be a dangerous endeavor. But I’d rather look back and have tried. How about you?
“Innovation is seeing what everybody has seen
and thinking what nobody has thought.”
– Dr. Albert Szent-Györgyi