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The innovation mindset
It's not brilliance, it's resilience
One of my favorite parts of working in tech is proximity to innovation.
A very simple definition of innovation is coming up with big ideas to make things better. When we think of innovation, we think of Steve Jobs holding an iPhone (or my personal favorite - Elon Musk shattering the window of his new electric truck). These images can be quite intimidating, because the bar feels astronomically high. But what we need to remember is that the road to innovation is much longer (and slower) than it looks.
For my own sanity, I prefer to think of innovation in a different way:
Innovation is identifying a problem to be solved, and then trying a thousand different ways to solve it.
It takes the pressure off, no?
How does innovation happen?
Innovation is hard, and slow, and then very fast. It tends to go something like this. You take a bunch of small steps forward, a few crashes backwards, and then you have a breakthrough. A great example of this is TikTok, who resurrected the video looping format from Vine, Instagram, and music.ly.It was a tiny UX tweak (and perhaps some good timing) that made a monumental difference in user behavior.
(Side note on music.ly, a middle schooler showed me the app in 2016 and it was the first time in my millennial life that I felt old.)
When you hear a founder talk about building a successful company, they tend to focus on “the breakthrough” - or the moment when everything came together. But they rarely talk about the hundreds of things that didn’t work, or the years they toiled away in order to reach the breakthrough. Which is a shame, because that is the part that matters the most.
The key to innovation is not brilliance, it’s resilience
When you think of innovative people, who comes to mind? Is it tech founders, political leaders, or professional athletes? We tend to assume these people are more talented than us, or were set on some pre-destined path to success.
But the more you study them, the more you realize their success comes from resilience. Successful people face failures just like the rest of us, but the difference is they learn from them. They are obsessive about understanding what went wrong, and why. This is how they hone their craft. And that translates to the workplace too.
The innovation mindset
If the key to innovation is resilience, how does one adopt this in practice?
Experiment often. The only way to learn is to try a bunch of things. If you are trying to learn how to play the guitar, you have to try a bunch of shapes to find which ones work for your fingers. If you are trying to learn how to launch an e-commerce business, you have to try a bunch of different marketing channels to find which one is most efficient at driving sales. Experimentation is about learning, not about success (initially). This mindset takes away the fear of failure and gives you the space to discover.
Be curious. Failure is emotional. It discourages us from continuing on down a path, for fear of more failure. Curiosity, on the other hand, is an eagerness to understand the world as it is. This detachment makes it easier to investigate our failures in full, rather than judging them.
If something goes wrong, don’t pretend it didn’t happen, learn why it didn’t work. I had a manager that would praise me when I failed at something, as long as I learned from it. Curiosity changes the narrative from negative: “If this fails, I am a failure,” to positive: “If this fails, I will learn something.”
Ask for feedback. Resilience requires getting a second opinion, and then taking it in stride. Our peers can point out our blind spots and get us back on track, but only if we have the ability to receive it. Receiving feedback can be painful, because it feels so personal. But if we approach it with our innovation mindset - experimenting often and staying curious - we can create distance to sift through the feedback and find the pieces that will make us better.
Innovation is for everyone, not just for our idols. So stay curious out there, my friends. Who knows what you may discover?
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