Ever wonder why it took a global pandemic for the world to embrace working from home, or why no one put wheels on suitcases until the 1980s? In this engaging article, entrepreneur Michael Simmons offers a brief overview of key instances when humanity was slow to embrace change and innovation, and explores why this is so often the case. Through careful analysis, Simmons reveals how conventional wisdom keeps society from seeing great opportunities. He also proposes a five-part mind-set that can help people get ahead of the innovation curve.
- People miss out on great innovations because they listen to conventional wisdom.
- Seeking change rather than waiting for it speeds up innovative progress.
People miss out on great innovations because they listen to conventional wisdom.
People often assume that, if an idea is good enough, society will immediately put it to good use. Yet there are thousands of cases of innovation stagnation throughout history – moments when, for seemingly inexplicable reasons, a groundbreaking idea gets set aside for years. Penicillin was discovered in 1928, but it was neither produced nor used widely until the late 1940s. Nobody thought to put wheels on a suitcase until the late 1980s despite the wheel existing for thousands of years.
“Innovation on a particular device may cease for decades or even centuries before someone reconceptualizes its design or its use.” (researcher David Nye)
When the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe, most knowledge workers switched from going into an office every day to working from home. Increased efficiency, lowered operating costs and happier employees were just some amazing benefits this transition yielded. Yet, if the pandemic had never happened, it could have been decades before companies became wise to the value of remote work.
Even industry experts often miss innovative opportunities when those new inventions or ways of doing things deviate from conventional wisdom – the “standard” way of doing things. Take Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of Netscape and a prominent tech venture capitalist. In 2015, he turned down the chance to fund Matt Mullenweg, the creator of WordPress and Automatic, because Mullenweg pitched an all-remote company structure. Conventional wisdom told Andreessen that successful tech companies worked in person, and in person only. By 2021, however, Andreessen had reorganized his entire venture capital firm as a remote-first company.
Seeking change rather than waiting for it speeds up innovative progress.
People don’t need to wait for a crisis to start changing their mind-set to one that is proactive, rather than reactive to innovation. Instead of saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” people can adopt a mind-set that actively looks for ways to improve things that aren’t “broken,” but could revolutionize the world.
“There are huge opportunities for personal growth and productivity improvement sitting right in front of us.”
This new mind-set involves five fundamental changes:
- Foster more optimism – According to theoretical physicist David Deutsch, pessimistic people – and societies – are risk-averse. Believing that nothing can get better becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. An optimistic outlook embraces the possibility of the new. It takes positive people to change the world for the better because they can imagine a brighter future.
- Continuously strive to progress – Elon Musk has stated that technology doesn’t progress on its own, it takes a lot of hard work. While the last 300 years has seen an exponential spike in productivity and rise in living standards, people can’t take it for granted that this will continue indefinitely. Without continued striving, the present period of enlightenment will end, like all those that came before it.
- Don’t wait until a crisis to start improving – Instead of waiting for the next big invention to appear, people should seek out possible improvements now, and take chances on innovations even before they prove their worth. Like a hero embarking on a journey, society needs people to courageously push boundaries, even if there seems to be no obvious need.
- Solve problems every day – Begin each day with the intention to improve: an “Improvement Mind-set.” Looking for problems and thinking about solutions needs to become a daily practice in order to keep growing.
- Set aside time for learning and growth each week – Take five hours each week to read, learn and experiment. Many top innovators, including Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, follow this rule. When you are a lifelong learner, you are more likely to keep trying and discovering new things.
About the Author
Author Michael Simmons is a serial entrepreneur.