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The Myth of Individual Invention


The Swarming essay drew the interest and comments of many readers. Most of the retorts evoked deeply held fears of one’s individualism being threatened. Society has taught us that survival owes to our salary at our job, and that our job owes to our individual performance. Society has reinforced those notions with accolades of individual accomplishment: patents, promotions, and promises of favor. Culture needs and has always needed such rituals, and we shouldn’t minimize their contribution. It is, however, important to know that they work differently in different cultures, and that there is a much, much bigger picture.

If one looks beyond the cultural trappings of recognition, it has long been known that it is society, and not individuals, who invent. The anthropologist Kroeber, in his book Anthropology (1923, Harcourt, Brace and World), tells us that “as long as the matter [of the nature of genius] is viewed simply as one of persons, it remains rather meaningless.” Many people invent, but “[o]nly a fraction are ever found out, or allowed the rank by history.” He lists inventions discovered by multiple inventors thousands of miles apart within months of each other: the telephone, telescope, steamboat, phonograph, natural selection, and dozens more. How can an individual in good conscience claim ownership of a novel idea?

You can argue that even if this is true, that society demands recognition of accomplishment on the Pavlovian basis that people do what they are rewarded for. Rewards are important as cultural artefacts; but we know from Edward Deci’s Why We Do What We Do, from Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Truth about What Motivates Us, and dozens of other sources, it’s all about the intrinsic sense of accomplishment than any extrinsic motivator.

Social and technological progress are less about individuals than about groups and swarms. In his recent book Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation (Riverhead, 2011), Steven Johnson tells us that “Analyzing innovation on the scale of individuals and organizations—as the standard textbooks do—distorts our view. It creates a picture of innovation that overstates the role of proprietary research and ‘survival of the fittest’ competition.” Johnson’s conclusion is that “openness and connectivity may, in the end, be more valuable to innovation than purely competitive mechanisms.” He offers case study after case study of how cross-fertilization of people and ideas led to good ideas.


On Being Wrong


Few things are tougher than admitting that you are wrong. Fewer still are more important, perhaps even necessary, than being wrong. I’m no longer young enough to know everything but I sure started out that way; and while I may occasionally regret the diminishing of that aggressive confidence, I am happy for the gain in the quieter version that lets me accept that I can, and have, failed.

The denial of failure is an indication of fear

What is your first reaction when someone points out a mistake in your code, a shortcoming in your design or questions your premise for a solution? Does your pulse quicken? Is a retort ready to be hurled? Does your voice rise? Do you feel besieged? Are you convinced you are being treated unfairly? These are all signs that you are suppressing fear and denying the possibility that you may be wrong. You may win the battle by browbeating your opponents at the table, but you’ve lost the war of gaining their respect.

Your colleagues will think twice before they come to you for an opinion or invite you to a brainstorming session. Anger and defensiveness are masks for insecurity, so watch out for them and focus on understanding the causes of your reaction than on the motives of your (perceived) opponents. Being wrong is inevitable; your colleagues are doing their jobs by questioning, probing and analyzing the design; are you doing yours by being open, receptive and flexible?

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