Inspiration or Innovation

Time is a teacher. With age, fundamental shifts in my perspective have emerged that I neither anticipate nor ask for and that, ultimately, highlight how little I know about much of anything. Examples abound, but one such shift took place while viewing a 2005 Bezos recording about “taking on the challenge” of entrepreneurship.

We’re hopefully in agreement that Bezos is one of the greatest businesspeople in recent memory and, even in February 2005 — when Amazon was priced at roughly $35/share (you do the math) — it’s apparent that he excels at something so common among the brilliant: namely, making complex ideas accessible to the layman.

His resonating point concerns how people approach the generation of new ideas. To many, myself included, the easiest way to frame or define idea generation is by attributing a new thought or concept to inspiration — the proverbial “light bulb” going off. We all have ideas, and chalking this up to some random inspiration multiplier that functions slightly differently from one person to the next makes it easier to rationalize that some will inevitably have better ideas than others.

Bezos describes this as people seeing a problem that annoys them, which then motivates them to find a solution; inspiration strikes to offer solutions to the annoyance. For as long as humans have been conscious enough to be annoyed, these moments of inspiration have spawned the creation of tools, technology, art, acts of charity, WD-40 and so on. But far more frequently, inspiration yields little more than a moment of self-congratulation and a passing “I should write that down” which we quickly forget once we’re confronted with the menu at Starbucks.

How Bezos continues is what struck me:

Sometimes you can work this from the backwards direction and, in fact, in high-tech I think a lot of the innovation sometimes comes from this direction. You see a new technology or there’s something out there, some new understanding in the world, and you work backwards from a solution to find the appropriate problem.

The process that Bezos identifies is the opposite of inspiration. He points to the conscientious and active channeling of brainpower to identify an annoyance before it strikes — in my mind, innovation. Where inspiration is fleeting and self-indulgent, innovation is pointed and educated. Understanding a market takes time, particularly from the outside looking in. To further bet on this market by inventing and investing in solutions to problems or annoyances that have not yet emerged: that’s vision, that’s insight, that’s innovation.

It takes but a few moments to connect the dots between recently notable founders and markets they upended through conscious and calculated innovation. Daniel wasn’t a record producer, Brian didn’t run hotels, the Jennifers weren’t dry cleaner franchisees. In each case, the market silently screamed for attention and they tuned in to the frequency before anybody else cared to actively listen.

Why so personally pivotal? Because it’s easiest to explain the success of our innovators by attributing it to a moment of inspiration that the divine weren’t kind enough to impart upon us personally. It acts as both an excuse — “well, the idea didn’t come to me” — and an exemption — “…so I didn’t do the work”. A naive avoidance of giving credit where credit is clearly due which also serves as a method for conveniently excluding ourselves from the ranks of the exceptional.

As a person who closely guards the idea journaling habit, this perspective gave me pause. The “billion dollar partnerships” formed over a few pints, the woodshed inventors that tinker for a lifetime, the silent genius that keeps her ideas hidden from the world are legion. While I doubt it was his intention, in just a few sentences Bezos sent a chilling message: maybe the majority of our most successful doers find themselves there because it was their exact intention. The partners wrote the business plan, the invention left the woodshed, the silent genius chose not to keep silent.

Waiting for the mythical “right idea” is just that, a myth. An individual with an authentic passion to change the way we humans interact with our world, despite best intentions, may wait on inspiration for a lifetime. But the hard-won progress of innovation, that’s available to us whenever we’re ready to hunker down and do the work.

Inspiration or Innovation

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