Innovation is "not a word I'm fond of," local author Scott Berkun writes in the preface to the paperback edition of his book The Myths of Innovation, adding, "It's used all too often today, and it has lost any significance." (Some real-life examples he uses as proof: "We innovate every day" and "We are in the innovation business.") Unlike most people who avoid words they detest, Berkun instead decided to investigate innovation and write a book about it. He read dozens of books, hundreds of articles, and uncountable blog posts about invention, innovation, and ideas in order to detect the patterns behind their creation.
One of his first discoveries: Ideas are cheap. First-time inventors and amateur artists often protect their first good ideas jealously, polishing them to perfection and hiding them away from the world for fear that they'll be stolen. It's an understandable impulse—you want to be proud of your ideas because they seem like such fragile, important things—but it's an utterly wrongheaded one. Berkun argues that most innovators share two traits: the ability to generate a huge number of ideas and the ability to detect the one or two good ideas amid all the bad.
Berkun tears down a few American myths along the way: The Mount Rushmore of American inventors—Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers, Henry Ford—did not spring forth fully formed. Any single innovation is built on top of the millions of innovations that have come before. The first chapter of Innovation is titled "The Myth of Epiphany," and it viciously tears apart the concept that ideas strike, lightninglike, to produce something completely new. Isaac Newton didn't deliver gravity to us like Moses down from Mount Sinai; Newton's apple fell with the weight of hundreds of years of scientific thought behind it. And Berkun reminds us that follow-through is almost as important as having the idea in the first place:
You can't get cash from the idea of an ATM, nor commute to work on the notion of a hovercraft... We know the names Edison, Wright, Wozniak, and Tesla not because they had grand ideas alone, but because they were able to execute on them before their competitors. Steve Jobs was right when he said, "Real artists ship," to rally the Macintosh team into putting in the long, exhausting, unglamorous hours needed to get the product out the door.
Part of the reason innovation is so misunderstood is that history erodes specificity, and a cultlike devotion to the divinity of innovation gradually develops. (Consider this thought experiment: Even though he didn't invent the touch screen or most of the relevant technologies, just imagine what future generations will make of Jobs and how he saved us from the tyranny of our silly push-button cell phones.) We remember the internal combustion–powered automobile and forget all the other attempts—including steam-powered cars and electric-powered cars, some dating back decades before Ford's first crude adventures—that didn't quite make it to popular usage. "This means that every technology, from pacemakers to contact lenses, fluorescent lights to birth control pills, arrived through the same chaos seen in the hot technologies of today," Berkun writes.
This is as it should be, because society can't tolerate ideas before their time: If sturdy, solar-powered cellular phones were to suddenly appear (along with cellular towers) in medieval times, Berkun points out, they would be burned as tools of the devil. Innovation is less an explosion of genius and more a humble dialogue.
Berkun isn't some punk-rock nihilist out to destroy our idols in order to make the act of creation seem unspecial or the province of thieves. Quite the opposite: By demystifying creativity, he makes it democratic, something that everyone can do. (It can also be systematically ruined; he spends much of Innovation suggesting that improper management quashes the process of innovation in corporations, and that the modern system of business-as-bureaucracy makes innovation all but impossible.) Berkun provides the resources and the know-how for everyone to harness their inner inventor.
Most books on creativity seem to exist just to tell you what you want to hear: Business-themed creativity books often try to dry it down to a husk of a process; creative-writing books often ennoble creativity into a spiritual, even godly, process rife with hippie clichés about storytelling being as vital as breath. Berkun, like a good detective, has gotten to the bottom of the process and shared his findings. He's taken the fire of innovation away from the few and returned it to the many.