Melissa A. Schilling is professor of management and organizations at New York University's Stern School of Business and author of Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World.
According to his mother, Elon Musk, the man behind SpaceX and Tesla Motors, was the smallest child in his class, a "supernerd" who was often bullied. His compulsion to correct people with his encyclopedic knowledge caused most of his peers to reject him, making him feel isolated. His mother, Maye, noted, "I felt very sad as a mother because I think he wanted friends. But he was awkward, you know." Mr. Musk responded to this sense of separation by escaping into books and computer programming, ultimately writing and selling his first video game at the age of 12. Years later, a former employee would describe him as "able to detach from human connection to a remarkable degree."
I've spent the past six years studying serial breakthrough innovators – people who introduced spectacular innovations over and over again – and one of the strongest and most surprising commonalities was their sense of separateness – a feeling of social detachment, or of not belonging. Albert Einstein articulated it most clearly, noting, "My passionate sense of social justice and social responsibility has always contrasted oddly with my pronounced freedom from the need for direct contact with other human beings and human communities. I gang my own gait and have never belonged to my country, my home, my friends, or even my immediate family, with my whole heart; in the face of all these ties I have never lost an obstinate sense of detachment, of the need for solitude – a feeling which increases with the years."
He wasn't alone in this sentiment. Nikola Tesla, the brilliant inventor of AC electricity, wireless communication and more, preferred to work alone, and mostly at night. He rarely engaged in social interaction and had few friends. An 1895 New York Times article described him with the following: "He seems to be a man who dwells apart. He has no kith or kin in this country, and only a few friends who share his confidences. Even in moments of closest social intercourse he will become abstracted, and there is never a time when he would not prefer his laboratory to any other spot on earth."
Pierre and Marie Curie, the Nobel Prize-winning chemists who discovered radium, among other things, were extremely attached to each other, but detached from the social world. As Pierre Curie wrote, "We dreamed of living in the world quite removed from human beings." They even relinquished most of the care for their two daughters to Pierre Curie's father. The girls adored their parents, but pined for their attention. Their daughter Ève would later write, "United by their tenderness, united by their intellectual passions, they had, in a wooden shack, the 'anti-natural' existence for which they had both been made, she as well as he."
Of the eight serial breakthrough innovators I studied in a six-year research project, all but one (Benjamin Franklin) exhibited this marked sense of separateness as an integral part of their nature. It wasn't introversion or reserve; to the contrary, many of the innovators were assertive and outspoken, and sometimes even domineering. Their sense of separateness reflected the degree to which they felt they did not belong to, or were not a part of, the social world around them.
I hadn't intentionally tried to find "separate" innovators; was this just a peculiar coincidence? The more I studied their lives, the more convinced I became that it was not. Separateness had helped the innovators be independent thinkers, freeing them to break the rules and ignore the assumptions that constrained others. By not belonging, they were buffered from the norms that help bring groups of people to consensus, and this independence, combined with other important traits and circumstances, helped them to generate and pursue big and unusual ideas.
When an individual is not part of the social fabric around them, they are both less exposed to conventional wisdom, and less apt to bow to it even when they are exposed. Furthermore, because they don't belong, there is less to lose by being unconventional. In fact, being unconventional or iconoclastic can become an important part of an individual's identity. These dynamics are vividly illustrated by the lives of serial breakthrough innovators: Einstein was initially shunned by academia, and was subsequently able to reject established ideas about ether and absolute time that held back Lorentz and Poincaré. Marie Curie intensely pursued self-education because women were not allowed in universities in Poland, and acquired the habit of independent thinking and resolve that were the wellsprings of her success; Steve Jobs felt "abandoned, but special" because he had been put up for adoption and was smarter than his adoptive parents, and he consequently decided the rules that other people lived by did not apply to him.
Many things can give rise to a sense of separateness, including childhood circumstances, physical disabilities and economic, cultural or language barriers. This offers a partial explanation for why immigrant communities are so often identified as a source of innovation and entrepreneurship: If the typical route to prosperity is not available to an individual or group, they may be more likely to pursue atypical routes. Many studies show that immigrants start up new companies at twice the rate of the native-born, in part because traditional employment opportunities are often not available to them, and in part because of different attitudes about risk that are both cause and consequence of leaving your home country and starting over in a new one.
Time alone can also be both cause and consequence of a sense of separateness. Most of the innovators I studied had childhoods and young adult periods characterized by significant time spent in solitude, pursuing their own interests. This is extremely important – solitude is known to be valuable for creativity. It gives people time to think and pursue those things they find intrinsically interesting. It can help them to develop their own beliefs about how the world works, and to develop a self-concept that is less structured by the interpretations or opinions of others.
The importance of solitude does not mean that the entire creative process is conducted alone. Mr. Jobs could not have built computers without the help of Steve Wozniak, or developed the iPhone, iPod or iPad without Jonathan Ive and others; Einstein sought help from Michele Besso and Marcel Grossmann for some aspects of his work; Mr. Musk and Thomas Edison built laboratories full of technical experts to help them execute their ideas. But if an individual does not have enough solitude, they may not come up with the full range of ideas of which they are capable.
A sense of separateness by itself does not make an innovator; the people I studied had many other important commonalities that combined to help them achieve what others had deemed impossible. However, understanding both the benefits and costs of separateness gives us insight into how we can nurture creativity in individuals, families and organizations. The first implication pertains to time alone: If we are seeking creative ideas, it is very important to give individuals time to work alone, before they engage in collaboration. Individuals should be encouraged to not fear being unorthodox, and they should be asked to write down their ideas before sharing or comparing them with others. Children also benefit from time to think, read and write alone – overscheduling them and turning all activities into collaborative endeavours could prevent them from fully developing their own ideas and discovering those things in which they are intrinsically interested.
The second implication is in the way we teach or emphasize social skills. Social skills such as persuasiveness and the ability to build trust and rapport are, of course, valuable. But we must be careful that in our emphasis on social skills we do not extinguish individualism, or a person's willingness to challenge norms. Rigid adherence to convention and agreeableness is the surest way to prevent independent thinking and innovation.
None of this means that we should actively turn our employees or family members into social pariahs, nor assume that all individuals are unconventional by nature or want to be innovators. It does, however, mean that there are valuable reasons to signal that it is okay to be unconventional. By embracing weirdness, we might better allow the natural creativity of people to flourish.