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Ten Traits of Exceptional Innovators

What distinguishes the true pioneers?

Bertrand Meyer

Imagine having had coffee, over the years, with each of Euclid, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Einstein, Planck and de Broglie. For a computer scientist, if we set aside the founding generation (the Turings and von Neumanns), the equivalent is possible. I have had the privilege of meeting and in some cases closely interacting with pioneer scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs, including Nobel, Fields and Turing winners, Silicon-Valley-type founders and such. It is only fair that I should share some of the traits I have observed in them.

Clarification and disclaimer:

  • This discussion is abstract and as a result probably boring because I am not citing anyone by name (apart from a few famous figures, most of whom are dead and none of whom I have met). It would be more concrete and lively if I buttressed my generalities by actual examples, of which I have many. The absence of any name-dropping is a matter of courtesy and respect for people who have interacted with me unguardedly as a colleague, not a journalist preparing a tell-all book. I could of course cite the names for positive anecdotes only, but that would bias the story (see point 4). So, sorry, no names (and I won't relent even if you ask me privately -- mumm like a fish).
  • I am looking at truly exceptional people. They are drawn from a more general pool of brillant, successful scientists and technologists, of which they form only a small subset. Many of their traits also apply to this more general community and to highly successful people in any profession. What interests me is the extra step from brilliant to exceptional. It would not be that difficult to identify fifty outstanding mathematics researchers in, say, 1900, and analyze their psychological traits. The question is: why are some of them Hilbert and Poincaré, and others not?
  • Of course I do not even begin to answer that question. I only offer a few personal remarks.
  • More generally, cargo cult does not work. Emulating every one of the traits listed below will not get you a Nobel prize. You will not turn into a great composer by eating lots of Tournedos Rossini. (Well, you might start looking like the aging Rossini.) This note presents some evidence; it does not present any conclusion, let alone advice. Any consequence is for you to draw, or not.
  • The traits obviously do not universally characterize the population observed. Not all of the people exhibit all of the traits. On the other hand, my impression is that most exhibit most.

1 Idiosyncratic

"Idiosyncratic" is a high-sounding synonym for "diverse," used here to deflect the ridicule of starting a list of what is common to those people by stating that they are different from each other. The point is important, though, and reassuring. Those people come in all stripes, from the stuffy professor to the sandals-shorts-and-Hawaiian-shirt surfer.  Their ethnic backgrounds vary. And (glad you asked) some are men and some are women.

Consideration of many personality and lifestyle features yields not pattern at all. Some of the people observed are courteous, a delight to deal with, but there are a few jerks too. Some are voluble, some reserved. Some boastful, some modest. Some remain for their full life married to the same person, some have been divorced many times, some are single. Some become CEOs and university presidents, others prefer the quieter life of a pure researcher. Some covet honors, others are mostly driven by the pursuit of knowledge. Some wanted to become very rich and did, others care little about money.  It is amazing to see how many traits appear irrelevant, perhaps reinforcing the value of those that do make a difference.

2 Lucky

In trying to apply a cargo-cult-like recipe, this one would be the hardest to emulate. We all know that Fleming came across penicillin thanks to a petri dish left uncleaned on the window sill; we also know that luck favors only the well-prepared: someone other than Fleming would have grumbled at the dirtiness of the place and brought the dish to the sink. But I am not just talking about that kind of luck. You have to be at the right place at the right time.

Read the biographies, and you will see that almost always the person happened to study with a professor who just then was struggling with a new problem, or did an internship in a group that had just invented a novel technique, or heard about recent results before everyone else did.

Part of what comes under "luck" is luck in obtaining the right education. Sure, there are a few autodidacts, but most of the top achievers studied in excellent institutions.

Success comes from a combination of nature and nurture. The perfect environment, such as a thriving laboratory or world-class research university, is not enough; but neither is individual brilliance. In most cases it is their combination that produces the catalysis.

3 Smart

Laugh again if you wish, but I do not just mean the obvious observation that those people were clever in what they did. In my experience they are extremely intelligent in other ways too. They often possess deep knowledge beyond their specialties and have interesting conversations.

You approach them because of the fame they gained in one domain, and learn from them about topics far beyond it.

4 Human

At first, yet another cause for ridicule: what did you expect, extraterrestrials? But "human" here means human in their foibles, too. You might expect, if not an extraterrestrial, someone of the oracle-of-Delphi or wizard-on-a-mountain type, after a half-hour of silence making a statement perfect in its concision and exactitude.

Well, no. They are smart, but they say foolish things too. And wrong things. Not only do they say them, they even publish them. (Newton wasted his brilliance on alchemy. Voltaire -- who was not a scientist but helped promote science, translating Newton and supporting the work of Madame du Châtelet -- wasted his powerful wit to mock the nascent study of paleontology, by claiming that so-called fossils were just clam shells left over from travelers' picnics. Such examples abound, including, more recently, a very silly book by a very famous scientist -- of which I once wrote, fearlessly, a very short and very disparaging review.)

So what? It is the conclusion of the discussion that counts, not the meanderous path to it. They might have fun in confusing the adoring crowds  through such fancy platitudes  as "it is the journey that counts, not the destination", but they know darn well that only the destination counts. Once you have succeeded, no one will care how many wrong comments you made in the process.

It is fair to note that they probably say fewer stupid things than most. (The Erich Kästner ditty from an earlier article applies.) But the road they follow to success is, like everyone else's, tortuous.

What does in this respect set them apart from many people, and takes us back to the previous trait (smart), is that even those who are otherwise vain have no qualms recognizing  mistakes in their previous thinking. They accept the evidence and move on.

5 Diligent

Of two people, one an excellent, top-ranked academic, the other a world-famous pioneer, who is the more likely to answer an email? In my experience, the latter.

Beyond the folk vision of the disheveled, disorganized, absent-minded professor lies the reality of a lifetime of rigor and discipline.

This should not be a surprise. There is inspiration, and there is perspiration.  Think of it as the dual of the  broken-windows theory, or of the judicial view that a defendant who lies in small things probably lies in big things: the other way around, if you do huge tasks well, you probably do small tasks well too. 

6 Focused

Along with diligence comes focus, carried over from big matters to small matters. It is the lesser minds that pretend to multiplex. Great scientists, in my experience, do not hack away at their laptops during talks, and they turn off their cellphones. They choose carefully what they do (they are deluged with requests and learn early to say no), but what they accept to do they do. Seriously, attentively, with focus.

A fascinating spectacle is a world-famous guru sitting in the first row at a conference presentation by a beginning Ph.D. student, and taking detailed notes. Or visiting an industrial lab and quizzing a junior engineer about the details of the latest technology.

For someone who in spite of the cargo cult risk is looking for one behavior to clone, this would be it. Study after study has shown that we only delude ourselves in thinking we can multiplex. Top performers understand this. In the seminar room, they are not the ones doing email. If they are there at all, then watch and listen.

7 Eloquent

Top science and technology achievers are communicators. In writing, in speaking, often in both.

This quality is independent from their personal behavior, which can cover the full range from shy to boisterous.  It is the quality of being articulate. They know how to convey their results -- and often do not mind crossing the line to self-advertising. It is not automatically the case that true value will out: even the most impressive advances need to be pushed to the world.

The alternative is to become Gregor Mendel: he single-handedly discovered the laws of genetics, and was so busy observing the beans in his garden that no one heard about his work until some twenty years after his death. Most people prefer to get the recognition earlier. (Mendel was a monk, so maybe he believed in an afterlife; yet again maybe he, like everyone else, might have enjoyed attracting interest on this earth first.)

In computer science it is not surprising that many of the names that stand out are of people who have written seminal books that are a pleasure to read. Many of them are outstanding teachers and speakers as well.

8 Open

Being an excellent communicator does not mean that you insist on talking. The great innovators are excellent listeners too.

Some people keep talking about themselves. They exist in all human groups, but this particular trait is common among scientists, particularly junior scientists, who corner you and cannot stop telling you about their ideas and accomplishments. That phenomenon is understandable, and in part justified by an urge to avoid the Mendel syndrome. But in a conversation involving some less and some more recognized professionals it is often the most accomplished members of the group who talk least. They are eager to learn. They never forget that the greatest insighs can start with a casual observation from an improbable source. They know when to talk, and when to shut up and listen.

Openness also means intellectual curiosity, willingness to have your intellectual certainties challenged, focus on the merit of a comment rather than the commenter's social or academic status, and readiness to learn from disciplines other than your own.

9 Selfish

People having achieved exceptional results were generally obsessed with the chase and the prey. They are as driven as an icebreaker ship in the Sea of Barents. They have to get through; the end justifies the means; anything in the way is collateral damage.

So it is not surprising, in the case of academics, to hear colleagues from their institutions mumble that X never wanted to do his share, leaving it to others to sit in committees, teach C++ to biology majors and take their turn as department chair. There are notable exceptions, such as the computer architecture pioneer who became provost then president at Stanford before receiving the Turing Award. But  you do not achieve breakthroughs by doing what everything else is doing. When the rest of the crowd is being sociable and chatty at the conference party long into the night, you go back to your hotel to be alert for tomorrow's session. A famous if extreme case is Andrew Wiles, whom colleagues in the department considered a has-been, while he was doing the minimum necessary to avoid trouble while working secretly and obsessively to prove Fermat's last theorem.

This trait is interesting in light of the soothing discourse in vogue today. Nothing wrong with work-life balance, escaping the rat race, perhaps even changing your research topic every decade (apparently the rule in some research organizations). Sometimes a hands-off, zen-like attitude will succeed where too much obstination would get stuck. But let us not fool ourselves: the great innovators never let go of the target.

10. Generous

Yes, selfishness can go with generosity. You obsess over your goals, but it does not mean you forget other people.

Indeed, while there are a few solo artists in the group under observation, a striking feature of the majority is that in addition to their own achievements they led to the creation of entire communities, which often look up to them as gurus. (When I took the comprehensive exam at Stanford, the first question was what the middle initial "E." of a famous professor stood for. It was a joke question, counting for maybe one point out of a hundred, helpfully meant to defuse students' tension in preparation for the hard questions that followed. But what I remember is that every fellow student whom I asked afterwards knew the answer. Me too. Such was the personality cult.) The guru effect can lead to funny consequences, as with the famous computer scientist whose disciples you could spot right away in conferences by their sandals and beards (I do not remember how the women coped), carefully patterned after the master's. 

The leader is often good at giving every member of that community flattering personal attention. In a retirement symposium for a famous professor, almost every person I talked too was proud of having developed a long-running, highly personal and of course unique relationship with the honoree. One prestigious computer scientist who died in the 80's encouraged and supported countless young people in his country; 30 years later, you keep running into academics, engineers and managers who tell you that they owe their career to him.

Some of this community-building can be self-serving and part of a personal strategy for success. There has to be more to it, however. It is not just that community-building will occur naturally as people discover the new ideas: since these ideas are often controversial at first, those who understood their value early band together to defend them and support their inventor. But there is something else as well in my observation: the creators' sheer, disinterested generosity.

These people are passionate in their quest for discovery and creation and genuinely want to help others. Driven and self-promoting they may be, but the very qualities that led to their achievements -- insight, intellectual courage, ability to think beyond accepted ideas -- are at the antipodes of pettiness and narrow-mindedness. A world leader cannot expect any significant personal gain from spotting and encouraging a promising undergraduate, telling a first-time conference presenter that her idea is great and worth pushing further, patiently explaining elementary issues to a beginning student, or responding to a unknown correspondent's emails. And still, as I have observed many times, they do all of this and more, because they are in the business of advancing knowledge.

These are some of the traits I have observed. Maybe there are more but, sorry, I have to go now. The pan is sizzling and I don't like my tournedos too well-done.

 


 

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