'Creating Innovators'

In more than one hundred and fifty interviews for this book -- lengthy conversations with scores of innovators and their parents, teachers, and mentors -- passion was the most frequently recurring word.
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Excerpted from CREATING INNOVATORS: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, by Tony Wagner. Copyright © 2012 by Tony Wagner. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


Research shows that human beings are born with an innate desire to explore, experiment, and imagine new possibilities -- in a word, to innovate. Alison Gopnik, author of Scientist in the Crib, The Philosophical Baby, and numerous other publications, is a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley and is an internationally recognized leader in the study of children's learning and development. Her recent research and the work of other cognitive scientists whose work she draws on "demonstrates that babies and very young children know, observe, explore, imagine and learn more than we would ever have though possible." She writes:

We've found that even very young children can already consider possibilities, distinguish them from reality, and even use them to change the world. They can imagine different ways the world might be in the future and use them to create plans. They can imagine different ways the world might have been in the past, and reflect on past possibilities. And, most dramatically, they can create completely imaginary worlds, wild fictions, and striking pretenses.

Conventional wisdom suggests that knowledge and imagination, science and fantasy, are deeply different from one another -- even opposites. But the new ideas ... show that exactly the same abilities that let children learn so much about the world also allow them to change the world -- to bring new worlds into existence -- and to imagine alternative worlds that never exist at all. Children's brains create causal theories of the world, and maps of how the world works. And these theories allow children to envisage new possibilities, and to imagine and pretend the world is different.

How do children learn such skills? In a word -- through play.

What do you suppose the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin; Amazon's founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos; Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales; Julia Child; and rapper Sean "P. Diddy" Combs all have in common? Gregersen's research, cited earlier, uncovered an extraordinary commonality among some of the most innovative individuals: they all went to Montessori schools, where they learned through play. The research about the importance of play in children's development spans many decades. In the 20th century, Maria Montessori, Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, and others did groundbreaking research on the ways in which children learn through play. Montessori integrated her understanding of the importance of play into her curriculum for schools. Today, Montessori schools can be found around the world.

And it's not just infants and children who learn through play. Joost Bonsen, who is an alumnus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and currently serves as a lecturer in the world-famous MIT Media Lab, talked about the importance of the famous tradition of pranks at the university.

"Being innovative is central to being human," Bonsen told me. "We're curious and playful animals, until it's pounded out of us. Look at the tradition of pranks here at MIT. What did it take to put a police car on a dome that was fifteen stories high [one of the most famous MIT student pranks], with a locked trapdoor being the only access? It was an incredible engineering feat: They had to fabricate the car, get it to the base of the dome without getting caught -- and then the real challenge was to get it to the top of the dome, and get yourself down without getting caught or hurting yourself. In addition to everything else, you had to track security, create diversions. To pull that off was a systems problem, and it took tremendous leadership and teamwork."

"Pranks reinforce the cultural ethos of creative joy," Joost added. "Getting something done in a short period of time with no budget, and challenging circumstances. It's glorious and epic. They didn't ask for permission. Not even forgiveness."

These students were playing -- just doing something for the fun of it. Play, then, is part of our human nature and an intrinsic motivation.

Passion is familiar to all of us as an intrinsic motivation for doing things. The passion to explore, to learn something new, to understand something more deeply; the passion to master something difficult. We see these passions in others all around us and have likely experienced them for ourselves.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his recent book The Outliers, writes about the importance of working at something for ten thousand hours in order to achieve mastery -- or, in Amabile's framework, expertise. He describes the circumstances that enable famous innovators -- or outliers, as he calls them -- to achieve their breakthroughs. But he doesn't talk about motivation. What drove a young Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs -- or more recently Mark Zuckerberg -- to put in the ten thousand-plus hours that they did as young people to achieve a level of mastery? None of them had a "tiger mom" -- author Amy Chua's description of herself as a mother -- who threatened and bribed them to stay up night after night learning to write computer code. What they had was passion.

When asked for advice for young entrepreneurs in a Smithsonian oral history interview, Steve Jobs said,

"A lot of people come to me and say, 'I want to be an entrepreneur.' And I go, 'Oh, that's great, what's your idea?' And they say, 'I don't have one yet.' And I say, 'I think you should go get a job as a busboy or something until you find something you're really passionate about because it's a lot of work.' I'm convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the nonsuccessful ones is pure perseverance. ... So you've got to have an idea, or a problem or a wrong that you want to right that you're passionate about; otherwise, you're not going to have the perseverance to stick it through."

In more than one hundred and fifty interviews for this book -- lengthy conversations with scores of innovators and their parents, teachers, and mentors -- passion was the most frequently recurring word.