What does innovation mean? At its root, innovation describes constructive change, improvement of an existing discovery, product or idea. But we get smacked upside the head by the word so often and see it bandied about on the Internet describing everything from particle accelerators to apps that will help you time your coffee intake that you can be forgiven for needing a refresher on the word.
Google the definition and you will see it defined as “the action or process of innovating,” which isn’t helpful, but the list of synonyms provides clarity: change, transformation, breakthrough, novelty, inspiration. A secondary definition refers to innovation as “a new method, idea, product.”
Maybe as an extremely late 20-something still trying to figure life out I’m oversensitive to its use, but for the past couple years, I feel it’s been impossible to pick up the New York Times, visit my LinkedIn page or click on any business or jobs website without seeing some cheerleady article or, more likely, a list encouraging me to get off the couch and start innovating. “Ten steps to be a more innovative designer,” “Five keys to successful innovation,” “Why you must innovate (or be thrown into a retirement home).” Am I the only person who thinks these articles all say the same thing? Apparently not (see: The Cult of Innovation; The Cult of Innovation; The Cult of Innovation). The fact that far more than three outlets have published pieces titled “The Cult of Innovation” makes this screed less than innovative, but I continue anyway.
In the vast rotating world of competing content, “content creators” (unpaid writers) are schooling together like a ball of fish on a National Geographic documentary, huddling together, going the same direction to protect themselves from the circling sharks. Except in this case, the sharks are the reality that threatens to expose the cult of innovation for the empty shell it is. These constant content pieces encouraging us to innovate are nearly always devoid of tangible advice, instead relying on breezy catechisms encouraging us to assume the mindset of the innovator. Or, if they do have anything tangible, it’s usually just a list of tips to help us organize our day or our desk to encourage innovative thinking (“ONE WEIRD TRICK to help you become an innovator.”) Frankly, it’s ironic how un-innovative the pro-innovation blog posts almost always are.
For me, it feels like, in the pursuit of innovation as an ideology, we’ve deemphasized the hard skills that make innovation possible. It’s also no secret that the cult of innovation skews young and that in many corners of the tech community, anyone over 35 is viewed as a walking relic. In parroting all the tropes of innovation, much of the creative and business media has forgotten the two real keys of innovation: skill and experience.
Yes, a handful of young entrepreneurs have scored big with earth-changing products and been rewarded accordingly (Zuckerburg and the guys from all the companies he buys). But for the most part, these new deals coming out of Silicon Valley and selling for hundreds of millions of dollars are mere trinkets, diversions. I read the other day of an app that will only let users text one word at a time to their contacts … and it’s received a million dollars in funding.
Despite the glowing press from the startups, the major innovation is happening at the more established titans of Silicon Valley, Amazon’s drones, Google’s self-driving car. And more predominantly than that, most true innovation still happens outside Silicon Valley itself. Large research universities still drive key health and science breakthroughs. North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, though decidedly unsexy in comparison to Northern California, regularly produces new discoveries in health, science, technology and energy. Other areas are equally impressive. San Diego actually has more patent applications per 10,000 residents than San Francisco.
The two things most successful innovators have in common is that they are experts in their field, and they have been working at it a long time. With that in mind, what seems to be getting driven out of the innovation conversation is how long it takes. In pursuit of quick buyouts and change, we forget that expertise is developed over time and that in most cases it takes more than an idea or creative thinking to get a business off the ground.
But this isn’t a knock on young dreamers who are working hard to invent an app or robot the newest VR technology. This is a knock on the content-creating business bloggers and press who fawn over them and have created a cottage industry out of innovator’s lists and recycled content. A journalist or blogger has an obligation to tell the truth, and the truth is that, nine times out of ten, the real secret to innovation is a secondary education and solid work experience. It is in college that one’s foundational skills are built along with creative thinking and interpersonal development. And it is after college, in the real world, where one builds expertise and begins noticing and tinkering with the problems he or she will solve later in life. The average startup age in Silicon Valley, according to the Harvard Business Review, is 31, and I would venture a guess that outside of northern California that founding age is likely older.
Yes, the occasional star will come along and change the world without a college degree (Matt Mullenweg, I’m looking at you), but those successes are built on equal parts genius and luck and are not for most of us. My imploration is for the journalists, bloggers and listmakers to let go of the low-hanging fruit and start tackling the tough topics that truly help readers understand entrepreneurship. That’s something that would truly be innovative.