Innovation reclaimed and redefined
When you see the word “innovation,” what appears in your mind? If you’re like most people, what appeared in your mind was a technology product, and nothing else. This is deeply unfortunate for many reasons, not least of which is that there is an area of innovation far more valuable than anything the tech industry is selling, or will ever develop.
A small minority of people associate innovation with services, but even in this case the association is usually one of services combined with technology. This second response also misses the mark entirely because the deepest, most important area of innovation has nothing whatsoever to do with either technology or services. This area of innovation also has nothing at all to do with money or commerce, though its value is far greater than any amount of money.
What is this mysterious, profound area of innovation yet to be tapped? It is you. The most important, far-reaching and profound innovations you can create are in all what you could become, in every aspect of your being:
Your mental models
Your emotional responses
Your perceptions and insights
Your view of what is possible
The right kind of innovation in aspects of your being brings power and freedom, as well as profound confidence. But don’t be too flattered just yet, because in all likelihood you yourself are also the most serious impediment to developing this potential resource, for reasons to be addressed later.
The deep value of personal innovation
Personal innovation is the most direct way to expand your opportunities in life, by expanding your capabilities as a person. The more capable you are, and the more areas in which you are capable, the more effectively you will be able to respond when opportunities of various kinds arrive: professional opportunities, opportunities for relationship, opportunities for doing good in the world. Developing the ability to innovate in aspects of your being also provides profound confidence, because even if you don’t have an ability right now, you know that you can develop it, with enough good choices, concentration, and honest time applied. Becoming skilled in personal innovation also means always looking forward to what other capabilities you can develop, what else you can become, in an ongoing series of new experiences that keep your outlook fresh, and deepen your experience of life.
The dangers of non-innovation
Unless you choose what to become, you will merely be shaped by the forces in your life, and will be at the whim of those forces. If you go through life like that for too long, you will begin to mistake happenstance for inevitability, and accept the ultimately random forces that shaped you, neglecting to even consider the infinity of possibilities for becoming. There are already far too many such people. Don’t be another one. Choose personal innovation.
Lack of personal innovation is also a formula for depression and passivity, and a sour outlook in which you are only subject to circumstances, instead of forging ahead, choosing how to change, and choosing what new capabilities to develop in order to bring about a better reality in your own life, and the lives of others.
Personal innovation: a quick tour
Perhaps the term “personal innovation” is unfamiliar to you. Perhaps even the idea of deliberately constructing a new and better self is an unfamiliar concept. After all, aren’t we all just who we happen to be, and shouldn’t we just accept ourselves as we are? The answer to the first question is “no,” and the answer to the second question is “absolutely not.”
To merely accept the set of incidental circumstances and forces that happened to make us what we currently are is to surrender to a slavish passivity. To merely accept ourselves as we are is to mindlessly abandon the infinity of what we could become. Neither choice is acceptable, or admirable, or productive.
Before we begin to examine the process and practicalities of adopting personal innovation, let’s clear up a simple matter. No instance of personal innovation has to be new in the world. It only has to be new for you. Anything you try may already be in use by millions of other people, and be not at all new. That doesn’t matter one bit. All that matters is that you haven’t tried it yet, or become it yet.
Personal innovation also need not be creative in any way at all. It only has to be valuable, either in its material results, or in its results in terms of insight and added wisdom.
There are many areas of personal innovation, but I will mention only a few:
Each one of these areas deserves an entire set of books. In this brief essay, I will only be able to hint at the possibilities for a few of these areas.
Innovation in attention
To begin, let’s consider the idea of innovation in your attention. Does that sound strange? What would it mean to “innovate in your attention?”
We are all creatures of patterns. We learn patterns, then repeat them. Eventually, our patterns become invisible to us, and we even forget that anything else is possible, other than our own mindless patterns. At that point, we begin to mistake our patterns of attention for “reality.” We begin to have the illusion that we are perceiving “reality,” though all we are actually perceiving is that which is determined by our patterns of attention which, paradoxically, we do not perceive. Have you ever tried to map your patterns of attention? Wouldn’t such a map also constitute a map of its inverse, a map of everything you tend not to pay attention to?
If you’ve ever had the experience of being sharply surprised by an event, and then realized that other people were not at all surprised because they noticed something right away, you just encountered a gap in your patterns of attention. If you’ve ever had the opposite experience, that of noticing something right away to which other people were oblivious, you just witnessed a gap in the patterns of attention of other people.
How could you therefore “innovate in your attention?” It’s simple. Choose an aspect of reality you tend not to pay attention to, and start deliberately paying more attention to it. If you begin doing this with commitment, you will be astonished by the richness and vast flow of new perceptions.
For example, let’s say you tend to pay attention to what people say, but not to the way they say it, or to their body language. As a counter example, let’s say you tend to pay close attention to tone of voice and body language, but not so much attention to the actual words. In either case, just begin paying attention to what you tend to not pay attention to. You will immediately encounter another entire world of experience, one that leads to quite different responses within you, as well as a different view of your interactions with other people.
As a second example, let’s say you tend to pay close attention to other people’s behavior, but not so much to your own–or the other way around. Just choose the opposite, and begin to practice every day. Again, you will discover an entire world of new perceptions, as well as ideas about how to make good use of these new perceptions.
Now let’s take a more dramatic example. Let’s say you’re someone who tends to pay attention to vast, sweeping issues of society and politics, tend to see these issues everywhere, and tend to have strong emotional responses to these issues. You consider these issues among the most important in all of life. What are you missing? You may be missing much of the infinite subtlety of individual behavior, the deep and ubiquitous beauty of the minuscule, the profound ironic humor of the universe, and the fact that you just passed a truly lovely, friendly kitty who only wanted to have a sweet interaction with you for a moment, a moment that would have elevated your mood for the entire day, and filled your heart with love. You may be and probably are missing much more than this, and don’t even know it.
Innovate in your attention. Try it. Experiment as much as you can. What else could you pay attention to? What might be the results of doing so? What might be the advantages of doing so?
Innovation in attitudes
Another rich area for innovation is in your attitudes. Nearly all of us have had the experience of observing other people deprive themselves of wonderful experiences and opportunities due to attitudes they refuse to revise, or even reconsider: attitudes toward types of people, activities, topics, types of work, or situations. If other people are diminishing and needlessly restricting their own experience due to some of their attitudes, chances are that you are doing the same, without even realizing that you are doing so.
Once again, one of the best ways of becoming aware of how your own attitudes may be depriving you of opportunities is to observe other people, notice how their attitudes differ from yours, and then observe how their results differ from yours. If you like their results, ask yourself what would be required to adopt their attitudes, or adopt a new attitude of your own that would yield even better results.
Innovation in behavior
Is your behavior optimal? How would you know, unless you’ve tried out all kinds of different behavior? Most human beings are sleepwalking, merely repeating previous behaviors mindlessly, always with the assumption that they are only responding appropriately to “reality.” But your behavior actually determines reality, to a great degree. Can you change reality by changing your behavior? Of course you can. Not fully, and not all the time, but when you change your behavior, you will definitely get different results.
Lack of the ability to innovate in your own behavior is a terrible limitation, one that guarantees that you will not be able to get different results, no matter how hard you try, because you’ll only be trying in the same way every time. The harder you try without changing what you do, the stronger will be the same results that you don’t want.
Innovation in your own behavior is a powerful tool. Innovate in your behavior. Be creative, imaginative about it. Envision how a new behavior could trigger a cascade of different results. Experiment, and then closely observe the results, both good and bad. Keep a journal of your behavioral experiments, along with notes on the results. If you make a commitment to this, you will never have a boring moment for the rest of your entire life.
Innovation in emotions
At this point, do you think I’m going too far? What could it possibly mean to “innovate in emotions?” Once again, I refer to the experience we’ve all had of observing someone who is deprived of a whole world of experience, interaction and relationship solely because they lack a particular emotional response. We’ve all known such people, and even felt sorry for them. But the truth is that we are all such people ourselves, in ways that are mostly invisible to us.
So I ask you now bluntly, what do you have trouble feeling, or are unable to feel? What opportunities are lost to you by your inability to experience a particular emotion, or set of emotions? If you don’t know, one way to discover is to observe other people. What are they feeling that you don’t feel? Could you learn how to feel that? What would happen if you could? What new opportunities would arise from doing so?
Innovation in relationships
One of the common tragedies of many human relationships is that when a relationship goes sour, or stale, or just plain rotten, both parties to the relationship tend to think it is exclusively the fault of the other person. But a relationship is by definition a bidirectional flow of choices and responses, and further choices and responses, on the part of both people. Blame is not just a pointless enterprise, but a formula for alienation and bad relationships.
Leave blame aside, and innovate instead. The same old patterns will only yield the same old results. Innovate. Surprise the other person, and yourself. If the old basis of the relationship no longer functions, isn’t it up to you to discover or create a new basis? Innovate–relentlessly, bravely, creatively, and with a keen eye for new and surprising results. The worst that can happen is that you will expand your own repertoire of behaviors, attitudes and interpersonal skills that you can apply throughout your life.
Innovation in what you consider possible
The most important innovation of all is innovation in what you consider possible for you to become. If you believe something is impossible, it immediately becomes impossible for the simple reason that you then won’t put in the required effort and time to make it a reality. It may be difficult to imagine yourself as radically different than you are right now, but that’s part of what makes the challenge so valuable. Almost any change can be brought about gradually, and in small steps. Spend a few minutes every day not just thinking about who and what else you could become, but also thinking in practical terms about what you could do to get there. Keep a journal as though you already are that person. What would that person think and feel? What choices would they make? How would they structure their day? What would their relationships be like? Imagine it all, in fine detail. Then imagine all the tiny steps, every day, to get there.
Personal innovation and your ego
The worst, the most serious and the most intractable impediment to personal innovation is your ego. The job of your ego is to convince you, at all times and in every situation, that you are perfect in every way, even though you obviously aren’t. Your ego is a liar. It lies to you constantly, and it always carefully designs lies it knows you will want to believe.
If you value the truth, and want to make genuine progress, you must develop a strong skepticism toward your ego and everything it tells you. Your working assumption should be that everything your ego tells you is a lie. Along the way in this process, it helps to become openly hostile toward your own ego, in the same way that you would toward someone who has repeatedly flattered you with lies and truly terrible advice that are ultimately against your own interest.
You will never be able to get your ego to completely shut up, but you also never have to listen to it. Regard your ego as someone you are unfortunately forced to spend your entire life with, who babbles idiotic happy talk constantly, and whose credibility is absolutely terrible. Just nod politely as though you’re listening, then make your own decisions based on much better information gathered elsewhere, from much more reliable and more accurate sources.
Personal innovation as valuable experiments
Innovation is valuable not only because it can offer you new abilities and greater range of choice. Innovation is also valuable due to the information it can provide, and the deep insight the process of innovation can produce. Not all efforts at innovation yield a specific innovation that should continue, yet nearly all efforts at innovation yield valuable results in the form of insight, and growing wisdom. You should view personal innovation as both the search for innovations that can be applied thereafter, but also the search for useful information in the results of various attempts.
You don’t have to know what the result will be of any particular personal innovation. Your ego will tell you that you need to know, and that there is shame in not knowing, but your ego is absolutely wrong once again. The point of personal innovation in many cases is not to get particular results, but to find out what the results will be, and then make new choices accordingly.
Keep a notebook, or at least make mental notes, as to the results of your various efforts in personal innovation. Bear in mind, however that because you should also be innovating in your perceptions, you may have to train yourself to notice aspects of reality you are not used to perceiving. If you try an experiment expecting certain results, and don’t get those results, ask yourself whether you might have discovered other results the nature of which you do not yet recognize or understand. If you don’t make sure you’re open to the unexpected, you may miss truly valuable insights. Be open and welcoming to all possible insights. Be willing and even eager to be surprised. Some of the most valuable areas of innovation may produce dramatic results in a category you didn’t even know existed.
Many of the most valuable innovations area based on subtraction: deciding what you’re not going to do, removing influences from your life, narrowing and therefore intensifying and deepening your focus. Paradoxically, subtraction can yield a far greater final sum than addition, if you do it right.
There may be people in your life who take a lot of your time and energy, but who are actually preventing you from making progress, for instance. You may regularly engage in activities in your life that, while entertaining, yield no true value at all, and do not lead to anything else of value. You may be paying far too much attention to situations, information or involvements of little or no value. Worse yet, you may have attachments, even deep attachments, to negative influences.
Develop the skill of evaluating every area of your life objectively as to its value in the long term, all sentiment aside. Don’t be afraid to let go of anything that holds you back. Remove influences that are unproductive. In the case of subtractive innovation, less can not only be more, but infinitely more.
Examples from my own life
What follows is a necessarily brief and hastily described list of some of my own person innovations.
I used to be puzzled as I walked by people who smiled at me at first, then frowned. It took me far too long to realize that while I felt friendly toward them, I definitely wasn’t smiling back, and didn’t know I wasn’t. It sounds ridiculous, but I had to practice smiling. My first efforts at smiling were horribly awkward, and got bad results. Gradually I got better at this darn smiling business. My smile now matches my feelings of friendliness, and I now smile a lot, even at people who don’t smile back. :-)
2. Falling in love with humility
I used to get very frustrated when I tried to learn something, and couldn’t get it right on the first few tries. I just couldn’t stand feeling like an idiot, so I would quit, and lose the opportunity for learning. Then I realized that feeling like an idiot is exactly when you have the greatest opportunity to learn, if you persist. Gradually I fell in love with that feeling, which I now experience as humility, and learned to harness it toward deep learning. If I am absolutely struggling to learn something, and feel like a complete moron in the process, I love it! I love the frustration of new mental challenges more than anything now. It means my mind is about to grow, and I always look forward to that. Man, I am really looking forward to feeling like a total idiot as soon as possible again.
3. The funny project
For much of my life, seriousness was my way, and pretty much my only way. Then I wondered, in part because I was so uniformly serious, what the hell I must be missing. So I put myself on a rigorous program of watching every damn standup comic on YouTube, hour after hour after hour, for months. I hated most of the comics I watched, but I watched them anyway, because I was a desperate man.
For a long time, nothing happened. It was very frustrating. Then I started noticing changes in my own behavior that I wasn’t expecting, and were new: changes in my tone of voice, my timing, my choice of words, my body language. It wasn’t like anything I had ever seen before, on YouTube or anywhere else. It was my own form of humor that emerged naturally, based on my own perceptions and outlook and responses. These innovations have made me able to rapidly and flexibly navigate all kinds of difficult situations, and turn them to advantage for everyone concerned, where before I had only one possible response: Mr. Seriosity himself.
So all of that work clearly paid off, because as you can see, I am now utterly hilarious.
Hey, guess what? If you think you won’t be able to learn another language, you won’t be able to. Isn’t that amazing? I used to have that terrible monolingual attitude, but one day I decided to change it, partly just to see what would happen. Then I started studying. Then I started studying how to study. Then I got really good at studying. Then I started learning other languages, rather quickly. Now I’m fluent in German, French, Italian, Spanish, and can get by in Russian. My goal in the next few years is to learn Arabic, Japanese and Chinese. It won’t be a problem, because I changed my attitude, and put in the work. You can too. By the way, polyglotism is a hell of a lot of fun, and gives you important perspective on the English language, both its joys and its limitations.
4. Shutting up
Strategic shutting up is a truly valuable skill. If you don’t know when to shut up, or can’t, sooner or later you’re going to be in big trouble. I know, because I got in a whole heap of it for years, again and again.
So a few years ago I decided to learn how to shut up. Yet because I value excellence, my goal was not just to be able to shut up, but to be able to shut up instantly at any time, under any circumstances, and to do so with grace and style. It was a lot of work, and took a lot of practice, but I eventually became quite an accomplished shutter-upper. Perhaps not among the truly great shutter-uppers of the ages, but good enough to end this essay.