Recently I received an e-mail from a former student who's working for a small company in New York. She's devising games that thousands of people can play with one another simultaneously over the Internet. "I'm spending six hours a day coming up with new ideas and twelve hours selling them," she wrote. "Cool stuff! And with my stock options, at the rate things are going, I'll be a multimillionaire in three years! Best to you!"
My former student may well be disappointed three years from now. But undoubtedly the demand for creative and innovative people like her is growing because of the increasing importance of innovation to the economy. Enterprises whose members discover the most imaginative possibilities, for which there's the greatest demand, generate the highest profits -- at least until rivals catch up. Their brand-portals
inspire the most trust. They are likely to be the "stickiest." And the people who contribute the most to them have (or have a shot at) the most lucrative and often the most interesting jobs found anywhere.
The demand for creative innovators continues to exceed their supply. As buyers switch more easily to better deals, competition is spreading and intensifying. Innovation is occurring in more places, among more products, inside more organizations. And wherever it occurs, it creates the competitive necessity among rivals to innovate as well. The supply of creative innovators, in other words, ignites still more demand for them. And as the demand for them grows, their economic rewards grow in tandem, because the supply can't keep up. My former student, and legions of twenty- and thirtysomethings like her, are the direct and immediate beneficiaries.
At the core of innovation lie two distinct personalities, representing different inclinations, talents, and ways of perceiving the world. The first is that of the artist or inventor, the designer, the engineer, the financial wizard, the geek, the scientist, the writer, or musician -- the person who, in short, is capable of seeing new possibilities in a particular medium and who takes delight in exploring and developing them. The medium may be highly technical, as in computer software or finance, or more fluid, as in the fine arts. This person finds pleasure in stretching the medium as far as it can be stretched, testing its limits, discovering and solving new puzzles within it. I'll call him a geek, because that's how he's often caricatured in the new economy, but he is in fact more than a geek; he's a dreamer, a visionary, sometimes a revolutionary. And his vision is not limited to technology. The true geek can be inspired by any means of expressing innovative ideas.
When the geek bestows his highest accolade on some software -- that it's cool -- he is making an aesthetic judgment. It is cool because it is original and beautiful; it has crossed a conventional boundary and solved a problem in a surprising way. Cool software is, perhaps, elegantly simple, or it can perform an operation that no one had previously thought of, or it is lovely in the sense that only one steeped in software design could fully appreciate. It reflects insight and dexterity on the part of its designer. The pleasure in devising or beholding it has nothing to do with its likely market value, and everything to do with its artistry -- its cleverness, its acuity, its perfection. It is the same pleasure the artist (or an art critic) takes in a painting that is both original and powerful, or the musician takes in a musical composition (or in her performance) that takes the medium to a new level of intensity, grace, and mastery. It is an insider's appreciation. "Cool" was, after all, the term used by jazz musicians of the bebop generation who broke through the melodious conventions of the age and introduced a new aesthetic -- a new rhythm and sound.
A geek's pleasure is linked to novelty, and discovery. Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, an expert on creativity, terms this attitude "mindfulness." Someone who is merely analytic, rather than mindful, maps out current options and seeks to optimize outcomes. The mindful person seeks out new possibilities. "From a mindful perspective," Langer writes, "one's response to a particular situation is not an attempt to make the best choice from among available options, but to create options."
Creating something that's new and intrinsically beautiful or "cool" entails a process of discovery. You don't know what you'll find when you set out to find it, nor are you completely clueless. Writer Annie Dillard explains it like this:
"First, you shape the vision of what the projected work of art will be. The vision, I stress, is no marvelous thing: It is the work's intellectual structure and aesthetic surface. It is a chip of mind, a pleasing intellectual object. It is a glowing thing, a blurred thing of beauty.... Many aspects of the work are still uncertain, of course; you know that. You know that if you proceed you will change things and learn things, that the form will grow under your hands and develop new and richer lights. But that change will not alter the vision or its deep structures; it will only enrich it."
The creation of new possibilities can be all-consuming. The geek melds with the software he is designing; the musician is enraptured by the sounds and tempo; the research scientist is absorbed by samples and measurements. Put one of them alone in a room with the right equipment, and he can summon an almost inexhaustible store of enthusiasm for finding new possibilities. The inventor is not antisocial, certainly not misanthropic. But empathy is not his strong suit. He often finds greater satisfaction in interacting with the technology, or with the music, the
film, or another medium. What pleasure he derives from interacting with people comes from ensemble work, from the excitement of shared invention, and the sparks that fly when minds collude and collide in the same medium. It is the shared artistry of the musical ensemble, the acting troupe, the research team, the writers' workshop -- the joy comes in joint mastery, from the collaboration in achieving something even more beautiful, ultracool.
Excerpted from The Future of Success, (c) 2001 by Robert B. Reich. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. New York, N.Y. Used with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. Available at bookstores and online at www.aaknopf.com