I get asked the same question every day. What does it take to be a successful inventor? Like enlightenment, there are many roads to invention success. Most inventions fail and there is no secret formula. No wo inventors arrive at success by exactly the same path. Every inventor and every invention faces a unique journey. At World Patent Marketing, we pride ourselves on brutal honesty, and we try to make each journey a memorable one.
Unlock Your Invention Brain Power
But, one factor is almost always true. Successful inventors are serial inventors. They don't produce one good idea, they produce dozens. In fact, these creative individuals often have a dozen ideas before breakfast. They are like fountains bubbling over with new ideas and products, and ways to make old products work better.
The key to success? They don't have "one idea" and put everything into it. They have dozens. They don't get attached to a single idea and put all of their eggs in that basket. Successful inventors "float" ideas, lots of them, and ride the winners.
Make it or break it is not the way successful inventors operate. Because they are always simmering with new ideas in the works, a failure is just a momentary event. They've always got other projects ready to go.
We learn from this that one of the keys to invention success, is to maintain an extremely high level of creativity and enthusiasm. Success relies more on coming up with an idea a day, rather than one good idea to last a lifetime.
Becoming a waterfall of invention ideas requires certain behaviors and strategies. These have been studied and they can be learned. Invention burn-out may be common, but it is never inevitable.
You can pump up your creativity with the following tactics. With this arsenal, you can become more creative, as well as more productive, efficient, inspired, and perhaps even happier.
The Question is as important as the Solution
Psychologists call this framing.
We are all familiar it from salesmen. For instance a car salesman never asks "if" you would like to buy a car. A good salesman dives right in and asks if you prefer gray or black for that new sports car. This is framing.
Or a political "opinion" poll in support of a tax increase might ask if you would prefer that children to go to bed hungry, or if they should go without school books. They don't ask if you want to pay more taxes. This is called a push poll. It isn't actually done to get your opinion, since obviously no one wants children to starve or lack books. This "poll" is actually a form of advertising, to drum up support for the tax or initiative.
These examples are crude forms of framing. They demonstrate that how the question is asked matters. The question has a big influence on the possible answers, because the question establishes limits and boundaries in our thinking.
And it isn't just how the question is worded, it is also what question is asked.
Take the first example, "Do you want the gray or black sports car?"
Suppose your actual problem was that your old car broke down for the last time, and you need transportation to get to work. The first thought in most people's mind would be, 'Where am I going to find a car and what kind am I going to buy?'
The framing of the problem of transportation limited the options. A bunch of alternatives just went into the round file without any consideration at all. Bicycle, motorcycle, train, walking, telecommuting, never had a chance.
This type of thinking, a sort of group-think born out of habit, is deadly to successful inventions. You can't come up with something new, by thinking along the same old tired path.
It doesn't matter if buying a car was the right choice or the wrong choice. Invention isn't about right and wrong. It is about new and better.
To engage in this kind of creative thinking, you need to do a lot of "why" and "what" thinking. Why should the bowl be made out of ceramic? Why should it be round? What is a bowl anyway? What is the purpose of this particular bowl?
It's not enough to simply say, "Consider all of the possibilities." When you are in the field of inventions, you need to consider all of the questions as well. Turning ideas on their heads, looking at the problem from all different angles leads to better more interesting and more successful invention ideas. And the process itself also reaps the rewards of new and interesting lines of research that lead to...new inventions. This generates creative innovation that never stops.
Fear, The Creativity Killer
"What will people think?" is the biggest threat to creativity in the English language. Worrying about how ideas will be received is the best way to shut down the creative impulse.
There's a time and a place for worry about public opinion, demographics, competition, and all of that. But it is much later in the invention process. What we are concerned with here is sheer creativity, the ability to come up with new ideas all the time, day in and day out.
This kind of creativity, the raw ideas from which everything we know of in civilization, from cars, to planes, to sewing machine, and hammers, arises from a creative spark deep inside. It's that little spark that looks at a tooth brush every morning and doesn't just squeeze the toothpaste over the bristles, like a robot on autopilot, but looks at it and says, what if we changed the toothbrush like this. Or, why does toothpaste come in tubes? What if we changed it? Or maybe you have a good idea for how to make mirrors that don't fog, or hand towels that dry instantly, or hot water taps that save energy, or...
Sure, these ideas are a little bit on the obvious side...I get that. But there is a point to that. I want to show you that a lot of the best inventions that are hugely successful in the market place are inspired by totally ordinary experiences that all of us share every day. A lot of the time, the difference between a successful inventor and an unsuccessful inventor is simply the willingness to keep playing with the questions without worrying about coming up with something really big or what other people think.
Successful inventors don't apologize for coming up with a new toothbrush, or a new toothbrush holder or toothpaste tube. They don't say, "Well yeah, I know, it's just a toothbrush but I kind of liked it."
No, they dive into the idea, get excited, play around with it. Sometimes it becomes a great new invention, sometimes not. It hardly matters, because they have a dozen other inventions waiting in the wings.
And they don't get hung up on failure. When they come up with ideas, they don't immediately jump to, "What if it doesn't make money?" or "What will the neighbors think?"
Creative minds spend their time and energy on a different set of questions. They ask, "Will it work?", "How can I fit this over there?", or "How can I test it?"
It's a psychological fact, that humans are all afraid of failure and ridicule. For so many people, it is simply easier to "not do" something, than to try it and fail and have the world laugh at our failures.
Take a cue from the successful inventors. They've all thought of plenty of duds. But, the public only remembers their successes.
Embrace your ideas, they are the inventor's greatest asset.
Focus Like a Hedgehog, But Not Too Much
This is a tricky one. The bit about the hedgehog comes from the bestselling book "Good to Great," by Jim Collins. This book examined successful companies that were able to maintain their "game" for more than a decade. It assumed that successful companies focused on their mission like a hedgehog. Which meant that they remained stubbornly focused on their core mission.
The book was a huge success and business managers all over the world were quoting it and demanding their Boards of Directors to implement its principles. However, the chapter on focus was a bit sketchy, because even within Collins cherry-picked examples, the companies didn't really conform to the rule of narrow single-minded focus. Some of the companies actually survived by diversifying beyond their core industries, while others remained in a tightly focused niche.
In the end, the book and its concepts sort of faded into mere memory, as over the next few years, almost every one of Collins "great" companies fell on hard times. What it proved more than anything, is that times change and it is hard to stay on top forever.
Inventors have almost as big a challenge as corporations when it comes to the area of focus. The challenge is to stay focused on an idea or invention long enough to give it a chance in the marketplace, but not so doggedly that you miss better opportunities as they present themselves.
It's tricky. In the prior two sections, I described the flash of inspiration that leads to great ideas. These ideas can come to you all day long and if you write them down as they occur to you, you will have a notebook full by the end of the week. It's important to nurture that, because it is the source of your creativity. This type of creativity doesn't have a moderation switch, it is only on and off. And you want it switched on all the time.
Focus is different. It's still part of the creative process, but it exists on a longer time line. Focus is an important skill that lets you take the time to consider all aspects of an invention idea, sometimes over weeks or months.
Focus is a thinking skill that allows you to tackle any problem and work it over in your mind until you find a solution. It is the trait that lets you build a finished invention from the idea, to the prototype, to manufacturing, and finally to the market.
Successful inventors need this trait.
But, like so many human traits, focus has its downside. You can focus on a problem too much.
It's a funny thing, our human brains. It's possible to sit for days, or maybe even weeks, and think, think, think, about a way to fix Problem X. And nothing comes. But, when you finally give up, and go out to mow the lawn that your wife is having a fit over, because you have been "focusing" non-stop for three weeks, when you are filling the gas tank, or loosening a stick from the mower blades, voila, the solution to Problem X hits you. It's complete, full-blown, and perfect.
This phenomenon is so common it is almost a cliche. We even have a term for it, "Out of the clear blue sky."
The term neatly encapsulates the Yen/Yang nature of focus. Too much, and you just shut down. Not enough and nothing gets done.
Most inventors, as well as artists and creatives, are well aware of this phenomenon and they accept it as part of the fun of the whole process. It is believed by most psychologists and the inventors themselves that for the most part, all of that narrowly focused thinking, that didn't seem to produce much at the time, was actually a valuable part of the process. They accept that they can't be sure when the inspired solution will arrive. But they do know that if they keep at it, the solution will eventually turn up.
As for the way the solution often springs up out of nowhere, at the oddest time when they are doing a simple rote task, they accept as part of the process too. Maybe taking their focus off of the task for a bit and relaxing their mind allows the thought to spring forth.
The best advice I can give you as an inventor is to be aware of nature of focus. You need to stay on task, you need to work on your ideas, it's the only way to make progress. On the other hand, you need to take a breather as well. Let your mind roam. Engage the world. Often, when you least expect it, all that hard work and focus will pay off big time.
Invention Gold, Inspiration from Others
Americans love the story of the lone inventor, working away days and nights in his or her lonely workshop. It's a nice story, but for the most part, it isn't true.
We're social creatures and most of our ideas come from interacting with others. Most invention ideas are actually adaptations of other ideas, that came from someone else. It's this interplay of sharing ideas with each other, and building on those ideas that makes civilization what it is.
There isn't a single item in your life that was invented by one lonely guy.
Take the light bulb. Americans commonly believe that it was invented by Thomas Edison. While he patented it in America, almost every European country has their own "inventor" of the light bulb. The fact is, a lot of researchers were working on the problem, and when tungsten became available, the light bulb came into being.
The tungsten was not created by Edison, nor was the vacuum encased by a glass bulb. Or the electrical system that made it work. Edison's "invention" was the moment when a lot of inventions and ideas from many different people came together and produced a light bulb.
Great inventors are aware of this interplay and they don't lock themselves away from the world. They read journals and trade magazines, visit trade shows, go shopping, travel to foreign countries, attend conferences. They surround themselves with ideas and information about their area of interest, as well as lots of peripheral tangents.
They share their ideas. They network. They seek out advice and opinions.
There are times in the invention process when quiet thought is appropriate and necessary. There are other times when bouncing an idea off of a friend or colleague is the best solution.
Especially when it comes to raw creativity, you need input for inspiration. Getting stuck in a rut is death to creativity of all kinds. Trying new activities, going to new places, meeting new people, are all important to keeping your mind fresh and open to new ideas, new ways of looking at things, and new inventions.
Top scientists and psychologists have known this for generations. It is why most universities have sabbaticals structured into their career paths. Periodically, researchers and professors are expected to leave their home laboratories and universities, to go work somewhere else with another group of people. The sharing of new ways of looking at things and new ideas, often leads to breakthroughs for both the host lab and the visiting scientist. The sabbatical and habit of visiting scholars is regarded as vital to the development of ideas and creativity.
You may not be able to take a sabbatical, but you can seek inspiration from the world and people around you every day. Keep an open mind, go to new places, try new activities, and share your ideas with others. The internet is a great place to do research and share ideas with people from all over the world. But, don't stop with the virtual world. Get off the computer periodically and visit a library, a museum, a mechanics shop, a boat yard, any place that is new and interesting.
Explore and get your hands dirty. It will make your life richer and you will find your journeys become a source of inspiration for new and better inventions.
Corny word, I know that. But, notice the root is "create." We're talking about creativity, not a clunky government department that is in charge of keeping the grass mowed and the picnic benches painted at the local park. Recreation for your mind and body are as necessary to inventors as sunshine is to a plant.
Down-time is what some people call it, but I see too many people interpret down-time as an afternoon in front of the television with a can of beer and a ball game. Not so bad really, we all need time off.
But, I'm talking about something more deliberate. Call it "quality down-time." Or recreation.
For a truly creative inventor, it's almost impossible to get away from the invention game. Everywhere you go, everything you do can be inspiration that leads to another invention idea.
Recreating will inspire your innovative side. It is not as important what you do, as what you don't do. The trick is to set all of your current work aside from time to time. Take a vacation from what you are working on now. Go out for an evening or a weekend with only one intention, having fun with friends and family.
These breaks will recharge your creativity. They are essential to avoiding burn out.
And the big secret that most inventors learned long ago... these breaks lead to more and better inventions in the long run.
There is nothing like switching off the routine and trying something new, to get the creative juices flowing again. It's a lot like the problem of focus, when you stop trying so hard, the solution arrives naturally and easily. When taking a trip to a museum or during conversations with friends, you will find that suddenly something you see or something that someone says will sets off that spark, for a new invention or solution. The people around us spark inspiration.
Down-time or recreation is a lot like that. Sometimes "not" working is the best work you can do.
The Long Game of Invention Success
I've worked with a lot of inventors over the years. And I have buried myself in the biographies of the great inventors over time. I am always fascinated by what it takes to make a great invention, or a successful product. Even more, I am fascinated by these great personalities, how they find inspiration, what drives them to create, what makes their inventions more successful than the next, how do they continue to do it and stay fresh, day after day, year after year?
Over time, I have come to the conclusion that the five factors described above are the key to success. Successful inventors frame the problems in new and novel ways. They are fearless and unconcerned about public opinion. They have learned to use their ability to focus in a productive way, without becoming trapped by it. They seek inspiration everywhere they go. And most of all, they take the time to have fun, enjoy life, and explore their world.
Creativity and inspiration are the inventor's greatest asset. Successful inventors know this. They don't take creativity for granted, they take specific steps to develop their creativity, to allow it to flourish, and to avoid burn-out. Fortunately, every inventor can develop these traits, no matter where they live, what their day job is, or how much money they have.
Take some time out, go get inspired, and let your imagination run riot. You'll be a better inventor for it.