Why Courage is Crucial to the Innovation Process

Trying something for the first time can be discomfiting, but in that discomfort often lies immense potential. Think of some of the most celebrated inventors throughout history; they must certainly have had their detractors, not to mention their own self-doubt that the idea would be successful. Thus, the courage to take action and attempt to turn the idea into reality is as important as the idea itself. Without committing to action, ideas are worthless.

There’s a quote from Hall of Fame hockey player Wayne Gretzky that captures this concept perfectly: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” In other words, you cannot succeed unless you try.

For millennia, people’s lives had a consistent pattern. Go to school. Go to work. Go to pasture. In other words, after years of slaving away, it’s time for retirement. But today, machines can do pretty much anything that’s repetitive, and automation is becoming a force in a number of industries. Research suggests that currently available technology could eliminate 50 percent of the jobs. Between now and 2030, technology will eliminate 50 million jobs.

However, there’s also a positive outcome from technological advancement and what isn’t said is that 50 million new jobs will be created – and they are jobs that don’t even exist yet, they are waiting on you to create them. This is where optimism, courage, and a carpe diem attitude comes in to play. The central challenge of our era – and the central challenge of your lifetime – could turn out to be that you explore what humans can do that machines are not able to do: come up with novel solutions to entrenched problems; to make change work for everybody and not just the few. Pioneering new ways of doing things requires an element that can’t necessarily be taught in school: courage.

The historian David McCullough has written books about courage. His biographies of Harry Truman, John Adams, Teddy Roosevelt, and the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal, among others are all bound together by the underlying theme of courage. He is especially strong when writing about America’s founders and the trials and tribulations they faced. And one thing I’ve learned from reading his books is that things didn’t have to turn out as well as they did. McCullough wants his readers to know that life felt every bit as uncertain to people back then as it does to us today. There were these moments when they had to be thinking, “there is no way we can get this bridge built, or get this canal dug, or this constitution passed, or this war won.” But things worked out because individuals behaved in specific ways, with integrity and resilience and most of all with courage. Ultimately, they dared to try new things and create new solutions.

Sometimes we’re thrust into a new situation that inescapably requires courage. The students of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida were not ready for what happened to them. But in short order these young people found their voices and took action. As a result, they changed laws. Florida, Rhode Island, and Oregon have tightened gun restrictions; some giant retailers stopped selling assault-style weapons. And hundreds of thousands of people put aside their smartphones and marched for their lives.

It takes courage to think big. It takes courage to step away from those who want to underestimate you and see you for your past rather than your potential. It takes courage to think beyond those who say that America’s best days are behind us, our problems have grown too big, and we are headed for decline. It takes courage to believe in a world that works for all.

When I conduct workshops on innovation and creativity, I urge people to be open to having what I call a “breakthrough idea.” A breakthrough idea in the business world refers to a hot new product, or service or method. It refers to a new technique or a solution that creates greater efficiency, or lowers costs, or brings about a new consumer benefit. But in our personal lives, it can be anything that moves us forward toward our best life. It could be starting a business, or pursuing your dream to become a writer, or pursuing a cause that you’ve always been drawn to. Then it’s a matter of what you do with the idea that makes the difference. It’s laying out a process of making it happen, of trying different things and experimenting. It’s taking your idea and building it and making it a reality that is one of the finest feelings in the world.