If a certain stereotype comes to mind when you hear the word “inventor” — grey-haired, mostly white, mainly dead men — you’re not alone. After all, if you google “great inventors,” you’ll find the usual suspects: Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers, Johannes Gutenberg, James Watt, Samuel Morse, Leonardo da Vinci, Nikola Tesla and so on. This group has certainly invented many an amazing thing, but so have many others.
While filming The Nature of Invention for The Nature of Things, we met dozens of talented inventors who blow these old stereotypes out of the water, defying all categories in terms of who they are and how they invent.
It was energizing to visit the workshops, studios and even the high schools of these intrepid modern inventors. They all cared about solving different problems with their inventions but also had a set of shared character traits and convictions.
Here are a few lessons I learned from them about what it takes to be a great inventor:
You have to have grit. You can’t give up when the going gets tough — and it will. Steady persistence throughout the ups and downs is key. You must be able to resist the temptation to abandon your project when it begins to feel nothing short of impossible.
You should trust your gut. If you sense, deep down, that this invention is worth all the pain and work in bringing it to life, because it deeply matters or sparkles in some way, then act on that feeling and listen to your passion. But if your gut feeling is that you’re not in love with your idea, then it’s important to listen to that, as well — maybe you’re on the wrong track.
Listening is critical. Seek feedback on your idea from others, both early on in the invention’s development and as a sounding board while it’s being built. Take other people’s criticisms seriously if you know they’re trying to help and have relevant experience. But take a measured approach: don’t let their comments betray your own feelings of what you think is right.
It’s best to be open. Don’t hoard your idea away from other people out of fear that they might steal it. Talk about your invention and seek out talented collaborators. Brain power is the currency of invention, so seek out more creative thinkers.
It all starts with imagination. Inventing is about solving problems. Great inventors understand that it all begins with a vision for how things could be different, and then requires a whole lot of energy to turn it into something real.
Confidence is key. You have to believe in yourself. All sorts of people have great ideas, but few of us follow through on them. Believe you can, then get out there and do it.
Watch The Nature of Invention on The Nature of Things.