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7 Keys to Being an Innovative Thinker and Learner

by Jeff Cobb

Creating Innovators Cover ImageIn case you haven’t noticed, “innovation” is all the rage these days. Indeed, it may have edged out “creativity,” though it’s a close call. I don’t know about you, but for my part, I am not sure that either are the magic bullets they get made out to be – there is still an awful lot to be said, in most cases, for focusing on the good ‘ol boring blocking and tackling of getting things done. Nonetheless, I think there is great value in all of us cultivating some of the perspectives and habits that tend to go along with innovation. It was with this mindset that I recently read Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.

I don’t tend to do book reviews in the usual sense on Mission to Learn. Rather, I use the blog as a way to write about – and thereby better learn – key concepts that I find interesting in a book. From a traditional review perspective, I’ll say that Wagner’s book is provocative, full of good stories about young innovators, and well worth the read. What follows, though, is my take on seven key aspects of innovation Wagner emphasizes that, for me, resonate with themes I tend to cover on Mission to Learn:

1. Curiosity

Innovation starts with curiosity, and curiosity starts with questions. How does this work? Why has no one ever done that? What if? At it’s best, in my opinion, this curiosity is complemented by a will to learn, a sincere commitment to finding the answers.

The tendency for curiosity to atrophy as we age is perhaps the reason why innovation becomes less common. So, be sure to keep asking questions, and maybe embrace the learning habits of your average toddler.

2. Passion

Even with curiosity and a will to learn, efforts at innovation can be hard to sustain if you don’t have a real love for what you are doing, if you don’t experience a depth of emotion that helps fuel your curiosity. And aside from providing fuel, passion breeds resilience and faith in the face of inevitable failures.

Unfortunately, while systematized, formulaic approaches to education do offer certain advantages, one major disadvantage is that they are not necessarily a great path for finding your passion. Blake Boles makes this point in his recent Better Than College. Wagner rightly emphasizes the role that parent can – indeed, must – play to help compensate for what school usually does not provide.

3. Purpose

Effective innovation must be directed towards an end that, even if you can’t quite clearly see it yet, you know is important.

In early May, I finished up a manuscript for a new book in which I discuss, among other topics, member-based learning communities as a business model. In my experience, the communities that succeed – like, for example, the A-List Blogger Club – tend to support a blend of passion and purpose (P²). Purpose and passion together breed focus, and they also tend to spawn a great deal of innovative thinking in the “P²” learning communities I’ve experienced.

4. Fun

Playfulness. A sense of humor. An ability to take time off. Each of these is these is essential for cultivating and maintaining the ability to innovate. As is the case with both curiosity and passion, so much about traditional approaches to education tends to interfere with having fun – particularly as we age up through the hierarchy of educational institutions. The most successful innovators – and learners – manage to hang onto fun even in the midst of serious work.

 5. Collaboration

Wagner stresses the value in collaborating effectively with others to generate and develop ideas. It’s hard to disagree that collaboration is a useful concept for would-be innovators to embrace, but I think I may prefer the term “connection.” Collaboration is a direct form of connection, but we also leverage so many indirect direct ways of accessing, adding to, and building upon the ideas of others. Indeed, this blog post is an example (even if not a particularly impressive one!) of connecting with and “riffing” on Wagner’s ideas, though I suspect most people wouldn’t say we are “collaborating.”

6. Integrated thinking

I view integrated thinking as the ability to combine asking questions and drawing connections in ways that frame problems in a new light and lead to novel solutions. This process is at the root of breaking down perceptual blocks and solving problems. I think reflection is also essential to establishing integrated thinking as a habit. By taking the time to review, more fully process, and reflect upon recent experiences we are much more likely to see points of integration where we had not previously seen them.

 7. Action bias

My wife and I have been reading the fabulous Magic Treehouse books to our five-year old, and in a recent one, Jack and Annie meet four famous innovators: Alexander Graham Bell, Gustave Eiffel, Louis Pasteur, and Thomas Edison. Edison shares with them his famous dictum that creativity is “1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” As good as your ideas may be, in other words, you have to do the work if you expect them to go anywhere.

I think one of the dangers of our information-rich world is that it is easier and easier to get a whiff of innovation without every tasting the real thing. Who knows how many ideas briefly spark to life and then die between clicks each day on the Internet. Turn innovators do the work to turn their ideas into reality.


Those are my brief thoughts on some of the most essential aspects of of innovation identified by Wagner. One important aspect of innovation I have not listed separately – and which is certainly covered by Wagner in the book – is a willingness to take risks. From my perspective, risk-taking is inherent in all of the points above. If you are doing these things, you will naturally take risks, you will fail, and you will keep going. At the same time, engaging in each of these practices consistently over time tends to mitigate risk. In other words, innovation becomes a habit rather than a sudden, frightening leap (even if it looks, and sometimes feel like that at critical turning points).

Again, I recommend Wagner’s book. If you have read it – or even if you haven’t – let me know your thoughts on the points above and any others that you think are an essential part of innovation.


P.S. – I should note that Tony was also very kind to provide a segment for Shift Ed: A Call to Action for Transforming K-12 Education (Corwin 2011), which I published with my futurist friend and colleague David Houle.


posted on August 20, 2012

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Hermes Interpreter August 27, 2012 at 9:27 am

Very well said Jeff. Without those seven key points you’ve mentioned, we would not be able to get the best out of our abilities. To take note, passion is always important in everything that you do or if you wanted to learn. Without passion, the other key elements or points of being an innovator wouldn’t seem to exist. What do you think?

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