Most of us hold a wide variety of misconceptions about what an inventor is or does. We often think of someone who creates something new that has never existed before – out of thin air.
Inventors are not people who come up with new things we never had, they simply search for new possibilities, and can pull inspiration from the work of others to advance something used, or believed to a new place.
Inventors sometimes work in the physical world, creating new advancements in exiting tools or technology, or in the theoretical world, creating new concepts, systems, ideas or even just proposing new theories.
The way we approach inventing is a delusion. Inventors don’t invent so much as they discover. I want to dive into their minds.
So, here are 5 keys to invention and how to develop into an inventor.
1. Understand How Inventors Think
Inventors rarely see the world as it is, they see the world as it can be. They don’t accept the status quo and are always challenging the accepted notions of…well…everything.
Most people believe something can or can’t be done. If none has done it, they assume it cannot be done, particularly if someone else has already tried but failed.
Inventors don’t think in these black and white terms of success and failure. When one thing doesn’t work, they don’t consider it as a failure; they try something else.
Thomas Edison tried over 900 different variations of the lightbulb before finding the one that worked. When asked about it, he responded that he didn’t fail 1,000 times; the lightbulb was an invention that requires 1,000 steps.
2. Embrace Quantum Physics rather than Newtonian Physics
Most people have a pass or fail mindset. Everything in life is one thing or the other, something is true or not true, but it cannot be both.
While we may not know of it, most of us have been educated based on a Newtonian worldview, based on Newtonian physics. Newtonian physics stem from the study of observable objects or things you can see, touch and feel.
When you get down to what is happening on a molecular level, however, everything changes.
Newtonian physics insists that two things can never occupy the same space. Quantum physics says they can. Newtonian physics is the box we’ve all been taught to think inside.
Being an inventor requires outside-the-box thinking.
For all intents and purposes, the system has taught us that nothing exists outside the box, the box rules and governs all. Quantum physicists know better. And so do inventors.
3. Learn From the Past and Build Upon it
In 1488, Leonardo DaVinci made drawings of something he called an ornithopter flying machine, based on an ancient Chinese toy. Then, in 1870, an inventor named Alphonse Pénaud’s created a model helicopter powered by simple rubber bands.
That invention inspired the Wright brothers, who created the first airplane just after the turn of the century. Later, in 1907, a French engineer named Paul Cornu designed and built a helicopter he got to lift off–making it the world’s first piloted helicopter.
In 1922, another French engineer designed a helicopter that carried a passenger.
In 1936, two Germans created what we consider the world’s first functional helicopter. Yet, what history books will tell us is that it was Igor Sikorsky that invented the helicopter in 1940.
So, who invented the helicopter?
None of them did. None of them even invented anything so much as discovered how to work within certain principles of physics to accomplish something that had never worked out before.
That is an inventor’s mind.
Birds have been flying as long as man has existed.
We didn’t discover flight, we simply discovered how to recreate something that already existed. But it took hundreds of men and women over 500 years to figure out how to do it.
Everyone has the potential to be an inventor. It’s all just a matter of how you think about things.
4. Learn From Other Disciplines and Pull Inspiration From Other Sectors
In the early 1900s, Henry Ford fell in love in the efficiency of how slaughterhouses used an assembly line system to accomplish the multi-step process of butchering meat and the conveyor belt system that was being used by grain warehouses.
Those methods were improvements on even earlier methods such as Oliver Evans’ automatic flour mill or Eli Whitney’s Standardized Weapons Manufacturing.
When Ford built his first plant, he devised a means of combining these two systems to create one smooth manufacturing process.
Soon after that, an executive with the Toyota Motor Company named Taiichi Ohno visited Ford’s plant and was also fascinated with the efficiency of the assembly line process Ford created by combining the best elements of two other processing plants.
Ohno took what he learned back to Japan, but did not mimic was Ford was doing. Ohno improved upon it by pulling inspiration from still another industry.
What also impressed Ohno was the efficiency of the local Piggly Wiggly supermarket and how they stocked food only as needed to keep up with demand.
From that system, Ohno developed the Just-In-Time manufacturing process. But he also saw a flaw in Piggly Wiggly’s process.
What the delivery system of the Piggly Wiggly system lacked was communication between workers, teams or departments.
So, Ohno combined two existing methodologies and improved upon them with a new system he called Kanban; which literally translates to signboards. From there, the Toyota Production System (TPS) was born.
Later, a wide range of industries adapted the TPS system and it became known as lean manufacturing. Today, even businesses outside of manufacturing apply many of the same principles, now known as “lean methods” or sometimes referred to as Six Sigma.
5. Never Stop Learning, Pushing Forward or Trying Something New
Not all inventions exist because someone set out to make something new. People who had a problem and needed a fix created a great number of the items we take for granted.
In 1968, a man by the name of Spencer Silver was trying to create a super strong adhesive people could use in the aerospace industry for building planes. One of those attempts resulted in a weak adhesive that stuck well to surfaces, but peeled away easily, leaving no residue.
In the quest for a super strong adhesive, however, he deemed it a failure and shelved.
It wasn’t until just over 5 years later that Silver came into contact with a chemical engineer working for the same company (3M) by the name of Art Fry.
Fry also happened to sing in a church choir. One problem he always had was losing his page markers in his hymn book while singing. He was familiar with Silver’s low-contact adhesive and tried it.
Being an inventor does not mean sitting in a workshop or lab tinkering with gears and pulleys or beakers or test tubes all day.
Sometimes, being an inventor means running out of one ingredient and trying something new only to create the world’s first chocolate chip cookie.
It can mean trying to come up with a way to help college students better connect with each other and ending up inventing the global phenomenon that is Facebook.
Inventors don’t always set out to invent something, it just happens. But it also happens a lot to a certain kind of person.
The people that new inventions happen to are people who understand nothing is perfect just the way it is.
Where other people see things as good enough, inventors look around and never fail to imagine how things could be better. Perhaps a better word for an inventor is an innovator.
I’ll leave you with wise words of a true innovator of our times, the one that changed things.
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.” – Steve Jobs