7 Characteristics of Highly Successful Innovators

by Eddie Newquist

Sherlock Holmes has captivated readers for more than 100 years with his eccentric personality, logical reasoning, and ability to make connections that others cannot. The fictional detective has gotten even more attention in the past few years, thanks to Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of the famous sleuth, BBC’s mini-series starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and CBS’ “Elementary.”

These portrayals offer a peek into Holmes’ infinitely innovative mind by showing animated words, sounds, and pictures lighting up and linking like a web as he makes his mental connections.

Quips aside, this is the most concrete representation of what goes on in an innovator’s mind. But the ability to form connections is just one trait of highly successful innovators. Today, innovative people need to be well-rounded professionals with a very specific set of characteristics:

1. Divergent Thinking

Where most people see an overwhelming galaxy of ideas, successful innovators see the individual stars and planets and can theorize on how they might relate to one another. Instead of searching for one “correct” answer, they look beyond the status quo to the multitude of possibilities. This is how innovation is born.

Take Elon Musk, for instance — co-founder of PayPal, the man behind Tesla Motors, and now the founder of SpaceX. Aerospace technology might seem like a big leap from luxury electric cars, but for an innovator like Musk, space travel is the logical next step for mankind.

2. Insatiable Curiosity

Of course, successful innovators don’t pull these connections from thin air. They have an inherent curiosity that motivates them to ask, “What happens if I put these two things together?” or “How can I get from A to B more easily?”

Musk asked how he could do things differently, and that curiosity led him to reject the notion that a luxury vehicle needed a gas-guzzling combustion engine and that Tesla had to hold on to the patents for its technology.

Successful innovators look at everything as though they’re viewing it for the first time and reject others’ preconceived notions of how the world works.

3. Infectious Passion

Tesla released its technology patents for the benefit of the industry as a whole. According to Musk, it would be impossible for Tesla to manufacture electric vehicles fast enough to address the carbon crisis, so Tesla adopted an open-source policy to combat the problem.

Passion fuels the innovative fire, but it’s not enough to simply love what you do; you must also have a burning desire to share that passion.

Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky created “Pictures at an Exhibition,” a 10-movement musical piece, to allow the listener to feel what he felt while examining pictures in an art gallery. It is spectacular, and I highly recommend joining Mussorgsky for a stroll through his imaginary gallery for inspiration. When innovative people are passionate about something, they will dive headlong into an idea to share that passion with others.

4. Stamina

Innovative success is rarely instantaneous, and almost every innovator I’ve ever worked with has the unshakable perseverance of a long-distance runner. In fact, I recommend distance running as a way to break through roadblocks. Instead of being derailed by challenges, innovators should use them as fuel to keep moving.

Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” was rejected 38 times before it was published, and Stephen King kept all his rejection letters (30 from “Carrie” alone) skewered on a nail on his bedroom wall.

5. Compelling Leadership

Innovation can be a solitary endeavor, but to be successful, innovators need to be able to rally a team around them. The best leaders get their people so fired up that they’re ecstatic to do their jobs. Their dream is adopted by others, and their team picks up the torch to make that dream a reality.

Just think of Walt Disney, whose empire has grown exponentially since his first sketch of Mickey Mouse. The collective passion of decades of talented artists, Imagineers, and operations personnel has kept his legacy alive and enabled tremendous company growth.

6. Respect for Other Innovators

It’s easy to get caught up in your own genius and disregard others’ opinions. But part of great leadership and success is respecting other people who can help bring an idea to fruition.

David Heyman, producer of the “Harry Potter” films, built a strong working relationship with J.K. Rowling during the production of the films through his leadership and passion. Heyman’s talent as a producer is evident, but his ability to respect Rowling’s vision ultimately allowed him and his creative team to deliver eight films that readers and film audiences worldwide could enjoy.

7. Courage

Putting ideas into action, bringing other people on board, and facing criticism takes an extraordinary amount of courage. Although Rowling received resounding praise for the “Harry Potter” series, some critics and fans were tough on “The Cuckoo’s Calling” after she was discovered as the author. Instead of letting that deter her, Rowling kept writing under her pseudonym and has earned high praise for her detective novels.

Geniuses are always met with criticism, but the successful ones are those with the courage to keep fighting despite what others think.

Innovative professionals are often blinded by the myth of the mad genius working in isolation and revealing every masterpiece to tremendous praise. But the truth is that successful innovators today can’t exist in a vacuum. They have to be passionate leaders and creators with unshakable courage, resilience, and the Sherlock-esque ability to make connections to the world around them.

image credit: cbs.com

Follow @ixchat on twitter

Wait! Before you go.

Choose how you want the latest innovation content delivered to you:


Eddie Newquist, chief creative officer at Global Experience Specialists, has more than 25 years of experience creating and producing a wide range of events, exhibitions, attractions, and tours for Hollywood brands and studios such as Warner Bros., Disney, Pixar, Fox, and Universal. Over the past eight years, he has led the GES entertainment team in a variety of events, promotional tours, holiday experiences, and touring museum exhibitions.