Ben Franklin's Guide to Innovation

OCTOBER 17, 2013, 12:00 AM
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Imagine Ben Franklin, fat and self-satisfied. 

That image his hard to conjure because Franklin, one of America's great innovators, was physically fit up until his seventies, and he was never satisfied.

"He became a printer and then he became an entrepreneur and then he created a library and then he created a university," recounts innovation expert Jeff DeGraff. "Then he created the original self-help group.  Then he became a diplomat.  Before he was a diplomat he became a great scientist and invented everything from the Franklin stove to the lightening rod to bifocals, which he didn’t patent because he thought everybody should be able to use them," DeGraff says.



So what if, in his path from inventor to diplomat, to great American patriot, DeGraff asks us to consider, Franklin thought he had finally found himself? "He would have never become that amazing polymath, that Renaissance person that we all want to be," DeGraff says. "So I think it’s an absolute gift that we never really get there because that’s what pulls us forward."

The essential lesson here, is that when it comes to innovation, it’s never fully realized. This lesson is derived from DeGraff's Masterclass on Big Think Edge, the only forum on YouTube designed to help you get the skills you need to be successful in a rapidly changing world.  

Let's say you developed a miracle drug. There’s always another miracle drug.  Let's say you developed a great restaurant, there’s always a second restaurant.  Let's say you developed a software solution to keep everybody safe. There’s always another software solution because there’s always someone else pushing back with an alternative so that you have to keep going. "So we never really fully arrive," DeGraff says. "But isn’t that the best thing in life?"

To put it another way, DeGraff has us conjure the image of climbing a mountain. You’re going in a circle up this mountain.  That’s how innovation really works.  In fact, one of the classic mistakes people make, DeGraff says, is that "they think they know everything at the beginning. You don’t know anything at the beginning."

That is why, as you circle the mountain, you build a version 1.0, then 2.0.  You build the thick and thin versions of products - the simpler one and then the more complicated one later. You do this because you know you’re going to learn some things along the way.  "So in innovation, DeGraff says, "there’s a lot of twisting, there’s a lot of turning, there’s a lot of doubling back, there’s a lot of paying attention to what we know now.  What did we learn from our experiences and our experiments?"

And that is why DeGraff's hero is Benjamin Franklin, "the penniless runaway, the diplomat, politician, patriot, on and on it goes."

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