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The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World

Public Affairs,

15 min read
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“Serial breakthrough innovators” are geniuses. Many are manic, and some are just a little bit crazy.

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As a teenager, Steve Jobs worked at Atari. He seldom bathed, and he smelled bad, so Atari isolated him from the other employees. As a young man, Albert Einstein couldn’t get a job in academia; his college professors resented his disrespect for authority. When they didn’t recommend him for a teaching position, he made his living as a patent examiner. Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway and numerous lifesaving medical devices, lives in a house with hallways that appear to be mine shafts. “Serial breakthrough innovators” like Jobs, Einstein and Kamen are “quirky,” says innovation expert Melissa A. Schilling. She examines the lives of accomplished innovators, discusses why they are special and offers companies practical tips on how to nurture innovation among their employees.


Most “serial breakthrough innovators” are misfits, eccentrics, outsiders, kooks, rebels and nonconformists.

To understand what makes serial breakthrough innovators special, consider their individual traits. These prodigious, world-class, “quirky” innovators include:

  • Elon Musk – A bookish, nerdy kid, Musk developed his first video game at age 12. By age 28, he was a millionaire. During the next 10 years, he created the electronic payment system that became PayPal. Musk taught himself rocket science and founded SpaceX, an aerospace transportation services firm that established the practicality of reusable rockets. Musk helped develop Tesla Motors, which manufactures and sells electric cars. It became “the first new-car company to go public in the United States in more than 50 years.” Musk constantly attempts the impossible. He doesn’t care whether people think he should.
  • Nikola Tesla – Known as the “wizard genius,” Tesla was responsible for upward of 200 noteworthy innovations, some considered impossible to achieve, including the first long-distance wireless communication...

About the Author

Melissa A. Schilling, PhD, an expert in innovation, is the John Herzog Family Professor of Management and Organizations at NYU’s Stern School of Business. She is also the innovation director for Stern’s Fubon Center for Technology, Business and Innovation. 

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