It took me almost two months, but I finally finished Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. The subtitle alone was enough to make me want to gobble it up, and it more than fulfilled my expectations. I’ve been looking forward to writing this post ever since I began it, and I can’t wait to share all the incredible insights I gleaned from it.
I knew it would be good from the first page, when he told the story of Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron and his mathematically-inclined wife, whose love for “poetical science” enabled her to create a vision for computers that would not be fully developed until almost two hundred years later. I met some familiar figures like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and many more that I’d never heard of but who, by the end, had become new heroes and felt like old friends.
Perhaps what originally drew me into the book was my fascination with the computer and internet—they’re such fundamental parts of our lives, almost necessities (although whether they should be is a topic for another time), but what are they exactly? How did they come to exist? Their enormity and complexity has always boggled my mind, and The Innovators both helped explain their existence and made it even more awesome, in every sense of the word.
However, Isaacson’s absorbing history taught me more than just the whos, hows, and whens of computers and the internet—it taught me about innovation in any area, about people, relationships, genius, and education. It is these broader lessons that I want to dive into today. I guess it’s rather nerdy of me to be so excited about a book like this, but I simply love both the topic and how it can apply to all of life. Are you ready for this?
Lesson #1: Collaboration is more important than individual loner geniuses.
This is a point of great emphasis for Isaacson: All the incredible inventions and discoveries that led to the computers we have today came about because of teamwork. He lists several examples of people who created certain machines but never received credit for them or even saw them used because they were the typical lone inventor in the basement. In contrast, those working in labs, in a large community with a variety of characters from the business, academic, and military worlds, made the difference. Although what they invented was basically no different than the loner’s, because they were comprised of people who could fund it, market it, point out its problems and fix it, and expand its applications, they were the ones who are given the praise for its invention and who saw their brainchild in use.
Put simply, we need each other. The greatest inventions of our age have come about because people teamed up, put aside the desire to hog the spotlight and credit, and embraced the essential variety of a group.
Speaking of teams …
Lesson #2: Great teams are comprised of different personalities.
As someone a little obsessed with personality types, I loved how Isaacson explored this concept. He contrasted the leading figures in every partnership, pointing out their similarities but even more focusing on their much-needed differences. Often, these partners had similar visions and passions that allowed them to strive for the same goals and be unified in what they ultimately wanted to accomplish. However, their methods of reaching those ends often differed drastically—in the most beneficial way. Where one was a charismatic persuader who could get people to fund the project, the other was a reclusive, focused lab worker. Where one was concerned with theoretical problems, the other focused on the practical. Where one was relaxed and encouraged employees to speak out, the other knew how to maintain discipline and got rid of troublemakers without any qualms.
In a nutshell, lesson number one revealed that teams accomplish more than individuals, and lesson two showed that out of those teams, the best were ones comprised of different yet complementary personalities.
Lesson #3: Art and science are equally valuable and intertwined, and their intersection is where great innovations happen.
This point is my absolute favorite, and it’s the one Isaacson focused on the most heavily. He began with Ada and her “poetical science”—I love that term—and he ended with her as well, titling the concluding chapter “Ada Forever.” His praise of her centered not only on the fact that she was able to predict what computers would be like decades before they were created, but also because she recognized their potential for beauty. In her era, the early 1800s, machines were purely mathematical, practical tools that made labor easier, useful only for business. However, Ada realized that machines could be beautiful, that someday computers could be instruments of art—music, painting, poetry. As we now see, she was right.
Isaacson claims that all the great innovators he features recognized the same thing. They took the mathematical concepts of computers and imagined how to use them for pleasure and socialization, not just making a task more efficient (although that is certainly a valuable aspect). He then makes the topic personal by insightfully critiquing those who prefer STEM subjects over the humanities or vice versa. I’ll quote his message to those who prefer the arts because it probably is more applicable to most of my readers:
Many people who celebrate the arts and the humanities, who applaud vigorously the tributes to their importance in our schools, will proclaim without shame (and sometimes even joke) that they don’t understand math or physics. They extoll the virtues of learning Latin, but they are clueless about how to write an algorithm or tell BASIC from C++, Python from Pascal. They consider people who don’t know Hamlet from Macbeth to be Philistines, yet they might merrily admit that they don’t know the difference between a gene and a chromosome, or a transistor and a capacitor, or an integral and a differential equation. These concepts may seem difficult. Yes, but so, too, is Hamlet. And like Hamlet, each of these concepts is beautiful. Like an elegant mathematical equation, they are expressions of the glories of the universe. (bolding mine)
Isaacson is primarily focused on the fact that this appreciation of both worlds will create the digital advances, but even if you aren’t really concerned with being the next Steve Jobs, you should seek to love both. As Christians, we know that God is both a God of order and logic and a God of beauty and creativity. Both sides bring Him glory, and we can best fully praise, understand, and imitate Him when we embrace both facets of creation.
So, as you consider how to go about solving a problem, finishing a project, reaching a goal, starting a fundraiser, creating a presentation, or whatever you need to do, remember the truth of many hands making light work. You can accomplish more as a team than you ever could alone.
As you try to figure out who to partner with, hang out with, work with, be friends with, and learn from, remember that opposites truly do attract. Yes, there needs to be a common purpose to bind you together, but don’t be proud—recognize your weaknesses and look for someone who has the complementary strengths.
And as you seek to live life to the fullest, remember to appreciate both the math and the art. Maybe take a lesson in computer programming or stop complaining about math and try to find something beautiful in it. Better yet, try to figure out how to create something beautiful from it. If you’re the opposite and prefer science, try picking up a poem or piece of music and discovering the mathematical rhythms behind them. Draw a sketch for fun.
I wasn’t expecting to learn these things from a history on digital technology—and maybe you weren’t expecting them in a post about such a book—but they greatly encouraged me, and I hope they do the same for you. Have you ever considered these things before? Have you seen these concepts play out in your own life? Let’s talk about it!