This post is part of the Innovation 101 series, a collection of essays exploring this topic from various perspectives
The point of the "Innovation 101" series on this blog is to demystify the term "innovation" and give you a real world perspective of what it's like to do this kind of work. One of the biggest fallacies surrounding innovation nowadays is the idea that everyone should think about doing a startup or learning to code because tech companies are hot on the stock market again. That's like saying that everyone should think about being an electrician back when Thomas Edison rolled out the power grid. Sure, there is unquestionable demand for these jobs, but that does not mean everyone is cut out to do them.
But not all is lost! Innovation work can be a whole lot of fun if you have a mindset that is compatible with the dynamics of the job. I, for example, could not see myself doing anything else for a living. So let's look at the pros and cons of innovation work in order to give you a more detailed picture of what this world is like.
Pros: It's good to be geek
The jury is in and the nerds have definitely won. Never in the history of humanity has it been easier to come up with a way to make people's lives better, build it in a small team and deliver it to millions of customers in a few months. Any bright and brave souls out there who are willing to put a product or service together have a shot at upending whole industries and literally change the way things are done at scale. WhatsApp may be the greatest example of such power so far with their 46 employees, 470 million users and a $19B acquisition by Facebook. I can't think of a single profession outside of innovation-related jobs that 1) is available to the masses (ie. President of the USA is a one-person job) and 2) offers such potential to revolutionize the world so fast.
The vast majority of the Forbes 400 are self-made entrepreneurs and that is not a coincidence. These people created wealth out of nothing by solving problems customers were willing to pay for. That is the most direct and meritocratic reward for innovation work. Financial Samurai has a more detailed explanation as to why you're going to have a hard time getting rich working for someone else.
Autonomy, mastery, purpose
Daniel Pink is famous for his research on what makes people happy at work and these 3 ideas are central to what he would consider a fulfilling career. I've found that you're more likely to come across team cultures that foster autonomy, mastery and purpose when doing innovation work than any other function in a business. That is not to say that these qualities are exclusive to innovation workers, only that it is often found in innovation teams.
In a nut shell, the safety of our jobs comes down to 2 basic ideas: 1) the law of supply and demand and 2) competence. For example, the best horse-buggy repairman in the world still lost his job as the automobile proceeded to dominate the transportation industry; that's supply and demand trumping competence as it always does. By that logic, the reverse happens to be true nowadays: there is so much demand for innovation workers out there as the Internet/mobile/software reshape the world economy that there are programs that will literally train you for free regardless of prior experience in exchange for a piece of your starting salary, which gets paid not by you, but by the company that hires you.
Along with all the awesomeness above, it has simply become “cool" to be a nerd/geek for the first time in history. If a Googler and the captain of the football team walk into a college party nowadays, my money would be on the Googler for who gets a crowd around him/her.
Cons: Free food in exchange for your freedom
Failure is the norm:
How would you like to spend several years of your life working insanely hard, often at the expense of personal health, hobbies and relationships, only to see it all go up in smoke as your company gets obliterated by an unexpected competitor, market movement, poor management decision, etc? This may sound like a tragic exception, but it is rather the norm in innovation, especially in startups. If you’re seriously considering joining a startup, please do yourself a favor and read Financial Samurai’s gem of a post advising startup employees to "sleep with one eye open".
Uncertainty, constant learning, responsibility
These are what I would consider to be the counter points to Daniel Pink’s “Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose" theory of job satisfaction. With autonomy, you get to never know if what you’re doing is correct or on the right track since you’re charting your own course. Mastery in the lighting fast world of innovation means picking up new skills literally forever in order to stay employable. Lastly, I’ve found that the more purposeful projects I worked on were also the ones that made me feel like the weight of the world was on my shoulders. There’s a certain sense of duty that is correlated with the empathy you feel for your users and customers which can work against you if you allow it.
You’re often misunderstood
Successful innovations win because most people, at some point in time, think that your idea is stupid or simply doesn’t make sense. If it was obvious, then why hasn’t someone else already done it? The more ambitious the innovation, the more misunderstood you will be for a longer period of time. And because most startups fail, it will be extra difficult for you as an innovator to clearly discern whether your idea is truly valuable or it is a solution looking for a problem.
It’s never good enough
The longer you spend doing innovation work, the more you realize how much better the world can still get. Why do we need power cords? Why do healthcare forms suck so bad? Why do we have to spend so many years in school being mostly bored? Why does half of humanity live on less than $2/day? It’s incessant, it’s borderline obsessive, it robs you of the bliss of the present moment and, for better or worse, it is an irreducible part of your character.
So, how does working in innovation sound to you? Behind the free food and unlimited soft drinks is a life of constant improvement and experimentation. I love inventing things today just as much as when I was a kid (even though they will likely fail), but it's important to realize that you should come to that decision on your own instead of following the hype.
Has this post helped you change your opinion about innovation in one way or another? How so? Drop me a line in the comments!