Yes, luck is an essential aspect of innovation


How exactly was a research physicist able to create the modern World Wide Web?

It seems like such a strange connection, physics and a wold-wide Internet. Yet, in the early 1980s, a London man named Tim Berners-Lee was able to create the modern-day web. By encouraging networks to interlink with hypertext (a computer text format) and web “domains,” Berners-Lee was able to take a very wide-reaching and difficult-to-use network that represented the pre-modern Internet and turn it into an early World Wide Web.

Realistically the web we love today was always a “bound-to-happen” thing. Anyone could have come up with the idea of connecting the virtual text language with the existing transmission protocol (TCP) and domain names.

But Tim Berners-Lee – again: a physicist working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research at the time – was the one who did it.

“I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to TCP and DNS ideas and – ta da! – the World Wide Web,” Berners-Lee said.

Why him?

Partially because he was in the right place (a global research company that had a need to communicate across the world) at the right time (a time in history where the technology capable of creating the web: hypertext, TCP and DNS, already existed). Berners-Lee was lucky in that sense.

We can see extremely similar cases through-out all major, historical innovations.

The iPhone has revolutionized the web countless billions across the globe communicate, and yet the smart phone as a technology had already existed for years before it. Apple was lucky in that they had access to the technology (the phone, wireless Internet, touch-screen technology) and the right audience (millions of potential customers who adored their iPods) to make the iPhone a success.

It’s a similar story for the advent of computers, automobiles, airplanes, air conditioning, silicone, satellites, radio, photography, microwaves, and so on.

When Wilbur and Orville Wright became the first humans to fly for 12 seconds using a propeller-drawn aircraft in 1903 they were immensely lucky too.

Lucky that they had access to motorized parts that had been invented before their time, lucky that they had all of the knowledge of those who had experimented with glided flight before them too. Lucky that everything allowing them to create the historical “Flyer” not only existed, but that they were in the right place and time to utilize the parts as necessary.

It’s not all about luck, of course.

All innovation requires that the inventor(s) be aware of the possibilities (like Tim Berners-Lee seeing the need for a world-wide Internet network), then act on them (like the Wright brothers putting in countless hours to make their idea work).

So yes, luck is certainly an aspect of innovation. There’s no getting around that requirement, it seems.

However, we – you and I – can do things in order to increase the likelihood of our encountering these lucky situations.

For example, while Thomas Edison is accredited as having invented the electric light bulb, electric power stations, movie cameras, and more, the reason he was able to do any of those things was because he forcefully put himself into the right place and time.

Edison filed well over 1,000 patents during his career.

The Wright brothers found their luck with their airplane after years of diligently working on bicycles and even a printing press they designed and used to print a daily newspaper.

Tim Burners-Lee had spent much of his life not only studying physics, but working with computer models and technology (like that of hypertext) in order to communicate with the teams he was helping. That work put him into a position where it would have been very difficult to not see a world-wide Internet.

In all of these scenarios the lesson is the same: luck plays a part in innovation, but it’s those who work to be in the right place and right time who get lucky. Then it’s up to those who find themselves in such circumstances to act!

As Edison famously stated: “What it boils down to is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

If you want to innovate, place yourself into areas where it’s most likely to happen. The best way to do that is work, tinker, diligently explore areas of your work where opportunities can make themselves known.

I’ll end with this quote that I regularly turn to when I work. From Steven Johnson’s flawlessly good book Where Good Ideas Come From:

“The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.”