Why the Best Innovators are Students

07/30/2014

Every field of work (and life) has its innovators and experts–the sharpest minds in the game. And if you share the ambition to achieve something great, you may aspire to join their ranks. But what are the steps that actually get people there? Who were great innovators before they became masters in their field?

The truth is these individuals  start out the same way as the rest of us. No one is born as an iconic leader, scientific mastermind, Olympic athlete, or savvy entrepreneur. They start in the same place: full of questions, concerns, hopes, dreams, and challenges. So, what separates their path?

As I meet and speak with a wide range of remarkable individuals, I’ve noticed one definitive commonality between all of them: the most innovative people are the greatest learners. This doesn’t just mean students in a traditional classroom (in fact often it’s often the opposite), but rather the most proactive people in pursuing firsthand knowledge in a chosen area.

Experts-to-be let intellectual curiosity lead them and surround themselves with smarter people who can share stories and lessons. The most impactful learning comes from these sources, as well as their own hands-on experiences.

Most distinctively, if you pick the brain of an renowned individual in any field you’ll realize they never stopped learning. They never stop seeking out more research and the ideas of smarter minds.

And it applies to all fields. Ludwig van Beethoven, born with incredible musical sense, didn’t produce many of his most historically acclaimed (and innovative) pieces until after decades of study and improvement alongside composer Joseph Haydn, his father, and others.

Elon Musk, one of the most noted living entrepreneurs, has invented radically new cars and space shuttles by becoming a student again and again after startup successes in entirely unrelated industries.

Even billionaire investor Warren Buffett credits his business savvy to constant study, claiming, “I just sit in my office and read all day.” For the most innovative, learning doesn’t stop when you leave a traditional learning environment.

Anyone has the potential to spark great thought and work. As IDEO founder David Kelley once said to me, “creativity starts with being curious, and everyone can be curious.” The icons we look up to want to keep being students. Any of us can become true innovators and experts in our field if we commit to meaningful, mind-sharpening experiences, and seeking out opportunities to spend as much time as possible learning from those ahead of us.

That pivotal transition into holding true expertise happens when you are able to share substantive insights with those a few steps behind you. Experts are great storytellers–they share their opinions and mentor others–and it’s not just for altruistic reasons. In words attributed to Albert Einstein, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Sharing what you’ve learned forces you to build stronger mental frameworks and answer tough questions. It drives you to remain a student and not become complacent with early success.

If you devote yourself to becoming a great student, you will create and do great things. People may or may not deem you as an expert, but your listening ear and thoughtful work will spark the type of conversations that lead to better places and momentous ideas.

So, what are you learning?