Provosts have the pleasure of learning a lot about the methods of innovation within different sectors of society. They get to work with faculty on the cutting edges of their disciplines, inventing new ways to exploring their fields. They meet alumni active in start-ups and venture capitalism. They encounter leaders in the nonprofit sector inventing new ways of serving the common good.
To me, there are overlaps in the norms that the various groups seem to follow. Most all are looking at the current state of affairs with great skepticism. They see with unusual clarity the inadequacies of the status quo of their field. They become careful students of the traditional approach. However, they question each feature of that approach, seeking to invent a new way of proceeding. In their study, when they’re effective, they completely separate the “how” of what is done from the outcome being sought.
The result in the private sector is “disruptive” of the old way of doing things, and often results in fundamental system-level changes. Witness, for example, Uber, AirBnB, Amazon – all built on rethinking the current way of doing things. Indeed, some have equated entrepreneurism itself with disruption, asserting that disruption as a goal is a necessary prerequisite.
Disruption as a scholar, whether a humanist or a scientist, has many similar traits. While much science and much of art and humanities are incremental in their advances over the status quo, not infrequently are there large leaps that occur in ways quite similar to those in the private sector. Sometimes they are radical new interpretations of existing material, allowing us to see a moment in history or a school of thought in completely new ways. Sometimes there are mathematical proofs of conjectures that require themselves the development of new approaches. Sometimes there are discoveries of relationships of attributes that were never imagined previously.
In all sectors, it seems that the new approach is always initially viewed with skepticism. Witness the number of failed “pitches” of entrepreneurs attempting to obtain venture capital. Witness the stories about a manuscript with innovative style rejected by scores of publishers. Witness an article revealing experimental results conflicting with the current paradigm subjected to unusually harsh critique. Witness a new social welfare organization providing services in novel fashion met with opposition from traditional providers.
So scholars pursuing an innovative path, entrepreneurs starting a novel business, and scientists challenging the existing theories all need other attributes to be successful – perseverance and resilience to failure. The business entrepreneurs have fully and loudly embraced this, with their touting of the value of repeatedly experiencing failure. The scholar entrepreneurs are less vocal in espousing this trait, but will admit that their rate of success when they are seeking real breakthroughs is very, very low. Artists and scientists often have hundreds of failures for every success. They persevere because they are passionate about their search for truth, whether it be the truest way to organize words for a thought, to place paint strokes on a canvas, or to observe interactions of molecules.
For all of these groups, the hunt, the challenge is paramount. Once one hunt is completed, in failure or success, the next begins with equal fervor.