New telling of old story: Misfits vs. diligent drudges

Page and Brin of GoogleIn an essay in today’s New York Times, G. Pascal Zachary retells familiar stories of conceptual vs. experimental innovators in terms of paradigm-changing “misfits” vs. persistent people in “large teams, working in routine, predictable ways.”

For his lineup of successful “misfit” conceptual innovators, Zachary brings in many of the usual suspects: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin (pictured).

Zachary gives them their due, which is more than their experimental counterparts get:

” ‘The reality is that world-changing amounts of money are earned by people who question orthodoxies,’ (Sean M. Maloney, chief of sales and marketing at Intel) said.

“Does this mean the misfit is always worth betting on? Not really. The often-ignored side of the Kuhn theory is that for long stretches of time, the frontier of science and technology is ruled by diligent people who are quietly filling in the grand vision that spawned a new paradigm in the first place.

” ‘These people are heroes of their own sort, keeping the home fires burning until the reigning paradigm is played out. ‘The celebration of misfits promotes a worrisome anti-intellectualism and presents a distorted picture of the innovation process,’ says (David A. Hollinger, a historian at the University of California, Berkeley).

“Indeed, technological innovation — not to mention new scientific knowledge — is increasingly a result of large teams, working in routine, predictable ways. Individuals matter, but their contributions often can no longer be measured, nor can credit be accurately apportioned — even by the people working closest with them.

“Perhaps the steady rise in power by faceless teams of engineers, technicians and scientists explains the persistent romantic appeal of the lone misfit.

“By any measure, successful misfits are the exception, and there is no handy tool for distinguishing the next college dropout with a bright and wealthy future from the dropout who faces a heap of woe.”

As often happens, Zachary undervalues experimental innovators, who do much more than fill in gap in the grand schemes of conceptual innovators.

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