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The Shark Tank Mentality is Destroying Invention

Invention does not happen like you see on TV.

Talk about inventing and you quickly get to talking about making “the next big thing” and untold fortunes. It is why shows like Shark Tank are so popular. Yet while the show is entertaining, it gives would-be inventors and those who could support them bad ideas about inventing. The Shark Tank mentality sees the path of invention as a metaphorical straight line from inspiration to verification – the inventor has an idea and makes a prototype, the investors see the prototype and can tell whether the idea has a viable market or not, and if it does, then... ca-ching!

This kind of mentality only makes sense for minor inventions. Consider the five most successful Shark Tank ideas: A whole grain flour mix, a shirt hook for your reading glasses, a way to get Maine lobster-based food, a way to turn on-line photos into a photobook, and a stool for the toilet. Lucrative? Yes. Impactful? Marginal at best. Such products are about all that we can hope for from the Shark-Tankified view of the invention process.

Not all who wander are lost

The right mindset has a lot more patience and openness to exploration because significant inventions take significant time and exploration. Significant inventions change our world for the better and don’t just make fortunes for the inventors, they make fortunes for industries. Radio, airplanes, cars, nuclear power, and the personal computer are all examples of such significant inventions; they made and continue to make new markets and possibilities for human advancement. But all of these come from long and wandering invention processes where it's unclear what is “inspired” or what is being “verified.” The aforementioned discoveries would not even be possible, for example, without wandering exploration into obscure mathematical formalisms such as quaternions, a way to extend complex numbers. Quaternions were not created to make computers work; computers were made possible because quaternions provided an initial understanding of electromagnetism. If inventors only pursued ideas that had a “market,” we would still be in the dark ages – literally and figuratively.

There are plenty of “whiz-bang” inventions, and many of these really do improve our lives – chocolate chip cookies being my personal favorite. These came when Ruth Wakefield decided to put parts of a Nestlé chocolate bar into cookie dough. But significant inventions take significant time. And importantly, a lot of that time is wandering, often to make something happen whose ultimate utility is not and cannot be fully comprehended. People made lasers, transistors, and charge-coupled devices long before anyone knew what these might be useful for doing. Some inventions are not even physical, they are conceptual, they are still being worked out, and they have no direct monetary value. These would be things like democracy, the scientific method, and the concept that there are basic human rights. (Note that while it may seem odd to call these inventions, they have all the characteristics of inventions: 1) they cannot be found in nature, 2) they are created out of ideas, 3) they emerge and are refined based on the work of identifiable groups of people, 4) they had a very uncertain utility when they are first proposed, and, most importantly, 5) they brought inconceivable improvements to societies.)

What does this mean for you?

The Shark Tank mentality is impatient and self-righteous in its impatience. It can take root in both inventors and the champions who need to support the inventor. It is detrimental in both cases because it makes inventors aim low and champions the myopic. Here is a better way to think and act:

If you are the inventor

  • Explore ideas seem interesting, even if you can’t explain why.
  • Realize that if what you discover does not seem to have an immediate use, it may be because you don't yet know enough.
  • Understand that exploration without a destination is good in and of itself.

If you are the champion

  • Be patient with new ideas. Thinking that an idea is good only if people know the answer to “So what?” is short-sighted.
  • Demanding to know “Will people buy it?” vastly overestimates your and the inventor’s ability to predict an inventions impact. Investors, who do this for a living, get it right 10 percent of the time.
  • If you can’t figure out “Who cares?” it is better to explore who might care than to argue why no one will.

A better mindset for bigger problems

Exploration can seem pointless until we learn about what to do with what we found. In a short lecture he gave at Carnegie Mellon, Entrepreneur and Inventor Sridhar Tayur joked that this kind of “pointless” exploration was "Brahmanical" research, meaning that such research is more than just not useful, it could not possibly be useful, and is thus the most noble. He is being somewhat of a character, as is his wont, when he expounds on this idea as it relates to the evolution of quantum computing – which, incidentally, is another invention whose value is still unclear. Yet the serious takeaway of Dr. Tayur's presentation was that that from a great deal of wandering and exploration comes slow-to-emerge, but profound, invention. It is why he will be using quantum computing to “cook up quantum algorithms for integer programming.” What will happen? Maybe nothing. Probably something, considering his track record. But in either case, we all may not know for a while. And that is how it should be.

Shark Tankification is to inventing as get rich quick schemes are to wealth. Ignore that noise. Have patience, and be more Brahmanical.

We have drug-resistant diseases, diminishing natural resources, social unrest, and a lot of really tough problems that can be improved with social and technological invention. This is why we need the more patient and expansive view of creativity and invention.

More from Jeffrey Loewenstein Ph.D. and Matthew A. Cronin Ph.D.
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