Breakthrough Ideas and Gratitude

An ode to those who toil in semi-obscurity

Posted Nov 22, 2019

Last week, I was pleasantly shocked to receive an award from Thinkers 50, an organization that seeks out and recognizes ideas that are moving management and leadership forward. 

I was up for the “Breakthrough Idea” category for my work on psychological safety, summed up in my recent book, The Fearless Organization. I was calmly enjoying the show when my name was called. I was so surprised that I fumbled my short acceptance speech. 

Three quick reactions:

Photo by Alessandro Bianchi on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Alessandro Bianchi on Unsplash

Gratitude, of course, for the recognition.

Bemusement that my "breakthrough" idea – the role of psychological safety in innovation, growth, and learning – had been 25 years in the making.

And gratitude again, of a different kind, for the researchers and scientists who are now toiling away on the breakthrough ideas of 2045 and beyond. 

In my small, not always earth-shattering corner of the world (management and leadership), I have a foggy sense of what those breakthrough ideas might be.  But as for the wider arena, and solving what are sometimes called “wicked problems,” I am filled with wonder, a healthy dose of anxiety, but most of all gratitude.

Gratitude that there are researchers and scientists and engineers willing to toil in obscurity for actual decades. Gratitude that there is such a thing as pure science: learning without any idea of the payoff.  And gratitude that there are civil servants working away in unglamorous government offices so that our nation can weather bumpy seas. 

So much of this work is, it has to be said, sheer drudgery. And I don’t wish to equate my efforts with these truly heroic ones. Quite the opposite, actually.  When I think of the work that others are doing, I feel quite small, and filled with immense respect. 

Preslie Hirsch via Unsplash
Source: Preslie Hirsch via Unsplash

Many of these are young women and men, just out of college or graduate school, who have every right to feel hopeless or disillusioned, and yet, they don’t. They soldier on, in great numbers.  

So for Thanksgiving, give a thought to those who are willing to drudge. As a nation, we have our challenges. But in terms of the quest for knowledge and understanding, we have much to be thankful for.