Thomas Edison didn’t invent light bulbs; he improved key design features. Tristan Walker didn’t invent razors; he customized them for African-American people. James Dyson didn’t invent vacuum cleaners; he fixed a major engineering flaw. Even though none of them invented products they are best known for, their genius was to channelize their individual frustrations into practical innovations.

Scott Chacon, co-founder and former chief information officer of software development platform GitHub, suggests the most effective way to be innovative is to find your frustration and figure out how best to fix it. Being a champion of first-principle thinking, Chacon believes we need to get to the root of our frustration and ask what will it be like in an ideal world and what we need to do to get there.

Great innovations emerge from reimagining things we have either accepted or taken for granted. A major difference between great innovators and the rest of us is that we let our frustration pile on and expect others to solve it.

Another differentiating factor is grit or the ability to persevere despite obstacles. Dyson spent years tinkering in his backyard till he came up with the dual cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner. This was in the pre-internet era, so he had to manually conduct thousands of design experiments. Even the tiniest of flaws meant that he had to rerun the entire experiment from scratch. Instead of getting tired, he accelerated his pace of tinkering by making copious notes about what worked and what didn’t. Today, Dyson’s net worth exceeds $13 billion.

Similarly, Walker, despite his pedigreed education and work experience, was rejected by almost every venture capitalist. Instead of giving up, he strengthened his resolve to create a product that truly addressed the grooming needs of African-American men. Today, his company is among the largest subscription businesses in the world. Learnings from everyday life Last week, during the India Economic Summit in Delhi, organized by the World Economic Forum, I learnt how the frustration of dealing with infrastructural challenges led to innovations for and by people with physical disabilities.

During a meeting, Nipun Malhotra, a disability rights advocate and founder of non-profit Wheels for Life, shared that he cannot lift his hands against gravity and hence cannot pick up a glass or a cup. With the help of his mother, he learnt how to have everything with a straw. When it came to eating, he would turn another bowl upside down so that he would get a raised platform to balance his hand. More than convenience, these innovations made him independent. He could finally decide when and how much to drink and eat.

Malhotra, who travels extensively for work, has often grappled with the frustration of not getting access to disabled-friendly toilets. A few years ago, while staying at a hotel near Lucknow, he realized his room’s toilet door was not wide enough to allow his wheelchair. He had no choice but to work with his attendant and remove the door, which created a two extra inches for his wheelchair to enter. That experience pushed him to work towards making public places across the world accessible to the differently abled.

Many path-breaking innovations are a direct result of frustrations faced by differently-abled people. The first variant of text messaging used teletype machines with 5-bit Baudot code, which was actually invented for the deaf. Another interesting story is of Alexander Graham Bell. He first became interested in sound because his mother was deaf. The frustration of not being able to communicate with her gave him the motivation to eventually invent the telephone.

Some of our best ideas emerge from grappling with frustration but we do our best to wipe it out of our lives. What if we embraced it?

Millennial Matters recalibrates the skills needed to survive and find meaning in the workplace of tomorrow.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

Close