Universal Storyteller
7 min readFeb 9, 2021

… or why rule-breaking means progress

Nikola Tesla was a heroic innovator

More recently, I investigated the connection between heroism and innovation… and I found that innovating, not surprisingly, can be a heroic act indeed.

Let’s take a look at heroes first. There are some common misconceptions about heroes: Many people intuitively imagine heroes as superhumans with super-strength, perfect, and free of any flaw. But mostly, it is quite the opposite. Like all of us, heroes do have flaws and weaknesses, shortcomings and fears. Most heroes are quite ordinary people. It’s their deeds that are extraordinary.

The definition of what a hero is varies widely out there. But there is one remarkable character trait all heroes have in common: their ability to break the rules and resist social norms. Heroes possess the courage and moral rectitude to resist social pressures. They often get shunned and ridiculed by the establishment and their peer groups, but they do what they think is right anyway. They understand that some things are bigger than themselves and worth fighting for, even if it means temporary exclusion from their peer group.

And this exactly is the connection to great innovators.

If you look back into the history of innovation, the genuinely ground-breaking innovators were often regarded as the crazy ones, the outliers, the mavericks who can’t be trusted who were often excluded from the establishment, their peer groups, or even society as a whole. But those innovators kept innovating and working on their inventions regardless of what others thought and said.

Don’t fear the naughty corner

Why is it that many people hold back new ideas and resist challenging the status quo? They fear rejection by their company and their peers. And if there is one thing people are afraid of, it’s exclusion from a group. That’s because, neurologically, we are hard-wired for personal connections. Think about it. Isolation is used as a form of punishment in our society. In primary school, it is the “naughty corner.” As a teenager, nothing feels worse than being ignored by the cool kids in class. In prison, the biggest form of punishment is solitary confinement

The heroic innovator, on the other hand, risks rejection and exclusion all the time. The heroic innovator knows that rejection, though scary, is not the end of the world but can be the beginning of something new. He is always ready to break the rules and make himself unpopular, even if it means being isolated by others.

Of rocket men and hand-washing pioneers

There are many examples from historic innovators that illustrate this point.

There is the prominent story of Hungarian scientist Ignaz Semmelweis, who brought the medical community the simple, but in those days innovative, idea of disinfecting their hands before performing any surgery or assisting with births. When Semmelweiss had doctors and midwives in a Viennese hospital wash their hands with chlorine lime solutions, the mortality rate went significantly down. However, this did not go down well with fellow doctors and medics in the 19th century; they firmly rejected the idea that uncleanliness could be connected to the mortality rate. Still, Semmelweiss stoically pushed his idea, as he was convinced that it saved lives. Eventually, poor Semmelweiss was so vehemently shunned by the medical community that it drove him into depression, alcoholism, and finally into a mental hospital where he died.

Similarly, one young scientist from Massachusetts, Robert Goddard, single-handedly worked out the foundations of modern rocket science. He launched his first rocket prototype as early as 1915 and put all his ideas about spaceflight in a book published in 1919. Unfortunately, his brilliance was met with nothing but ridicule and mockery by the American press and the science community. This public backlash forced Goddard to work in private and with minimal funding. Still, Goddard did not give up and managed to develop many rocket propulsion principles both in theory and practice over the next years. Goddard died in relative obscurity in 1945 and sadly didn’t live to see Neil Armstrong taking first steps on the moon in 1969. Armstrong’s journey to the moon was only made possible by a technology that was based almost entirely on Goddard’s theory.

There are many more examples from the history or rejected inventors; the German geophysicist Alfred Wegener was heavily attacked and called vicious names by the geologist expert community for proposing the theory of continental drift and that the Americas and Africa once were joined; the Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky was ridiculed by the research community as “Crazy Fritz” for coming up with the ground-breaking theory of Dark Matter, and of course we all know the story of the quintessential polymath Galileo Galilei who was not only shunned by the catholic church but also by the science community for suggesting that the Earth and planets revolve around the sun.

The list goes on and on …. Some of the greatest artists and inventors of all time had their ideas initially rejected–Pythagoras, George Orwell, Igor Stravinsky, Vincent van Gogh, Mozart — but what all these inventors and innovators had in common is, that they were delf-determined, ready to challenge the norms and break rules, even if it meant rejection and exclusion. They realised that the greater good and progress is bigger than themselves and did what they thought would be the right thing to do.

Deviating from the norm creates progress

What are the reasons that innovations are often met with suspicion at first and rejected by the establishment? First, some innovations are so new and ground-breaking that there are no references for them; this uncertainty makes people uneasy.

Also, innovations often threaten the status quo and the current rule-book; people don’t like that. Many companies are busier defending what they have than working towards innovations that could change the game.

There are those small unwritten and implicit rules that protect the status quo in every company– all those subtle codes of conduct that are so deeply ingrained in the corporate culture that everybody seems to follow them blindly.

Sometimes we wonder why rules don’t seem to be working all that well until Mrs. Rulebreaker or Mr. Renegade comes along and breaks the rules– and then suddenly, things work a whole lot better. Frank Zappa prominently said: “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” And Mr. Zappa was 100% correct. Progress and innovations always involve change, for things cannot get better when everything remains the same.

Rejection enhances creativity

Thus, if you are an innovator and serious and confident about your inventions, you have to be always ready to break those rules. You have to be confident enough to make yourself unpopular. You have to allow yourself to make mistakes along the way. And that often means, at least temporarily, being excluded by your peer group.

The good news is that it is often rejection that enhances creativity and innovation efforts. Researchers from Cornell University and Johns Hopkins recently performed an experiment in which they found that being “an outcast” can result in greater creativity. The researchers told participants that everybody could choose who they want to work with; then, they broke up the big group into two sub-groups and gave them the same challenge to work on. To make things more interesting, they told the participants in the first group that no one had chosen to work with them.

The result was that, quite interestingly, the group with the “rejected participants” outperformed the other group by producing more creative results. “The experience of social rejection may indeed stimulate creativity,” the researchers concluded.

Give yourself the permission to mess up

How can we approach innovations and take action with confidence and without this paralyzing fear of making mistakes or being rejected by our colleagues?

There are two main lessons to be learned from heroes:

a) Don’t give a damn about what others think.

b) Give yourself permission to mess up.

Has a hero ever held back for fear of what others might think? No. Just think of the early movie hero Rhett Butler’s last words in GONE WITH THE WIND, before he rode off into a new adventure: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” If we always worry about what others might think, we end up living somebody else’s life and not a very good one. Rhett learned that lesson the hard way by staying too long with a woman who never loved him.

When it comes to messing up, we need to reflect on our own lives. Like everyone else, there was a time when we were a one-year-old toddler. In those days, we had no fear of failure, right? If we had been afraid to fail, we’d never have learned to walk in the first place. Yet we always acted. We tried to walk and fell on the ground, but we got up and tried again and failed again and did that hundreds of times… until we finally walked.

Failure is the only reason we can walk, talk, swim, or do anything else. Failure made us, not success. Success is the result, but it is failure that brings us there. The good thing about repeatedly failing is that after a while, the number of mistakes begins to drop off, and the success rate begins to climb.

Truth passes through three stages

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer rightly pointed out that “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

So, next time you hold back with an idea because you fear that it could get rejected or ridiculed by your company or colleagues, be conscious that, in our day and age, the worst that can happen is that you lose your job; and this is a little price to pay for getting a great innovation off the ground.

The act of innovation can, and often should be, truly heroic.



Universal Storyteller

Nicolai Schumann is the founder of Universal Storyteller and teaches storytelling at universities and to corporates.