On Innovation as A Spiritual Journey

“The spiritual quest is the expression of the deepest longing to connect with the Whole.”
— Varadaraja Raman, Hindu academic scholar

Normally I stick to writing about business innovation, and strictly in the context of business.   But today I take a moment to depart off course and invite us into a deeper and fundamentally more human question about innovation… a question that transcends businesses and other institutions… the question of “why“?

Have you ever wondered why it is that some people …some communities …some business leaders …indeed some businesses …seem to be intrinsically driven and compelled to innovate?   Is it their drive for fame, riches, growth, and resources?   Or is it something fundamentally deeper than these?   Something fundamentally more human?

Herein we will confront that question and I will proffer an answer, but it comes with the warning that doing so will be a bit of addressing the elephant in the room.   We will be getting down to some fundamentally human matters that writers don’t often mince with the business world.   If that increases your pulse rate beyond your comfort zone, then you may want to click out.   If not, then let’s carry on.

In order to confront the question of why some are driven to innovate, we must first give innovation a particularly flavorful definition, which itself begins with the frank confession that innovation is never an end in itself, as any weather–worn innovator will tell you.   No, innovation is in fact a means to a greater end… that end being the connecting of two things together in a deeper and more meaningful way.   Whether it is a business and its markets (business innovation), a city and its people (urban innovation), a nation and its citizens (social innovation), or a workplace and its workers (management innovation), the calling is always the same… to connect the two in a deeper, more meaningful, more powerful, and more impactful way.   Even for Varadaraja Raman, it was an intrinsic yearning to connect the self to the “whole”.

This calling is like a drummer beating an incessant drumbeat.   Of all the “lifelong innovators” I have ever met, all seem to be driven and compelled by this same drummer beating this same drumbeat.

It is the drumbeat to change the world… to make it a better place… to be a part of something truly significant and historical.   This gives lifelong innovators their passionate pursuit of purpose.1

But where does this drumbeat come from?   What is its rhythm?   And who is this drummer?

I will tell you where I believe the drumbeat comes from.

I believe the drumbeat arises out of a spiritual yearning that lives inside each one of us.   This drumbeat is there in all of us, but not everyone is able to hear it, or more correctly, not everyone chooses to hear it.   What makes lifelong innovators – and by this we mean those who find themselves inexplicably compelled to innovate – different is that they are the souls who are either brave enough to listen and act, or who hear the drumbeat so incessantly and so loud that they simply cannot ignore it.

The Greek philosopher Socrates heard the drumbeat loud and clear, to the point that he passed the judgment “the unexamined life is not worth living”.   Socrates was an epistemology innovator.

The Zen practitioner Steve Jobs also heard the drumbeat.   For him, it was so incessant he could not ignore it… to the point that he too passed a judgment, “We’re here to put a dent in the universe.   Otherwise why else even be here?”   Jobs was a business innovator.

The Hindu Mahatma Gandhi heard the drumbeat too, and realizing the need to apply this struggle to our own inner selves, stated, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”   Gandhi was a social innovator.

And the Christian Mother Teresa also heard the drumbeat, when she poignantly stated, “We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean.   But if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something.”   Mother Teresa was a social innovator.

This same drumbeat – this same spiritual yearning – is felt in the words shared by the artist Bono2
I have climbed the highest mountains / I have run through the fields / only to be with you.
I have run, I have crawled / I have scaled these city walls / only to be with you.
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

What sets these innovators apart is that they have realized a depth to life that few do.   And it is never because they have found the answer, but rather – as Bono so poignantly echoes – because they have embraced the question, the struggle, and the journey that these bring.   They realize that the examined life …the innovative life …the “dent in the universe” life …is one of a never–ending journey of spiritual yearning and striving …striving to make this a better world by connecting two things in a more meaningful way.   But as soon as one connection has been made, the next one calls out from its bed of desire, begging to be made as well.   This is a life that even demands its own vernacular, with a vocabulary of words like “conversation”, “story”, “community”, “family”, “trust”, “imagination”, and “journey”.

And so it is that this yearning which drives most lifelong innovators is one that is characteristically never fulfilled.   No matter how many successes they have, no matter how much of a dent they make, still the yearning is there, always driving them forward.   I believe this is why so many entrepreneurs become serial entrepreneurs and time and again put themselves through the grueling agony of starting up yet another new enterprise.   Each day of their lives, they are compelled to put a fresh dent in the universe.   Indeed, I have met my share of start–up founders, and while certainly many of them have hopes of becoming wealthy, an overwhelming number of entrepreneurs will tell you that what compels them to get up every morning and pour their absolute heart and soul into something is that they implicitly believe in that something, and they believe in it because they see this “something” as the one new thing that will fundamentally change some little corner of the universe and make it a better place.   They hear the drumbeat.

It is a drumbeat that beats at the rhythm of human breathing, in that silence that lies between every exhale and the ensuing inhale.

On a very practical level, some have attempted to characterize innovators in behavioral terms, i.e. what they characteristically do that sets them apart from non–innovators.   For example, in discussing “The Innovator’s DNA” 3, Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen introduce the idea ofcreative intelligence and associate with it five particular traits which they have observed (based on sound research) make innovators different.   These traits are: associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking.   Others have noted that the one thing that tends to set innovators apart is an incessant curiosity about the world and why things are the way they are, combined with a compelling need to destroy the status quo and do something different (presumably “better”).   I believe these observations are all accurate, but they are merely external observations of what innovators do, without trying to flesh out a deep appreciation for why they do the things they do.   In fact, most such treatises explicitly steer clear of the why question.   And, clearly, if the answer to “why” is what has been proffered here, then it is perhaps of no surprise they would be unprepared to turn sound academic works into more philosophical works, regardless of whether they be one of a deistic or of a humanistic bent.   To do so would be to possibly undermine the academic rigor that otherwise supports their observations, as motivations such as “spiritual yearning” are impossible to observe and objectify in the way that actual behaviors are.   Innovators can be surveyed, for sure, regarding their motivations, but given that there are so many different understandings of what “spiritual yearning” is, it may prove difficult to get objective answers, not to mention the fact that not all innovators – even lifelong innovators – are fully in touch with their “why”.

And if in fact the “why” that compels innovators forward is this incessant drumbeat, then that raises a next logical question (hopefully the innovators out there will forgive me for being linear and logical at this very moment).   That question is… “Where does this drumbeat come from?” “From where does the spiritual yearning originate?”

My own belief is that the drumbeat originates from an emptiness – a void – that exists inside each of us.   Some sense this emptiness more deeply, more strongly, and more poignantly that do others.   Which is precisely why they find themselves so compelled and can never stop.   My own experience has been that those who sense it the strongest are often those who have had a dramatic life–changing experience.   These type of experiences tend to “tune us in” to the drumbeat.

And now we finish by being left with one remaining question, which is of course, “Who is the drummer?”   Is the drummer something intrinsic to human beings (the humanistic viewpoint), or something extrinsic to human beings (the deistic viewpoint)?   Or perhaps some combination of the two?

I don’t know.   I suppose only God knows the answer to that question.

1This is why having a purpose – being a purpose–driven organization – is so critically important, and particularly appealing to Millennials, who, being more entrepreneurial, tend to place a higher value on purpose than prior generations have.

2U2, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, The Joshua Tree, 1987.

3 Jeffrey H. Dyer, Hal Gregersen, Clayton M. Christensen, “The Innovator’s DNA”, HBR, December 2009.

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