Geniuses and Masters – The Style of Innovation

MaryFaulkner Judge PostBelow is a guest post from one of our judges Mary Faulkner. Mary works in HR for a large utility in Denver. In addition to her HR work, Mary authors a leadership development blog ( ) to continue the dialogue around the challenges of leadership – both being a leader AND being led. Check that out after perusing this gem.

We live in an age where it’s better to be young.

No really.

Apparently, the young people are our future. They are the only ones among us who can be innovative, tech-savvy, disruptive, world-changing. Youths are the behemoths that will light the way to the NEW enlightenment.

Here’s the thing – some of them may very well be. There are some smart young minds out there, unencumbered by years of habit and a lifetime of people telling you, “it won’t work.” And we need those people.

But here’s the secret…there’s a group of people who have been in the game for a long time, doing just as much creative and innovative work as the new kids on the block. And in some ways, it’s more impressive BECAUSE they’ve been in the game for awhile.

What separates the bright young minds from the wiley veterans? In a word – style.

There’s been a belief that true creative geniuses do all their best work before the age of thirty. Yet when you really look into it, you find plenty of examples of artists, novelists, and theorists who did amazing things later in life. In his book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses, David W. Galenson delves into this myth of prodigy and found that you have both ends of the spectrum – prodigies who strike gold early, and veterans who find their way to genius slowly. {Note: Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Grant have expanded on Galenson’s work – all good stuff!]

He found that “young geniuses” tend to approach their work conceptually – a flash of brilliance based on an idea they had. “Old masters,” on the other hand, tend to work experimentally. They have an idea, then research it, try it, revise it, and try it again. As Galenson puts it, “Experimental innovators seek, and conceptual innovators find.”

So what does this have to do with HR? Everything.

The folks who are nominated and honored on the 50 Over 50 web site are the experimental innovators. They’ve been in the game for a long time and have seen a lot of different fads rise and fall in the workplace. They have had the opportunity to experiment, to try ideas over and over again, to refine a practice, and having done that, elicit a breakthrough master work that no one saw coming. You’ve heard the phrase “it took us years to be an ‘overnight’ success” – that’s how you’d describe these people.

I salute young geniuses. They offer such a new way of thinking. They try something new without caring if it will work – because in their head, it already DOES work.

But the “old”* masters – these are people who have the experience, knowledge, resilience, and fortitude to keep a new idea alive through several iterations. They have walked around the rock to examine it from all angles, and offer a whole new way of solving a problem the business didn’t even realize it had.

Unfortunately, we tend to celebrate the hot new thing more because it sounds edgy and cool, and look – it’s a young person with fresh ideas!  We sometimes forget that experience also leads to innovation. It’s not always as flashy and blinged out. Often, it’s quietly revolutionary and we appreciate its greatness later on.

Ultimately, we need both “young geniuses” and “old masters” in HR to move us forward. There are plenty of “20 Under 20,” “30 Under 30,” and “40 Under 40” lists out there. Let’s celebrate the experimental innovators.

Come on. It’s the hot new thing.


nominateDon’t forget to share with your network and nominate someone who is a continual HR exemplar! Everyone loves to be nominated!


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