George Mallory was an English schoolteacher who was determined to be the first person to scale Mount Everest. When asked why he wanted to risk his life doing it, he replied, “Because it is there.” His response is now known as “the most famous three words in mountaineering history”.
Mallory’s words are poignant because of the emphasis they lay on intrinsic motivation. The popular saying of necessity being the mother of invention contradicts this sentiment. The saying points to the need for external conditions to catalyze creativity and innovation, and thereby, undermines the role of intrinsic motivation in achieving great ends.
However, most great innovators were inspired foremost by their innate curiosity. Their inventions and their impact spanned across several disciplines and were used in ways their creators simply could not have fathomed. Albert Einstein wasn’t a physicist but a clerk whose thought experiments on his commute home led to the theory of relativity. Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Nicholas Tesla – all of these stalwarts invented for the sheer joy of the activity itself rather than to see their inventions achieve tangible ends.
When Edison had invented the phonograph, his most original invention, he wrote down a list of uses for it that included preserving the last words of dead people, reading books for blind people, announcing clock time and teaching spelling. For years, he marketed it for use in an office as a dictation machine. He objected to its use as a jukebox, which he deemed wasn’t “serious” enough. Only after 20 years of inventing it, Edison conceded that the phonograph’s primary purpose was to play music.
A more modern retelling of Edison’s invention is that of the iPhone. Steve Jobs, its driving force, was interested in elegant design for its own sake. And yet, we use smartphones in ways that its creator could not have possibly fathomed today.
The folly of our world driven by results and ends is that it misses the point of engaging in a particular activity for its own sake. Our best inventions are born out of the freedom from detachment of the fruits of labour rather than our myopic attachment towards them.
Inspiration: Guns, Germs and Steel – Jared Diamond