What is the most important trait that an inventor needs to possess? My answer is that by far, courage is the most important trait. That is, the courage to venture into the unknown and not turn back when things seem uncertain or bad. Along with courage goes perseverance. The ability to persevere through long periods where you are not successful or feel that you don’t really know what you are doing is essential for an inventor. You as the inventor are forging a new path; there is no roadmap to follow, so there will be many inevitable mistakes along the way. It would be so easy to give up; to say, “I’ve really tried, but this is just not going to work.” To persevere, you must suspend disbelief. You must continue to try even though you meet failure at every turn.
How do you do this?
Psychologically it is difficult, but you need to realize that through every failure, you are getting deeper into the problem. That depth is what will give you the wherewithal to solve it.
Let me put this in real life terms through a personal example. I design and build robots as a hobby. I enjoy taking on challenging problems, even though I don’t necessarily have the background or knowledge to solve them. One type of robot I have always wanted to build is a robot that balances on only two wheels – basically a derivation of the Segway. This is a very complex problem that many have tried solve. Most who attempt this difficult task give up somewhere along the way.
So I decided to accept the challenge and went to work on this robot. The hardware was easy, but getting it to balance seemed impossible. After months of work, I wasn’t even getting close. I became obsessed with solving this challenging technical problem and worked for over six months with no solution in sight. In fact, things became worse than when I started. My work on getting the robot to balance was overshadowed by a new electromagnetic interference (EMI) problem whose origins I could not pinpoint. The problems seemed to cascade, and I was no longer focused on the balancing problem but only on how to get rid of that crippling electromagnetic interference.
Eventually, I threw in the towel.
I had to admit that this particular project was beyond me. It only led to frustration. I left the robot parts in a corner on my desk and quit. I went onto other things.
Nine months passed with the parts sitting on the desk as a constant reminder of my failure. I had no idea what to do to solve the problem, but this failure constantly nagged at me. One day, this past October, after letting the project go for nine months, I e-mailed a friend to ask him if he had any recommendations for solving an electromagnetic interference problem. He had some ideas, so I gingerly returned to the project. The ideas did not produce success, but I was back and reabsorbed by this challenge. I couldn’t let it go.
Then I started to make some progress. I solved the EMI problem by changing the motors. I took yet another approach to balancing and had some partial success. This was enough to spur me on. I delved deeper into all the literature and internet references I could find on this subject. Sometime in December I came across a previously discounted mathematical method for filtering the input data. I tried it and struck gold. I found a way to combine the data coming from my various sensors into a stable representation of tilt and angular velocity. It Balanced! From there it was simply refinement, and you can view the results by clicking on the link shown below to a YouTube video of the robot.
Of course, the message here goes far beyond my success with this robot. For me in this situation, perseverance was everything. I had failed, completely given up, but could not leave it alone. Eventually, I was rewarded. Inventors face this every day. Often it is completely demoralizing to experience failure after failure. But the inventor must have the courage to persevere. Even in the bleakest situations, a breakthrough might be just around the corner.