05/21/2014 11:10 am ET Updated Jul 20, 2014

If I Were 22: You Want to Change the World, Do You? Then Unlearn These 3 Things Now

If you're 22 today, you're likely more concerned about making the world a better place than I was at your age. According to every recent poll, study and interview I've seen, today's 22-year-olds just care more than those of us who grew up on John Hughes films and the boom boom "greed is good" '80s.

While I may not have started my professional life with the audacity to change the world, I am one of the fortunate few who is actually doing it. And what we're finding today is that Millennials want to work for organizations that support and drive innovation, because to them it's a natural means to drive positive change. And they're not wrong.

"Innovation" is a buzzword now like "culture." I remember seeing a cartoon where a CEO instructs his HR director, "Yeah, culture, we need some of that."

Plenty of businesses talk a good game, but don't really understand innovation.

So, if you want to be an innovator, challenge your assumptions about what "innovation" really means. Here are three lessons you need to unlearn:

Unlearn Lesson #1: Innovation results from major shifts in thinking.

Uh, no.

Actually, innovations tend to be very modest, and often not very sexy changes. But, boy, are they powerful.

Consider four-time Iditarod winner Susan Butcher. Susan was a champion dogsled racer and the second woman in history to win the Iditarod. She won not because she reinvented the wheel (or in this case, the sled) but because she did a few things differently -- and they were the right things.

Susan reexamined her relationship with the race itself. Instead of following the traditional pattern of running her dogsled team for twelve hours, then resting for twelve hours, she shortened the interval. Her dogs ran in four-to-six hour spurts, then rested for the same length of time. It was a small change that yielded a tremendous impact on performance. Her approach forced her competitors to adapt -- and permanently changed the sport.

Unlearn Lesson #2: Innovation is driven by thinkers, not doers.

I love the charlatan CEOs who say, "I'm a visionary CEO. I do all the big picture thinking." That's complete crap. Real innovators are actually tinkerers. They like to build.

I grew up on tinker toys and LEGOs and to this day, if I find myself at a dinner party and my hosts' kids have a LEGO set, you'll find me on the floor working on a lunar landing pad rather than cocktailing.

Getting an MBA is the death sentence for tinkering. Nothing drives out the pleasure of experiment like a business degree, and the better the school, the worse the impact.

Back when members of the class of 2014 were still a couple of years away from getting their drivers' licenses, Peter Skillman, a Vice President of design for Palm, gave a TED talk on an exercise he developed that today is known simply as "The Marshmallow Challenge."

Skillman tasked teams of four with constructing the tallest tower they could out of 20 uncooked spaghetti noodles, a meter of tape, a piece of string and a marshmallow (the marshmallow had to go at the top). They had 18 minutes.

In a follow-up TED talk, Autodesk fellow Tom Wujec shared which participants do well and who does poorly at the challenge.

Perhaps not surprisingly, recent business school grads do the worst on average. They spend the most time talking, strategizing, laying out a vision for the completed tower, jockeying for authority, planning and sketching their creation. They focus on getting the spaghetti to stand up, and then, as time runs out, they plop the marshmallow on top and hope for the best. All too often, the whole structure collapses.

Who does well? Kindergarten students. They aren't interested in being "right" or "in charge;" they just get down to it. And unlike the business school grads, they start with the marshmallow and build underneath it. Their structures may collapse, but they gain instant, ongoing feedback, while having enough time to improve their results.

Unlike the MBD students who focus on a linear plan with lots of "strategery", the Kindergarten students start with the end -- get the Marshmallow on top -- and work backward.

Innovation happens when you try something, fail, learn from it and try again. I'm not saying you shouldn't go to business school; I'm saying that if you want to solve a problem, or innovate, stop talking about it, roll up your sleeves and do the work.

Unlearn Lesson #3: Mire yourself in expertise.

Ignorance is not the enemy of innovation: complacency is. Failing to recognize and adapt to change is tantamount to a death sentence, whether you're a frog in a gradually warming pot of water or a business in the modern era.

The best ideas -- true innovations -- come from people working around the edges of their expertise. They know enough to be informed but not enough to be constrained by the "old way" of doing things.

I've named this approach the "Smart Stranger," where fresh perspectives provoke new ideas.

Delta just introduced "innovation class," an exclusive program that seats "big thinkers and innovators" together on flights to encourage mentorship in industries like entertainment, fashion, financial services, sports and advertising. The airline says it aims to "bring the ones succeeding in their field together with people who aspire to follow them."

But, if they really want to encourage innovation, they would be better off pairing up seatmates in different fields who have little in common. Otherwise, it's just networking at 35,000 feet.

Millennials, your inexperience is your most valuable assets.

Your skepticism will guide you to better answers.

And the fact that you are the first generation in many to enter a workforce and economy that is not handing you success on a silver platter gives you the motivation not just to survive, but to excel.

Congratulations -- now get to work and change the world.


Elliot S. Weissbluth is the Chief Executive Officer of HighTower,an industry leading financial services firm. Today marks the beginning of the firm's three-day innovation conference, HighTower Apex: Foothold to the Future, in Chicago. For more information and to see highlights of the event, visit