Why Does America Prize Creativity and Invention?

Our politics encourage it, there’s a high tolerance of failure, and we idealize the lone inventor

(© Simone Golob/Corbis)

In a recent episode of This American Life, producer Zoe Chace travels to the headquarters of the fast-food chain Hardee’s to get to the bottom of one of the stranger trends in American cuisine in recent years: the food mashup. Pioneered in 2010 by KFC’s notorious “Double Down” sandwich—a bacon and cheese sandwich with two slabs of fried chicken in place of the buns—frankenfoods have swept fast-food chains in recent years: the hot dog crust pizza, the Doritos taco. So who comes up with this stuff, Chace wonders?

When she meets the small Hardee’s team that tests out hundreds of combinations, it becomes clear that while these absurd products are clogging American’s arteries, they’re also, on a certain level, brilliant. As healthier chains like Chipotle and Panera have begun to crowd the fast-food market, older companies have been forced to innovate. And innovate they have: When the Doritos taco was released in 2012, for instance, it lifted Taco Bell out of a yearlong sales slump.

From the light bulb to the iPhone—with the car, the pacemaker and the Snuggie in between—Americans pride themselves on their inventions. We put a high premium on ingenuity, whether it’s used to cure diseases or market a sandwich. Yet, what is it about our nation that makes us love and encourage new ideas? Is it something in our approach to education, our economy, our cowboy mythos? How do we pick it up, and how do we pass it on?

Zócalo Public Square asked a group of American ingenuity experts: What are the aspects of U.S. culture that encourage us to prize innovation?

John Kao: Tolerance of risk and failure

First, let me assert that America’s culture is the one absolute advantage that the nation continues to enjoy in a world that has recognized the competitive importance of innovation. Countries from Finland to China, from Dubai to Colombia are pursuing national innovation strategies like there is no tomorrow. Incubators, venture capital, purpose-driven science and social innovation are spreading around the world at warp speed. The elements of culture that enable innovation, however, are harder to transfer across borders.

What are key elements of American culture that make up the “secret sauce” of innovation? For a start, forgiveness of failure, tolerance of risk and an appetite for apparently off-the-wall ideas. In Silicon Valley, the saying goes that if you haven’t failed at least once or twice, you’re not trying hard enough. Try saying that to a Finnish bank or a Chinese government official. Tolerance of risk is an important enabler of entrepreneurial speed, which in turn is an important determinant of competitiveness. And a willingness to listen to ideas, no matter how outlandish, has been the seed corn for countless ventures that are now seen as mainstream.

In addition, the American idea is inextricably interwoven with the notion of the frontier, which, though historically complex, still figures in our imagination as a continuously self-refreshing horizon of opportunity and possibility, and a vision of ourselves as pioneers. A key element of American frontier culture was the barn-raising, the notion that a newcomer could expect a day’s labor from his neighbors to construct his or her barn, and that he or she would be expected to reciprocate in turn for the next newcomer. This barn-raising spirit is alive and well in the hotbeds of American innovation where newcomers are supported, connections are made and the whole continues to be much greater than the sum of its parts.

John Kao is a former Harvard Business School professor and the founder and CEO of EdgeMakers. The Economist has called him "Mr. Creativity" and a "serial innovator."


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