I’d like to make the case that life is fundamentally about figuring out.

We enter the world possessing a quite remarkable biomechanical device with powerful software already installed. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) there’s no owner’s manual, not even a schematic or the most minimal specs (which we couldn’t make sense of if we had them). So from the moment of birth, our first challenge is to figure out how to use this elegant machine, how to make it walk and talk, how to gain nourishment, how to discover its capabilities and limitations, and then how to use it to learn about our environment and fulfill our desires.

Just how powerful this device is, and how arduous the challenge can be, is vividly illustrated by those who have some handicap, a Christopher Reeves, a Gabrielle Giffords, or a child with a learning disability. Figuring out can be extremely challenging. We measure our progress based on where we began and how much we have subsequently figured out, how far we’ve gone with our education for example, how much expertise and experience we have, what knowledge we’ve acquired.

I don’t think it’s too much of a simplification to say that the whole march of history is also a gradual process of figuring out; figuring out technology and politics and conflict resolution, sometimes on the grandest of scales. We’re told that it once took centuries for us to double the sum total of knowledge that we collectively possess (what we’ve figured out), then it took just decades, then years, now months. Yet with all that knowledge and the increasing ease of access to it, we each must still (re)figure it all out. Not just figure out that 2 + 2 = 4, or that that Mahatma Gandhi founded modern India. That’s knowledge easily shared. But figuring out how to navigate the unique challenges we face, both individually and collectively. Some of us have figured out how to become star athletes and musicians, presidents and dictators, good parents and loving spouses, scientists and teachers and CEOs and entrepreneurs.

And some of us have tried and failed to figure out some of those things.

When we discuss innovation, we’re usually talking about new products and services and business models, or perhaps new social or government initiatives. But what innovation comes down to is figuring out—out on the leading edge where no one has the knowledge we seek. An innovator mindset is having the ability and desire and courage to do that kind of ground breaking figuring out and make it happen. Whenever we must extend beyond what we already know, it’s fundamentally the same cognitive exercise, whether we’re trying to cure disease, invent a new kind of financial instrument, win a promotion, launch a coup, or win someone’s hand in marriage. It all comes down to the ability to figure out; it’s the ultimate transferable skill.

Not so long ago, we could find success in life by simply copying the success of others, by learning what others already knew and applying it. But those days are fading. The kind of unique new challenges that were once taken on by only a few brave souls with the courage to cross oceans, are now a routine part of daily life. We’re all being pushed out to the edge to find our place and maintain our footing in a fast changing world. We’re being shoved beyond what we know, sometimes beyond what anyone knows, where our choice is to somehow figure out or give up.

The more skilled we become at figuring out, the more likely we are to find success in any endeavor, and the less skilled we are at figuring out, the less likely we are to be successful. The figure-outers are those who somehow find ways to overcome challenges and setbacks and still reach their objectives. The figure-outers are those who know how to find new insights, creating new knowledge. The best figure-outers are those most likely to win—at life. The figure-outers have an innovator’s mindset.

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