An Irish man invented the syringe. But what makes a person a success?

The syringe was invented by Francis Rynd in Ireland in 1844. As the first Covid-19 vaccines roll out in Ireland via hypodermic syringes, Helen O'Callaghan looks at whether we all have a shot at great success
An Irish man invented the syringe. But what makes a person a success?

In today’s unpredictable world — where there are no real rules because conditions keep changing and evolving — everyone has a shot at success. Frans Johansson, best-selling author of The Click Moment, believes strategy, planning, and careful analysis have had their day as the gods of getting ahead — if indeed they were ever as vital to success as we’ve been conditioned to believe. Johansson doesn’t think so.
“You no longer have to be the entrenched player. You don’t have to be Nokia to dominate the mobile phone world. You don’t have to be John Grisham or Graham Greene to dominate in the publishing world.”

What you need to set yourself on the path to success is a click moment, an ‘ah-ha’ moment — a turning point occurs, a major client signs on, a new competitor redefines the market, an unlikely idea surfaces.

Ireland has had its share of great inventors. Robert Boyle thought up the pneumatic pump and the first match. John P Holland was the brains behind the first submarine. Robert Collis invented a simple incubator for premature babies. Francis Rynd invented the hypodermic syringe. Dubliner Robert Mallet is considered the father of seismology and Cork man Humphrey O’Sullivan dreamed up rubber soles for shoes. It’s a safe bet these got where they did by not sticking to the same old, same old.

“How is a behemoth like Nokia at the top of an industry one year and struggling to survive only a few years later? How can a marketing pro like Michel Reux create one of the world’s iconic vodka brands, Absolut, and then be unable to repeat that success elsewhere? These cases seem to imply that relying on past experience, logic, and careful analysis are not the true drivers of success… in fact, they can be major impediments if you’re working to innovate ahead of your competitors.”

Will submerging yourself in your career guarantee your success in that or any other field? “The logical answer is yes. But if you’re always surrounded by people who have similar ideas and perspectives, you tend to fall into the obvious and logical discussions about what should happen next. If we decide to use logic and analysis, we’re more likely to ruin our chances of standing apart. The great serendipitous, random thoughts don’t come that way.

“When YouTube came out, lots of people slammed their heads against walls, asking ‘why didn’t I think of that really great idea?’ But even the founders didn’t. Their company started out as an online dating site called Tune In, Hook Up — it was a horrible idea.”

In fact, the world’s single largest site for uploading and watching videos came about because its three founders met and had a click moment — when two of them were unable to email a video of a dinner party they’d attended and the third founder couldn’t find a video of Janet Jackson’s ‘wardrobe malfunction’ at the Super Bowl, the three made a momentary connection and YouTube was born.

“A click moment is surprising, almost emotional and almost never logical. It’s the moment of clarity that we get unexpectedly and it has the potential to change our fortunes,” says Johansson.

Designer Diane von Fürstenberg saw then US president Richard Nixon’s daughter wearing a matching skirt and top on TV. The wrap dress was born. Starbucks sold brewing equipment and coffee until future CEO Howard Schultz went to a homewares conference in Milan, walked into an espresso bar, and experienced his first latté.

But just having a click moment doesn’t mean you have accomplished anything. “Having an insight is not the same as executing it,” says Johansson, who advises placing many “purposeful” bets. “The more you place, the greater your chance of succeeding. Picasso made over 50,000 works of art in his lifetime, many of which collected dust in basements because they pretty much sucked. But he had to go through those to find the ones that did break ground. His output gave him an incredible edge in becoming successful. And he’s not alone – the Virgin Group has launched over 400 companies, Google has created hundreds of companies, Albert Einstein wrote hundreds of papers.”

But you can only practically place lots of bets if the amount of resources you invest in each is small. Once Howard Schultz returned to the US, instead of opening an entirely new shop, he convinced his Starbucks colleagues to open a small espresso bar in their existing store; soon queues were going out the door. When you place a bet, notice what it sets in motion, urges Johansson. “One action can create a whole cascade of unanticipated consequences. The idea that does that is where you should place your emphasis, resources and energy.

Take Pfizer: In the mid-‘80s, it was a medium-sized pharmaceutical company with a drug that helped against heart pain. The drug wasn’t great but the test subjects kept asking for more. Why? Because it had an unexpected side-effect: Half the men got sustained erections after taking it. And so, Viagra was born and sales exceeded $1b in year one. “Many researchers — coming across this surprising, unexpected thing — would have said it’s not relevant to our focus goal. But these researchers decided to harness the complex forces that occurred and created Viagra, and Viagra’s the reason Pfizer became the largest pharmaceutical company in the world. Even the smallest events can unleash a whole cascade.”

And just like love and romance, it turns out we also need passion to achieve success. “You have to count on having many mistaken assumptions,” says Johansson.

“Passion’s what’s going to give you the wherewithal to keep going if you’ve failed. Ask yourself, ‘if I’m wrong, will this particular field hold my interest enough that I will try again?’”

  • A version of this article was first published in Feelgood Magazine 30/03/13

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