“I’ve got a bad case of the free willies. Ever since I liberated myself from my job in order to pursue this new venture I’ve felt like I was out on a limb. Most people would be grateful for the freedom, but I’m anxious. Maybe there’s something wrong with me.”

This anxiety comes with the territory. We all know people who broke away from the crowd and became huge successes. And we know people who broke away and drifted into failure. So when we break away, we naturally wonder which we’ll be. This question of whether with pressures removed, one becomes a star or a dud, has a venerable history. But more strikingly it has a venerable natural history.

How does successful innovation happen in nature? The traditional Darwinian answer has been through chance mutation and sexual recombination. An offspring is born with a random lucky quirk. This lucky mutant happens by chance alone to meet its environment’s exacting standard for survival and is rewarded with many offspring who likewise have the lucky quirk.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


Some biologists doubt that mutation could be innovation’s source, and find a more plausible source in what they call redundancy and masking, which are a lot like what happens when you’re freed from old obligations. Here’s an intuitive example to illustrate the use of these two terms.

Mike is made redundant at work, not in the sense of being fired but of having someone else to help with his job. His boss said, ‘You used to handle the Smith account by yourself. Now I’m putting Sarah on it with you.’

So what happens to Mike? For one thing he experiences less pressure. The pressure to fuss over the Smith account is, in effect masked. He could call in sick for days and Sarah would probably cover for him. As a result, some of the talents he developed in meeting the Smith account’s demands are now freed up, possibly to be used in innovative ways. Maybe he’ll employ his freed energies to up-sell the Smiths on new services, or to cultivate new clients. Or maybe, if he can get away with it he’ll simply goof off.

Now a biological parallel, first of successful innovation: Many features of living things come in clusters of redundant elements: your multiple fingers or teeth, the multiple opposing limbs of a lobster. These redundancies reduce the pressure imposed on any one element. Lose a tooth you can still chew, lose a finger and the others will serve well enough. With multiple copies of an element, no one copy is absolutely necessary to fulfill the original function. The pressure to fulfill the original function is masked which frees the elements to drift perhaps into alternative functions. If an element drifts into a new function that helps the organism, it becomes specialized for it, the way for example, our thumb became opposable, our tooth became canine, or lobsters limbs specialized into claws, legs, antennae and even reproductive organs (the gonopods). By becoming dispensible due to redundancy, the elements might drift into new specializations that become indispensable, the way Mike, using his freedom well, might come up with innovations that becomes indispensable to his company.

Sometimes in biology, redundancy and masking produce duds too. Did you ever notice that humans need to consume vitamin C, whereas cats, dogs or indeed almost all other mammals don’t? Long ago we could produce our own vitamin C just like other mammals. We once had genes common to all mammals that enabled us to produce it. In fact, we still have these genes, but they no longer work. They became junk DNA through redundancy and masking.

When our ancestors moved into trees 30 million years ago they found an alternative source of vitamin C in fruit. A ready supply of fruit made the vitamin C genes redundant. The pressure on the genes to continue producing vitamin C was masked. An ancestor whose genes malfunctioned for whatever reason would still survive. Over generations our Vitamin C genes, freed from their old obligations by the ready supply of fruit simply degraded, a lot like Mike drifting into sloppiness when Sarah came on the job.

Redundancy and masking are patterns rich in implications for our personal and work lives. Indeed, they’re at the root of the human condition. We humans live in two worlds at once—the real world we perceive through our senses, and the imagined world we can see in our mind’s eye. This too is a kind of redundancy and masking. We have redundant worlds in which to succeed or fail. The hope we sustain by visualizing our future success in our mind’s eyes can mask the pressure to succeed in the real world. The success that we imagine can sustain us even when we’re not having much real success. This frees us to become star innovators, sustained by our dreams of success while we strive to achieve real world success. Or it can free us to drift and become duds, so intoxicated by our dreams that pressure to succeed in the real world is masked. We can become ‘legends in our own minds,’ and forget to strive. We can think we’re making great progress when in fact, we’re drifting into flakiness.

No wonder we get the free willies. When others are covering our basic needs and we get some free time, immediate pressures get masked. If we’re not too deluded, we can’t help but wonder if we can use our freedom and our existing talents in innovative ways, the way a lobster’s extra limbs became a lobster’s gonopods, or whether instead, more like vitamin C genes our talents will atrophy.