By Ross Bonander

In 1899, the commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office wrote a letter to President McKinley urging him to abolish his office, noting that “everything that can be invented has been invented.” Lacking an imagination, this man’s vision was to shut down the state-sponsored hunt for innovation and new ideas. Contrary to this, a true visionary sees in ways others can’t or don’t, for whatever reason. Furthermore, visionaries across all disciplines share certain qualities, and while nothing they’ve done can be mimicked without corrupting their ideals, they stand today to inspire the rest of us to follow — not fear or reject — the direction of our own calling.

_________________visionary qualities


Any man can disagree, but true dissent requires a rare conviction, especially when one’s thoughts or opinions face a roar of opposing voices.

In post-World War II Japan, Soichiro Honda defied a corporate culture that claimed “Japanese companies succeed as one.” He believed that Japanese corporations could benefit from the so-called American business phenomenon, which included a focus on individual achievement. He founded Honda Motor Company and put this into practice, even though he had to face disrespect and scorn from business circles and bureaucrats who tried to block Honda’s growth.

Dov Charney, founder of American Apparel, refused to believe that U.S.-based apparel manufacturers could only make money if they had their garments made in Third World countries. But he also knew that if he were to succeed, he’d have to change the way factory workers were treated. He accomplished this through highly competitive wages, paid vacations, health insurance extended to families, free English classes, direct paycheck deposits to save on check-cashing fees, and five certified massage therapists working exclusively with factory workers. The result? 2005 sales in excess of $250 million.


The fabled knock from opportunity is more common than most imagine; far scarcer is the ability to recognize it.

As a private pilot, Frederick Smith found himself taking on more and more cargo for companies that were unable or unwilling to wait for space on passenger airliners. Still in college, he wrote a paper for an economics class proposing an express delivery service. His professor was unimpressed, but Smith knew an opportunity when he saw it, and in 1971, he founded Federal Express.

Bill Gates realized that if a computer’s operating systems and software were separated from the hardware, then almost anyone could create new technologies — not just the engineers. Innovation followed on an incomprehensible scale, and Gates was wise enough to put his system on the front line.


Maintaining a dynamic, healthy mistrust for the systems and methods that define an industry or a business prevents the kind of complacency Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to when he wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

When he became general manager of the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane was more than a little skeptical of the way the MLB worked; after all, he’d been a top-rated prospect who tanked in the Majors. He noted that the scouts and skippers who had awful track records, which would ordinarily prevent them from getting another job in any field, were continually rehired by other clubs. So he fired the old guard and brought in people with an entirely new approach to baseball. While Beane has yet to win a World Series with this new system, the A’s have been incredibly successful, and they’ve done it on a shoestring budget.

The World Wide Web was barely five years old when Pierre Omidyar became suspicious that it was headed wholly into the hands of big businesses. In his mind, the technology enabled a different direction: He envisioned it as a global marketplace where people could buy and sell amongst themselves, independently of big businesses. To that end, he created eBay. Contrary to popular legend, the first item sold on his brainchild was not a Pez dispenser, but a laser pointer that didn’t work.
Finally, in the mind of the visionary, now and today are not equivalent to never or forever.

In 1977, the president of Digital Equipment Corporation said: “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.” To some extent, he was right; in 1977, a home computer would have been fairly useless to the average individual. Yet, at that very moment, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were busy releasing the legendary Apple II computer, which gave people plenty of reasons to have a home computer.

changing the course of history

The term “visionary” is overused the same way “genius” is — it is often attached to people who are probably not worthy of the title. For this reason, the true test is the test of time at its most brutal. If someone is capable of carrying an idea from cradle to grave, against the proverbial grain, and contrary to the multitude of voices quick to say “no” or “never,” then he truly deserves the title of visionary.

As for the U.S. Patent Office, since 1900, it has issued millions of patents and currently receives well in excess of 300,000 patent applications each year.

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