It was 7th grade. My science teacher wasn’t interested in science. It was where he got assigned to teach. It was his first year. He would read a chapter or two ahead of the class so that he could teach us. He was a good man but was in a bad spot. One day, he was teaching about how heat was an invisible liquid. I – quite untactfully – told him he was wrong. I told him what I knew that heat was the kinetic energy of molecules bumping into one another. He responded well, but honestly, what can you do when you’re embarrassed in front of the class?
Well, in this case, you offer the student the opportunity to play with radioactive materials in the teacher’s work area in the science department. You hand them a Geiger counter and say, “Go have fun.” The radioactive materials were very low-grade materials (as one would expect in a junior high school) so I wasn’t in any danger. However, I didn’t forget the lessons I learned from that teacher. I learned that learning was fun. It was more fun than I knew to that point.
Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World isn’t about the people who get sent out of the class by their teachers. It’s about how people decide to be original and why the “originals” are so desperately needed.
Conformity and Originality
There are, according to Grant, two paths to achievement. The first is conformity, and the second is originality. Conformity is the easy way. We’re wired with the need for social connection. We’re wired for conformity. Being different – being original – is risky. If you were original, you ran the risk of being run out of the community; historically, that was a death sentence. As much as we would like to believe that we’re independent today, as humans we’ve always been social – and we continue to need that social connection.
Steve Jobs came back to Apple to save the organization he started from the failure of his NeXT project, which wasn’t exactly a roaring success. The campaign that he and his team created to revitalize the company was “Think Different.” That’s what originals do: they think different. But there’s more to it than that. A reasonable man recognizes that his views are incompatible with the world and changes them. An original sees that the world is incompatible with his views and sets out to change the world. Jobs described this as putting his “ding” on the universe.
Originals realize that the world is a series of systems, and if you can find the right lever, you can move the world. This is a reference to Archimedes, who said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Originals look for the systems in things – beyond the mechanical world as Archimedes understood it – and seek to make the right changes in the system to get the resulting changes they want. (See Thinking in Systems for how systems work.)
There’s a running joke around my house that my neighborhood has the fastest home builders. On our walks, my wife is constantly talking about all the new houses that are being built in the neighborhood. Ours is an established neighborhood that finished any meaningful construction over 40 years ago. However, as we’re walking and talking and exploring new ideas, she’s seeing the neighborhood with new eyes and seeing houses differently. These “new” houses aren’t new construction but are a new construction – or awareness – in her mind. She’s literally seeing the same things differently.
We’ve all heard of déjà vu, where we experience something like it happened before; but originals experience “vuja de,” where they experience the same thing differently. It might be a walk in the park, a warm cup of coffee, a Monday morning staff meeting, or some other mundane, trivial experience that we all have. However, they experience it differently.
Bearer of Risk
I’ve been in business (this time around) for over a dozen years. By now, it’s become just what I do. It’s the only world I’ve known for most of my career. Frequently, when I talk to someone, particularly someone in a large corporate job, they say, “I could never do that. There’s too much risk.” I get a similar response when I explain that I took a standup comedy course. (See I Am a Comedian.) The thing is, I don’t perceive my world to be particularly risky.
The word “entrepreneur” was coined by economist Richard Cantillon. It literally means “bearer of risk.” An entrepreneur literally bears the risk for some endeavor. The degree to which they and others, like investors, bear the risk may be up for debate, but inherently entrepreneurs bear risk.
The funny thing is that all the entrepreneurs I know are risk-avoidant. They’ve got it coming out their ears and they’re sick of it. The guys and gals I know work very hard to systematically reduce, eliminate, and mitigate risk. Entrepreneurs may be the bearers of risk, but they’re willing to get rid of it at a moment’s notice if they can.
There’s a popular myth that original people, or creative people, have better ideas. I’d say that this is false. What originals have is more ideas, or, more properly, they have more ideas they allow to flow and be shared. Originals don’t self-censor themselves out of the ideas in their head. They share them, adapt them, and build upon them.
Ed Catmull, in Creativity, Inc., shares how at Pixar all movies suck to start. It’s not that the mastery of Toy Story comes fully-formed out of the mental womb. The process that Pixar uses is designed to refine and improve the story until it’s good. Other organizations employ filtering mechanisms to reduce the abundance of good ideas into a set that can be considered for implementation.
Truly original people can have a dozen ideas that they share while sitting at breakfast. Two things separate the successful entrepreneur original from the rest. First, they let the ideas flow. Second, they select the few best ideas and they execute on them.
Entrenched in Our Ideas
Jim Collins, in Good to Great, explains the Stockdale paradox. It is unwavering faith and the willingness to listen. On the one hand, remaining committed to the original idea; on the other hand, being aware of the absolute need for other people’s perspectives, so that we can inform our direction and our actions.
The problem with all of us is that, as we become experts, we build schemas in our minds – mental models – of how the world works. (See The Art of Explanation for more on our schemas.) More experience means a richer model. The problem is that our models are necessarily incomplete and in some places incorrect. However, the more time that we spend building our model of how the world works, the less likely we are to change it.
Whether it’s the model that the sun revolves around the Earth, or that the world is flat, or something more mundane, our view of the world can make it hard to see it as it really is. It means that experts have a hard time contributing anything new to their disciplines after the first few years. Einstein said that if someone hadn’t contributed to science by the age of 30, they never will. While this is potentially outdated and over stated, the point remains that it’s very difficult to shake up the establishment when you are a part of it.
Playing the Portfolio
How do originals avoid the risk and avoid getting entrenched in ideas? The answer is that they intentionally pull in ideas from multiple disciplines. Edison brought in experts in gas lighting, metallurgy, and dozens of other areas of expertise to create his light bulb. He wanted this diversity of thought both externally in the case of experts, but also internally as he sought to build expertise in multiple domains.
By building expertise in multiple domains, he could allow the mental models of the established professions to gently – and sometimes violently – collide and disrupt the idea that there was one right way of viewing the world.
Originals frequently put down multiple bets on the table to spread their risk around.
Playing the Field
Imagine for a moment a roulette wheel like none you’ll ever find in Las Vegas. A roulette wheel can have 38 positions that the ball can fall into (in the US). What if you were guaranteed to get a 70:1 return on your bets? The problem is you can only bet on 10 positions at a time. What would you do?
A typical safe-bet-type person wouldn’t play. They’d look at their odds and say, “I have only a 10:38 (or 1:3.8) chance of winning – those aren’t good odds. I don’t want to risk it.” An original says, “As long as I’m willing to stay at the table for six or eight turns, I’ll come out ahead – way ahead.” The odds are substantially in their favor that, over the long run, they’ll more than double their money. An entrepreneur makes the 10 bets each time. For each square, they place 1:60th of what they’re willing to lose.
Odds are that, within the first four games, they’ll have received their payout. Entrepreneurs use this to change how much they bet.
Colonel Sanders, the founder and icon of Kentucky Fried Chicken, is said to have heard “no” to his pitch for a chicken franchise 1,009 times before he heard a “yes.” He is said to have pitched his chicken restaurant franchising concept more than 1,000 times before he got the pitch right. (See Pitch Anything if you want more to learn more about pitching.) What did he learn the first thousand times? Like Edison, he learned what didn’t work. Through purposeful practice and deliberate attempts, he eventually found an approach that worked. (See Peak for more on deliberate practice.)
Colonel Sanders was an original not in his idea of franchising. He wasn’t an original in his spices – though they were original. He was an original because he was willing to work hard to execute on his one idea.
In general, procrastination is viewed negatively. We believe that “the early bird gets the worm” and other clichés that have been around since Ben Franklin’s time. However, what if procrastination had a purpose? There is anecdotal evidence and research that, in some cases, procrastination may be a better option if you’re looking for creativity.
It’s important to point out that it’s a specific kind of procrastination. It’s procrastination which is not trying to force a solution before it’s right. It’s starting to process the work to be done and allowing the fact that your solution is incomplete to trigger the Zeigarnik effect. That is, things that are left incomplete and undone have a greater impact in our brains. Our subconscious continues to mull over the problem looking for a solution, even while our conscious processing is otherwise occupied. Our subconscious looks for that bit of dopamine we’ll get when we solve the puzzle.
The Secret to Success is Timing
The argument could be made that Colonel Sanders didn’t improve his pitch. The argument could be made that it was just the right time. When you accept that life isn’t deterministic but is instead probabilistic, as explained in The Halo Effect, you consider that sometimes there’s just a right time for things. You throw the dice and hope for the right results, sure. However, you’ve also got to wonder whether some of what’s happening is just based on timing.
Many of the entrepreneurs I know will admit to a degree of luck and probabilistic determination that allowed them to succeed. A few more recognize that there are times when ideas will work and when they won’t. For instance, when gas prices are low, we can consider transportation optimization solutions. Organizations in general have available funds to make investments. However, the oil and gas industry shuts down all elective projects, because they don’t have the available capital to invest in optimizations.
Friends and Frenemies
We may have been told to keep our friends close and our enemies closer, but what happens when you can’t tell one from the other? The research points to increased anxiety. When our friends seem to randomly betray us, the result is stress. If we know someone is not to be trusted, that’s easy. We may not like it, but we understand where we stand. However, when someone acts like Brutus and stabs us in the back while pretending to be our friend, our anxieties are raised.
If we want to lower the stress in our world, it is through escaping (or jettisoning) the so-called “friends” who can’t consistently be real with us by supporting us when appropriate and challenging us appropriately when necessary.
The Gilded Frame
When trying to get buy-in for an original idea, sometimes the direct approach is not the best approach. (See Buy-In for more ideas on how to get buy in for your ideas.) Sometimes we need to package our idea in a way that helps others see that achieving our goals is a way of achieving theirs. People are more likely to support us when they believe that it serves their own needs and values.
Sometimes our ideas are so “out there” that we must create a bridge from where we want to go to where people are now. That bridge can be their goals; it can also be moderating the original idea to the point where it becomes more palatable with the expectation that we’ll be able to reveal more of the idea as things happen. This makes the “crazy” original idea easier to accept and allows people to start walking the path to understand where things should lead – not just how different and scary the world might look.
The Logic of Appropriateness
If one were to use the logic of consequences, no one would ever do anything original. It’s simple. Conformity isn’t risky. Originality is. Conformity is the only choice if you’re evaluating from the lens of consequences. However, that is not the only perspective. Another perspective that breathes life into those who would be called “original” is the lens of appropriateness. From this perspective, we have the option of looking not at the risk of the situation but the need for impact, the need to change the world to make it more appropriate.
Originals look for appropriateness over consequence. They choose to stand out and stand up when it’s appropriate (and necessary) to make the world a better place.
Order of Originality
Just as age impacts our beliefs over time, so to do things like birth order. If you want to make someone care more about relationships, tell them they have only a few years to live, either through a specific communication like the diagnosis of a mortal illness or through the constant subtle reminder of their age. The result is a greater emphasis on relationships and a deemphasis on things. That isn’t to say that the natural biases built up over a lifetime are wiped from the slate, it’s just that a bias is introduced.
So, too, can birth order subtly shift perceptions and lead towards, but not to, different outcomes. Later in birth order, children grow up with fewer rules than their older siblings. In fact, it may be that older siblings are providing some of the child-rearing and in doing so tend to be more lenient.
The impact of these differences in their upbringing seems to be that they are more original. It seems that children who are later in the birth sequence tend to be more original than their older siblings. It’s not that all first-born children are not original or that all later-in-birth-sequence children are original, it’s just that they trend in that direction.
Character Praise, Skill Praise
Carol Dweck’s work on mindset cautions us about instilling a fixed mindset into our children by complementing them for their achievements. (See Mindset for more.) However, the growth mindset that we seek to instill is primarily focused on the ability to help children know that their results can be changed with hard work, and that it’s not some inherent capability that they can’t change.
However, there are some places where introducing some fixed qualities around character can be valuable. Even Dweck recommends praising children for their hard work. This is really to say that we’re praising the child’s character by saying they’re a hard worker. We can similarly praise their courage in being a non-conformist. We can encourage their honor by recognizing their honorable actions and pointing to their character.
Establishing a high moral bar takes advantage of the fact that children tend to rise to the level to which they’ve been labeled. If they’re labeled as a good student, they live that label until they’re challenged. If they’re labeled as a hard worker, they can carry that forward forever.
Cohesion, Collaboration, and Conformity
Richard Hackman talks about challenging intelligence community-based collaboration in Collaborative Intelligence. He speaks of the need for teams to be cohesive and have direction and a level of permeability. He suggests that there needs to be the right level of discomfort in the group coupled with a great deal of trust and respect.
There has been some discussion about how close a group should get with one another for the risk that Irving Janis’ groupthink would show up – however, Hackman doesn’t see it this way. He sees the need for diversity of thought, and that a group would eventually start to think alike not because they got too friendly, but because they had the same experiences.
The idea that groups can become too collegial and unwilling to push back on each other has been refuted, but it’s important to recognize that Hackman’s suggestion for regular small changes to bring in fresh perspectives is important.
“The greatest tragedy of mankind,” says Dalio of Bridgewater Associates, “is the inability for people to have thoughtful disagreements about what’s true.” I’d encourage you to pick up Originals and develop a disagreement about what’s true.