One of the best live shows that I saw during my university days was Beat Happening and Girl Trouble. All of us were a long way from home in Washington when I saw them in New Jersey. While Beat Happening was playing what I thought was a pretty mesmerising show, my friend Tom leaned over to me and said ‘we could do that.’ I looked at him for a long time, then said ‘but we don’t, do we?’
We didn’t then, and we don’t now. We don’t play like Beat Happening, we don’t do a lot of things that it seems like we could, if we just tried it. Calvin, Heather and Bret did not play complex music:
and yet, there haven’t been many bands like them. Why not?
Seth Godin says in his new book Linchpin that it’s because we’re afraid. His contention is that the way to be personally remarkable is to make art, and that it is within everyone’s capability to do this. Here’s his description of Fred Wilson and Jerry Colonna’s investment firm Flatiron Partners:
…for five years, they returned profits and created companies like few other funds in history. After the fact, it seems obvious that this was a special moment in time, and that taking advantage of it was smart. But there, right then, it wasn’t obvious, it wasn’t easy, and there certainly wasn’t a manual. Anyone could have done, but anyone didn’t. They did.
Godin’s explanation for why people don’t regularly create things that sets them apart, that makes them remarkable is fear. His idea is rooted in biology –
The lizard is a physical part of your brain, the pre-historic lump near the brain stem that is responsible for fear and rage and reproductive drive. Why did the chicken cross the road? Because her lizard brain told her to.
Want to know why so many companies can’t keep up with Apple? It’s because they compromise, have meetings, work to fit in, fear the critics and generally work to appease the lizard. Meetings are just one symptom of an organization run by the lizard brain. Late launches, middle of the road products and the rationalization that goes with them are others.
This reminds me of the most common reason give me for why they aren’t innovative: their boss won’t let them be innovative. Or their company won’t. Or both. Or their industry isn’t innovative. It’s all the same excuse – I can’t innovate because I’m scared.
Here’s the thing – if you really want to innovate, and there really isn’t any scope for you to do so in your current position, then you have to get a new job. Either that, or you have to figure out how much you can get away with, and try some things. Either way, you have to take action – now.
Godin says that way to get around the problem is discipline. You have to practice overriding the fear. The more times you do this, the more self-confidence you gain, and the easier it gets. But it never gets easy – you always have to fight the fear. I know that I sure do.
Here’s my prescription:
- Think about how much you can get away with – if you manage a budget, how much discretion to you have? If you don’t have a budget, what are the parts of your job that you control?
- Make a list of 10 things that you can do within the current scope of your work that will make things better for the people with whom you interact – customers, co-workers, bosses, whoever.
- Do those things.
- Figure out which ones worked, and those more.
- Figure out which ones didn’t work, learn why not, then forget about them.
- Focus on the ideas that went well – even if only one of them works, you just made your work a better place.
The point with this is to just get started with innovation. Try things that are cheap experiments. Learn from failures, amplify successes. Try a lot of ideas at once so that you don’t get too attached to them – if you only have one idea, the stakes are much higher, even for a cheap and quick experiment.
As you do this more, you’ll get better at it – you’ll build innovation skills. Linchpin is worth reading to find out how to start building these skills. If you get really, really good at thinking up and testing new ideas, then getting them to spread, your job will get more interesting, and you’ll have more opportunities. This means change, and that’s a big part of what causes the fear. But it’s also what provides the rewards.
And if you get exceptionally good at all of this, you might make it look so effortless that anyone that watches you work will think that they can do it too – just like Beat Happening.