Five principles consistently present when transformational breakthroughs take place. To spark this sort of change, you must:
- Make a Big Bet. So many people and organizations are naturally cautious. They look at what seemed to work in the past and try to do more of it, leading to only incremental advances. Every truly history-making transformation has occurred when people have decided to go for revolutionary change.
- Be bold, take risks. Have the guts to try new, unproven things and the rigor to continue experimenting. Risk taking is not a blind leap off a cliff but a lengthy process of trial and error. And it doesn’t end with the launch of a product or the start of a movement. You need to be willing to risk the next big idea, even if it means upsetting your own status quo.
- Make failure matter. Great achievers view failure as a necessary part of advancing toward success. No one seeks it out, but if you’re trying new things, the outcome is by definition uncertain. When failure happens, great innovators make the setback matter, applying the lessons learned and sharing them with others.
- Reach beyond your bubble. Our society is in thrall to the myth of the lone genius. But innovation happens at intersections. Often the most original solutions come from engaging with people with diverse experiences to forge new and unexpected partnerships.
- Let urgency conquer fear. Don’t overthink and overanalyze. It’s natural to want to study a problem from all angles, but getting caught up in questions like “What if we’re wrong?” and “What if there is a better way?” can leave you paralyzed with fear. Allow the compelling need to act to outweigh all doubts and setbacks.
Start right where you are
The challenge to start right where you are is the great equalizer. For the most part, the public doesn’t hear about Big Bets until their results are out in the world, proven and successful. But if we could peek back to the beginning, we’d often find ourselves amazed by the simplicity of their origins. This should be inspiring for those of us who want to make a difference but feel thwarted by a lack of experience or resources.
We don’t always appreciate how many of the things we enjoy in our lives today are a direct result of the original moonshot challenge. This includes satellite communications, global weather systems, plastics that can endure harsh environments, the miniaturization of technology
and even the math formulas required for proper rocket trajectories out of and back into the atmosphere. President Kennedy doesn’t get much credit today when we pick up our iPhones and use GPS or check the weather or send an email, but these innovations owe much to his Big Bet.
Burst through assumptions
The most common trait that Big Bets share is that they often fly in the face of conventional wisdom, or defy belief before they are proven. And often the same is true of the people who make them—just like their big ideas they can often be underestimated. If you’ve ever heard, “It can’t be done,” then maybe you know you’re onto something big! The stories in this chapter teach us that great ideas can come from anywhere and anyone, including those the world would sometimes count out. Can you stand in the face of disbelief in you or your idea and use the doubters as a source of motivation? Can you answer their doubts by saying, “Just watch me”?
Getting uncomfortable is, well, uncomfortable. We would all prefer to live in the comfort zone of life but nothing extraordinary comes from the comfort zone. Risk taking requires boldness—stepping into unfamiliar territory and trying new, often unexpected things. The very nature of breakthroughs is that they have never been tried before. Are you considering a possible action that requires you to get uncomfortable and step out into unfamiliar territory? The hardest part is the first step forward.
Embrace risk as R&D
A mind shift, from thinking of risk as a big, scary leap, to seeing it as essential to advancing an idea or initiative. We no longer can afford to stand still in a fast-changing world filled with so many needs. Each of us should embrace the concept of constantly trying new things and figuring out different ways to solve old problems. In the process, let’s shift our minds to recognize that the risks we take represent our own version of necessary R&D—part of the process toward great achievement.
Pick up where others left off
It’s striking how often bold endeavors spring from problems that hit home. Consider Alexander Graham Bell (who, incidentally, was president of the National Geographic Society in its early years). His mother lost her hearing when he was twelve, and he spent his young years finding different techniques to communicate with her. His focus on sound technology and communications stemmed from his personal struggle and he turned his passion into a career helping the hearing impaired as a renowned teacher of the deaf in Boston, all the while developing innovations to help this community communicate. Many believe it was his marriage to one of his students, Mabel Hubbard, a young woman who had lost her hearing at age five, that reinforced his connection to this field and anchored his commercial work. Few developments have so changed the world as Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, but what’s often lost in the telling of that story is that it all started with a problem Bell was trying to solve.
Crash and learn
The question each of us must ask ourselves is whether in the face of failure we would try again. Maybe you’ve never failed and you think this advice isn’t relevant to you. But you will someday. And I want you to fail. Fail fast, fail forward, make it matter, and then go do something really, really great.
Do I like failure? I detest failure. The point isn’t to glorify failure or to use it as an excuse, but rather to acknowledge that achievements usually follow it. So if it happens, let it teach you, and then allow the experience of overcoming it to energize you and lead to success. Failure only becomes a positive when you do something with it.
Fail in the footsteps of giants
Richard Branson’s failures are legendary. When launching his first, most high-profile venture, Virgin Atlantic Airways, he had only one plane, which was ambushed by a flock of birds on its test run. Over time, he’s started many businesses, some of them spectacular bombs—such as Virgin Cola, designed to take on Coke, and Virgin Cars, an online car-selling business. But Branson kept coming back. He epitomizes the entrepreneurial spirit of fail, regroup, and start something else. Today Branson’s Virgin Group is an umbrella for some four hundred companies. “If you fall flat on your face, at least you’re moving forward,” he has said.
When we think about the phrase “following in the footsteps of others,” rarely do we associate those footsteps with failure.
Extraordinary leaders and high achievers have failed on their own paths to success, sometimes time and time again. So the next time you fail, remember that you are failing in the footsteps of giants.
Beat the odds
At her lowest, J. K. Rowling, the phenomenal best-selling author of the Harry Potter series, was a single mother on welfare, struggling with depression. She was, she later said, the biggest failure she knew. This dark chapter of her life inspired the mysterious world of good and evil that is the basis of her novels. She began to write in longhand at night, sitting in coffee shops, and when she finally dared to submit her work to publishers, she received rejection after rejection.
In 2016, Rowling posted some of these early rejection letters on Twitter as a way of inspiring hopeful writers to not give up. When respondents asked how she had the motivation to keep trying, she replied, “I had nothing to lose, and sometimes that makes you brave enough to try.” Many budding authors posted grateful responses on Twitter, writing that the story of her early rejections gave them the courage to go on.
Eliminate blind spots
Often, the very nature of being in a bubble means you don’t know you’re in it. It takes intention and effort to shake loose from complacency, to get outside and look around. Comedian Tina Fey, commenting on her experience in the Saturday Night Live writing room, noted that when the writers were all or mostly male, it meant fewer skits for and about women. It wasn’t purposeful discrimination, just what happens when you exclude other voices. When more women had seats at the writers’ table, more stories written by women and about female experiences made it on the air.
Reach Beyond Your Bubble calls on you to seek out those with different perspectives and backgrounds as you take forward your Big Bet. The ability to work with and understand people who are not like you is part of the secret sauce of success.
Build unlikely partnerships
Co-branding is not a new idea, but reaching beyond your bubble requires more than collaboration between two obviously compatible organizations. There’s no question that such collaborations can be daring. They require each side to give up some measure of control, to compromise while maintaining their values. But when those from different domains do form new entities, the result can be magical, accomplishing far more than either could do on their own.
Be better together
The importance of diversity—or the act of bringing together people with different perspectives and backgrounds—is getting the attention of the nation’s largest companies, whose portfolios now commonly highlight their efforts. When Deloitte reported on its studies of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, it found that organizations with inclusive cultures were two times more likely to meet or exceed financial targets, six times more likely to be innovative and agile, and eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes. And in 2018, Forbes published its first list of the best employers for diversity. The number-one company was perhaps unexpected: Northern Trust, a Chicago-based investment management firm with 17,800 employees. Thirty-eight percent of top executives were women, and the board was 23 percent African American.
Seize the moment
We can choose to act with urgency, or have urgency thrust upon us. But there’s a reason someone coined the phrase “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” When your back is against the wall, when options are limited, when time is not on your side, a certain clarity can set in, bringing with it a boldness you might not have known you had in you. Soldiers find extraordinary bravery in the heat of battle, everyday citizens perform acts of heroism during disasters, and people accomplish unimaginable feats when they’re running out of time. They might not be wholly aware of the risks, or be able to calculate their impact. They just act.
Don’t overthink or overanalyze. Do.
Much has been written about the difference between people who act with urgency and those who procrastinate. Perhaps Nike’s famous “Just Do It” slogan has a secondary message: “Don’t spend too much time thinking about it.” This would seem to contradict advice most of us have received along the way. Think of how many times you’ve heard, “Don’t be hasty!” or “Think this through carefully.” It’s no wonder that “Just Do It” doesn’t come naturally.
Now go, be the one
“We are what we choose,” Jeff Bezos told Princeton University students in a 2010 commencement address that was all about the importance of choosing to act.
Each of us is responsible for the kind of impact we have on the world. If you’re reading this book, you have a deep desire to strike out—rejecting the ordinary and making a difference.
So pick your arena. You can make change through business, through the arts, through education, .through a social movement, through politics, in your neighborhood. It’s up to you which trail you blaze.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” —MARGARET MEAD