What if Thomas Edison had waited for sufficient proof of concept before inventing the light bulb?
What if Henry Ford had first run a focus group to determine the market viability of the Model T and then decided instead to create a faster horse?
What if Einstein had followed his parents advice and decided to fully commit himself to his career as a patent clerk because he couldn’t get a university appointment?
What if Martin Luther King chose to play it safe and wait until civil rights laws were passed before sharing his dream of racial equality?
You’d be reading this blog on pressed paper pulp, by lamplight, with a super-charged horse and carriage outside waiting. (Oh yes, Sarah Palin would also now be your 2nd term VP prepping for her big 2016 Presidential run.)
Thank god for innovators, right? I have deep respect for anyone who manages to positively change the world with their limited years alive on this planet. In fact, as a lifelong creative person who also happens to be a scientist/behavior change expert, I think I’ve finally cracked the code on the best way to change the world. I call it the “Change the World 4-Step” (creative name, isn’t it?). It’s a time-tested formula that most of my favorite change agents throughout history have instinctively embraced. Wanna hear it? OK. Here goes:
Step 1: Develop a socially inappropriate level of passion that leads to a lifetime of questioning convention, embracing the unknown, and an instinctive gut-level embrace of life as a process of continual learning and discovery.
Step 2. Stick with it no matter what–despite successes and humiliating failures, despite financial problems and social resistance, despite family breakdowns and personal exhaustion–until you have satisfied your inner yearning and developed a clear and compelling creative vision.
Step 3. Forgive the world for beating you up, chastising you and calling you an ‘arrogant little jerk’ for your entire life…or at least forgive them enough so that you are willing to make your vision intelligible and inspiring to others.
Step 4. Once everyone finally gets it, enjoy saying, “I told you so” until the chip on your shoulder becomes boring. Repeat process, starting at Step 1 until you die and/or lose your passion.
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Well, not really. But if there’s an easier path to being a world-changer, I haven’t heard about it. In truth, even those enviable innovators who make it seem ‘easy’ or due to some ‘inborn gift’ did not have it easy. Review their their personal biographies and you’ll see that most have struggled in ways that would make most ordinary people soil themselves.
So, at the end of the day, while “disruptive innovation” and “social change” may be the fun new catchphrases of our day, there’s a very good reason that most would still rather talk about these concepts than implement them: Changing the world is brutal!
Is it fun? Yessir! It can be.
Is it meaningful? Absolutely! What could possibly have more meaning?
Is it profitable? Of course! More than anything else, if you execute properly.
Is it ever quick, risk-free or easy?
(awkward silence…..chirping crickets)
Nope. Sorry. Not in a million years.
The biggest problem with being alive is always the process of living, isn’t it? No one has it easy, really. But for innovators, this ‘problem process’ we call being alive is exponentially more difficult because it involves so much clear-eyed risk taking and decision-making uncertainty. Think about it: Choosing a spouse, finding the right job, choosing a college, finding the right house to live in—most important life decisions come with a clear set of social supports and sanctioned decision criteria. But changing the world? All bets are off buster! Suck it up or inherit a trust fund, because you are on your own.
Yes, I know. I lived in southern California long enough to hear within me now the passionate pleading of those pie-eyed dreamers: “Stop being so negative! Times have changed! Our day has finally come! Today innovation, sustainability and doing good for the world is the new lifeline of business!” While I appreciate these optimistic sentiments, I would urge caution and temperance in letting ourselves become too emotionally gooey just because of a little changing corporate jargon. I’ve worked on enough innovation projects with Fortune 100 companies now to understand that most folks who claim to want “change” and ”sustainability” and “disruptive innovation,” would still rather be shot in the eye with a pellet gun than miss their annual salary increase or 401K contribution.
I’m not complaining, mind you. I understand that the drive for financial and emotional security is a healthy and important part of the mature adult mindset. But in our quest to create positive change, let us not avoid a central truth about human nature at this particular point in human history:
We love change as a noun, but when it’s a verb we absolutely despise it (thanks to my clever friend Joel Makower for that one)…Let’s face it: As humans, our first and only true love is not change, but that other seductive ‘C’ word that so often keeps us hugging the status quo like a baby hugs its wooby blanket:
Despite changing jargon and strategic imperatives, we are still all fundamentally creatures of habit, hell-bent on staying comfortable. Most of our habits of thinking and acting are baked into us from an early age, based upon social norms and conventions. Innovation is inherently and inescapably brutal because it requires that we consciously challenge the twin change-killing demons of convention and comfort rather than unconsciously cultivate them.
Lest it seem that this blog is little more than a cynical rant from a man who has staked his strange career on converting cynics, let me finish with an uplifting and heartfelt closing comment (cue the climactic Aarron Sorkin closing music now please):
Yes, changing the world will always suck eggs. But if you just so happen to be one of those masochistic visionary types who is up to the challenge of being brutalized by convention for the sake of creating something that makes your heart sing, makes you money, and makes the world a better place, I strongly believe that your very best days on earth are still ahead of you.
With the democratization of knowledge and the immense logistical challenges brought by population growth, resource scarcity and global economic interdependency, there has never, ever–in the entire course of human history–been a better time to make a good living while also making the world a better place.
Finally, as someone who struggled for many decades before I found my path in this brave new world of ‘thrive and help thrive’ capitalism, I will share another wonderful insight that I wish someone had told me before:
When you are finally making good money doing something you love in the service of others, and when you finally attract a loyal group of advocates who actually appreciates you for being the weird person you are–the process of ‘egg sucking’ really isn’t so bad after all. It gets kinda fun, even. Over time, your own inner resistance to other people’s inner resistance of you melts into your compelling vision for contribution….you then begin to experience doubt and cynicism from others as a secret confession that you are actually making progress.
This article was originally posted on John Marshall Roberts’ website – Worldview Thinking
John Marshall Roberts is a communication expert and applied behavioral scientist with a subversive sense of humor, and more than a decade of strategic consulting experience. A dynamic and popular speaker and workshop leader within the sustainability movement, John has been invited to speak by a variety of leading organizations, which include the US White House, The New Zealand Department of Conservation, LOHAS, the SustainAbility (England), and TEDx. He is founder of the strategic communication research firm, Worldview Thinking.