Wisdom and Innovation Often Come From Unexpected Places

One of my favorite things to do is observe people at networking events and large parties. I find it fascinating that almost without exception the people at these events gravitate towards people just like them. If you are a lawyer, you are probably talking to other lawyers, if you are in the film business, you are probably talking to other people in the film business, sports-sports etc. etc. Usually the only people there who interact with a wide variety of people, from different fields are the wait staff of the catering company.

Yes, we humans are an odd lot that tends to always gravitate toward the familiar. We all have comfort circles around us (of varying sizes) that we prefer to live our lives within. This is fine for the average person, but if you want to be exceptional, you need to expand your comfort circle, and as I tell all my clients the only way to expand your comfort circle, is to continually step outside of it. As actor/producer Ashton Kutcher puts it, “I’m continually trying to make choices that put me against my own comfort zone. As long as you’re uncomfortable, it means you are growing.”

I always say that one of the secrets to success is learning how to be comfortable when you are uncomfortable. I know that sounds like an oxymoron but there is an awkward truth in it. I also preach that if you turn your words into actions, your actions will become habits, and your habits will determine your destiny. So if you repeatedly take the action of going outside of your comfort zone that will become a habit. Once things become habitual, we do them without having to put any thought into what we are doing and therefore (as odd as it sounds) putting yourself into uncomfortable situations once habituated becomes comfortable to you.

As American author Neale Donald Walsch aptly states, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” I like say that peak performance and innovation are directly related to how willing and able you are to grow the comfort circles you inhabit. Most often when we experience a paradigm shift in any field, it comes from a blending of thought or information from something outside of that field.

Take University of Oregon football coach Chip Kelly’s ‘blur’ spread option offense that is the current rage in football. If you look closely at what he has done, you will see former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s footprint all over it. He took the concepts of full-court pressure to increase his opponent’s mistakes, by removing the huddle and speeding up the pace of the offense. Even his ‘Win the Day’ mantra, used to build his team’s culture, follows Wooden’s process oriented blueprint of controlling what you can control and ignoring everything else.

One of America’s most innovative companies 3M, makes its engineers regularly rotate from one division to another in a process known as conceptual blending. This brings new and different perspectives to other division’s most troubling problems and spurs new discoveries. The most important element of conceptual blending is a willingness to weigh information and ideas that seem far-fetched.
We often focus our attention on ‘experts’ to gain wisdom when much of what there is to learn of value comes from the voice of an outsider. Most people ignore the messages outside the mainstream, but the wise pay extra attention to the voices of the outcasts and lone wolves.

I firmly believe that I am more likely to learn something of value from a janitor than a CEO. Janitors’ views are never clouded in the way most CEOs’ visions are. Janitors do not suffer from the curse of knowledge that befalls many CEOs either. Additionally, very few people take the time to listen to what a janitor has to say, so if they do share something of value it will likely be unique and of added value. Whereas when a CEO talks, the majority share in whatever he has to say, so therefore its value is diminished.

One of the reasons diseases like cancer are intractable, is that the system rewards people who build on existing research and discourage outlandish approaches. I have always said that when someone discovers a cure for cancer, it will likely be something that is far removed from the treatments available today. Sadly, when a researcher proposes something outside the comfort zone of current research, they are ostracized by their peer group rather than embraced.

History is littered with people who dared to question conventional wisdom and were laughed at, but later shown to be correct. Up until 1982 when the bacteria H. pylori was discovered by Australian doctors Robin Marshall and Barry Warren, stress and lifestyle were considered the major causes of stomach and intestinal ulcers. Thanks to their work, now both of these types of ulcers are often no longer a long-term, frequently disabling problem. They can now be cured with a short-term course of drugs and antibiotics.
Dr. Marshall even had to go to the extreme length of deliberately infecting himself with the bacterium to prove that H. pylori caused both types of ulcers. He and Dr. Marshall were awarded the Nobel prize for medicine in 2005, which praised the doctors for their tenacity, and willingness to challenge prevailing dogmas.

The bottom line is, that it is important to remain open and consider viewpoints that may seem outlandish at first glance, as this is often where new discoveries are found and progress is made in all fields. As neurosurgeon Robert White said about discomfort, “All the concepts about stepping out of your comfort zone mean nothing until you decide that your essential purpose, vision and goals are more important than your self-imposed limitations.”

Are you remaining open to new sources of input and exposing yourself to new situations and people regularly? If you are not, chances are you have reached your peak already.