Beware the False Comfort of Conventional Wisdom
“What would happen if I did the opposite?”
A simple question, but one packed with complexity just below the surface. It’s not hard to do the opposite – you just do it. But of course it’s not that easy.
Doing the opposite – going against the grain, bucking conventional wisdom – can be scary. It can result in failure. It welcomes skepticism. It invites derision. It makes people uncomfortable.
It is also the indispensable action that is inextricably linked to virtually every breakthrough idea that has moved the needle of human progress.
Conventional wisdom is, by definition, a generally accepted theory or belief. Any action or idea that is contrary to conventional wisdom is, therefore, generally not accepted, and the person propounding it is considered wrongheaded and countercultural – that is, until the radical is proven right, and the new idea replaces the old. As Albert Einstein said: “The only sure way to never make mistakes is to have no new ideas.”
Paradoxically, many think that the time to take chances, buck the system and eschew conventional wisdom is when we are young – that as we age we must accept certain “realities” about life. But the exact opposite is true!
It is with time and experience that we become more aware, more attuned and (should) learn to think independently. It is when we are young that we are more susceptible to the conventions of wisdom. Most young people lack the real world experience and maturity to buck the status quo or, as Seth Godin likes to say, “make a ruckus.” This is in part due to the fact that the modern day educational environment prioritizes memorization and socialization (sit quietly, be obedient) over the need to think critically.
So it is left to the adults, who have seen the world, worked in it, and in many ways been frustrated by it, to change it. But it is not a challenge that most accept willingly. That’s because there is a sense of comfort in convention, but it is false. As Mark Twain said: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” Sometimes you need to rock the boat. Indeed, anyone who thinks or acts contrary to conventional wisdom is considered crazy right up until the moment he or she proves it wrong.
Here are some examples that, the next time you’re considering following the crowd, may inspire you to do the opposite.
The Fosbury Flop
Dick Fosbury was a scrawny, average athlete who competed on his high school track team in Oregon. By all accounts, and according to conventional wisdom, he wasn’t good enough to be competitive in his chosen discipline, the high jump.
At the time, high jumpers utilized a technique similar to a hurdler, jumping over the bar one leg at a time in a scissor action. Fosbury couldn’t compete with taller, more athletics jumpers using this technique, so he invented a new one. Instead of going over the bar feet first, he jumped with his back to the bar, clearing the bar face up, back down in what would come to be known as the “Fosbury Flop.” He was ridiculed, and even his coach urged him to abandon this weird technique.
It was only a few short years later that Fosbury stood on the podium at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, gold medal in hand, having just set a new Olympic and U.S. record for the high jump. Today, it is conventional wisdom that the Fosbury Flop is undoubtedly the best way to clear the bar…until, of course, it’s not.
Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s, was presented with a dilemma: How to win games with a fraction of the budget of big market teams like the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers?
Conventional wisdom held that, to win, a team needed position players that hit for a high batting average and flame-throwing pitchers who could rack up lots of strikeouts. But those players cost money, and money was something that Beane didn’t have at his disposal.
So Beane turned to Paul DePodesta, a former economics major at Harvard for help, who was a disciple of the self-educated statistician Bill James and his analysis of baseball statistics called “sabermetrics.” What they found, and ultimately acted upon, was the fact that the traditional measures of evaluating a baseball free agent or draft pick – measures such as speed, size, athleticism, arm strength, batting average – that had been conventional wisdom in baseball since its inception as a professional sport, were wrong. They were not accurate predictors of success. At a minimum, they led teams to overpay for players.
Beane and his team analyzed statistics from the previous decade and found that certain statistics – such as on base percentage – were much more relevant predictors of success, but greatly undervalued in the marketplace. Accordingly, Beane was able to stock the A’s with players who are highly productive despite lacking the gaudy stats – and commensurate price tag – of higher profile stars.
According to Beane, “We can’t do things the way everyone else does, because of our payroll. We had to create our own niche and stay disciplined about staying in it.”
The strategy paid off as Beane consistently led the A’s to the playoffs. While Beane was ridiculed for his approach at the time, today sabermetrics is mainstream. One of the most successful and sought after executives in baseball, sabermetrician Theo Epstein, became general manager of the Boston Red Sox at 28 years old, won two World Series championships, and is now leading the resurgent Chicago Cubs.
The Wright Brothers
Outmanned and out-financed, and faced with the very real possibility that they would die in pursuit of their dream, Wilbur and Orville Wright decided to proceed nonetheless and create the first airplane.
In the early 1900’s conventional wisdom held that American astronomer Samuel Langley would lead the breakthrough in manned and powered flight. The U.S. government invested $70,000 in Langley’s efforts. The Wright Brothers were but a sideshow, only able to invest $1,000 of their own money into their venture. The “smart” money was on Langley. The Wright brothers soared nonetheless. The rest is history.
It’s conventional wisdom that the modern day assembly line is the fastest and cheapest way to manufacture goods. But it was a radical idea when proposed by Henry Ford over 100 years ago. At the time, automobiles were considered a luxury item, and were hand-crafted piece by piece for wealthy patrons. The idea of producing the Model T on a large scale at an affordable price point for the masses was considered crazy.
Ford pushed forward, nonetheless, creating one of the most iconic cars, companies and industrial breakthroughs in history. John D. Rockefeller called Ford’s assembly process “the industrial miracle of the age.”
Waiting an hour or more for a pizza was standard, it was conventional wisdom – at least until Tom Monaghan and Domino’s Pizza came along.
This small, upstart Ann Arbor-based pizza maker upended the industry with its 30-minute delivery guarantee. Using fast cooking ovens and other efficient processes that others in the industry had not even considered, Domino’s quickly became dominant in the market.
Food and Nutrition
Is it just me, or is the conventional wisdom concerning food and nutrition constantly changing?
One day coffee is bad for you, the next it’s good.
Remember the days when everyone thought that eggs were bad for you? Now eggs (yes, the yolks too – especially the yolks) are considered a “superfood.”
After decades of demonization, researchers have found that foods that are high in saturated fats – such as butter, whole milk and red meat – should be enjoyed in moderation, not avoided altogether.
In fact, low-fat foods, most of which are highly processed and full of sweeteners, are among the most harmful for you.
It turns out that many of us need more salt in our diets, not less.
And about those eight glasses of water per day – there’s no science behind that directive either.
Of course, when it comes to food and nutrition, what’s conventional wisdom today may not be tomorrow. And I fully acknowledge that for every study or article I cite, there is another that states the exact opposite. Which kind of proves my broader point: The only conventional wisdom that should be relied upon is that none of it is, in fact, very reliable.
In many ways conventional wisdom is like an ideology, the most successful of which grow by making themselves invisible, while at the same making their constructs about the world seem common-sensical.
Be on the lookout for prefatory statements that signal a statement of conventional wisdom, such as “it goes without saying.” Beware the use of strawmen – such as “they say” – used to make a point of conventional wisdom.
Question assumptions. Think differently and critically. Challenge the status quo. Ask, “Does this make sense?”. If it doesn’t, consider doing the opposite. That’s how breakthroughs happen.