On Having the Courage to Think Different

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Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Apple Think Different Campaign 1997


Writing in the New York Times recently Anna Holmes asks whether “diversity is an end – a box to check off – rather than a starting point from which a more integrated, textured world is brought into being”. The word diversity, Holmes argues has lost its meaning through a combination of overuse, imprecision, inertia and self serving intentions.

Most corporate diversity programmes approach the challenge in the wrong way; rather than setting recruitment targets for “diverse” groups, organisations should consider how they can attract recruits through creating the kind of environment that truly embraces diversity – not just in colour, gender, class or sexual orientation, but in thinking and ideas.

In his book A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink asserts that there is a seismic shift taking place in the advanced world, and that we are moving from an economy and society built on the logical, linear, computer-like capabilities of the information age to an economy and society built on the inventive, empathetic, big-picture capabilities of what’s rising in its place, the conceptual age.

Pink argues that it is “left-brained” capabilities that powered the information age; however, increasingly it will be “right-brained” qualities that will drive personal, organisational and professional success. The two are not mutually exclusive of course; right-directed thinking needs to complement left-directed reasoning, but Pink states there are six essential aptitudes we will need to master:

  1. Not just function but also design: functional products are not sufficient, it’s economically crucial that they are also beautiful, whimsical or emotionally engaging
  2. Not just argument but also story: it is no longer sufficient to marshal an effective argument, the essence or persuasion, communication and self-understanding has become the ability to fashion a compelling narrative.
  3. Not just focus but also symphony: as white-collar work gets routed to Asia, the greatest aptitude in demand today is not analysis, but synthesis – seeing the big picture and being able to combine disparate pieces into a compelling whole
  4. Not just logic but also empathy: in the world of ubiquitous information and advanced analytic tools logic alone won’t do. What will distinguish those that thrive will be their ability to understand what makes their fellow man or woman tick, to forge relationships and to care for others.
  5. Not just seriousness but also play: too much seriousness can be bad for your general well-being and career, we all need to play.
  6. Not just accumulation but also meaning: in a world of material plenty we are liberated to pursue more significant desires such as purpose, transcendence and spiritual fulfilment.

This argument for a diversity of thinking is also well made in John Kay’s book Obliquity. Kay, a pre-imminent economist and Oxford don, argues that goals and objectives cannot be pursued in a linear, direct manner and that an oblique approach leads to better decision making. He provides examples across a whole spectrum from the corporate world (M&S, ICI, Boeing, Merck and Pfizer) to art, personal happiness and football.

Developing models that simplify and systematise fails to recognise that objectives are loose and multi-dimensional due to the subtleties of our interactions with others and our inability to specify completely the problems we face. Whilst Kay makes no reference to gender or right- or left-directed thinking, he supports Pink’s argument that success will not be driven by a wholly rational and logical approach.

It used to be politically incorrect to say that women were more right-brained or empathetic and men more left-brained and systematising, however a strong body of research now exists in this area to support the fact that more males than females have brains that systematise and more females than males have brains that empathise (as evidence, Pink sites the studies done by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Head of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University).

Alexia Parks founded her leadership academy based on more than forty years of research on the science of the female brain. United Nations virtual mentor Parks argues that evolutionary biology has hardwired traits into the female brain – traits such as community building, empathy, multi tasking, diplomacy and negotiation that just so happen to be exactly what’s needed in leadership today to manage the complexities of our volatile, complex, interconnected world. Parks asserts that leading from these natural traits will save the world.

Corporates that see diversity as an end, a box to check, are not creating the future. The future belongs to creators and empathisers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers. Artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big-picture thinkers – these are the people Dan Pink argues, that will reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.

Crazy enough to think you can change the world? Traits required to live courageously. Think different.
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Also published on Medium.

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