Is visionary just another word for masochist?

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In Seth Godin’s recent post on the forces of mediocrity, he wrote,

Remarkable visions and genuine insight are always met with resistance. And when you start to make progress, your efforts are met with even more resistance. Products, services, career paths… whatever it is, the forces for mediocrity will align to stop you, forgiving no errors and never backing down until it’s over.

Seth is onto something powerful (duh, isn’t he always).

No doubt, those with the most innovative, earth-shattering ideas, the mavericks of the world, often endure serious bashing, before they are anointed visionaries. Where Seth and I differ, though, is that I don’t believe it’s mediocrity that underlies the resistance to people pushing innovation.

The problem is fear and entrenchment…

Marketing legend, Gary Halbert, once said Maslow got is wrong when, in his hierarchy of needs, he identified survival as the fundamental need motivating behavior. Instead, Halbert argued…

The most basic human need is to not have to step outside your comfort zone.

People will literally kick, scream and fight to the death before making changes or taking actions that force them outside the little box that so often not only defines, but confines their lives. Even when the net result will clearly leave them in a better place.

But, then, we add to this near-genetic aversion to change what award-winning systems-philosopher and author of Science And The Akashic Field, Ervin Laszlo, described as…

The gargantuan burden of overthrowing the status-quo…

Laszlo was speaking about the extraordinary difficulty of getting people to adopt new paradigms in sceince, but the analogy applies pretty universally.

It starts with an accepted, tested, proven way of doing things. A rule capable of handling nearly everything thrown at it. Over time, though, the more it’s tested, the more novel situations arise that the rule can’t really deal with very well.

At first, these situations are just written off as anomalies, outliers.

But, as more and more mount, people begin to question whether the original rule is really as good as it first seemed. The natural course would be try to find a new rule that can handle not only the original circumstances that gave rise to it, but also the mounting gaggle of nagging outliers and anomalies. The challenge is, by then, the original rule is no longer just the rule…

It has become conventional wisdom, beyond reproach…gospel!

By the time a bigger, better rule gains even the slightest momentum, the status-quo is often so entrenched that billions have been spent building institutions, frameworks all sorts of fancy trappings on the assumption that they are the irrefutable truth.

And, more importantly, widespread adoption of the old rule has very likely led its creators into positions of great respect and prestige.

Adopting a new rule, then, would require some level of admission by the dudes who created the prior rule that they weren’t quite right. And, it would also require an inevitable retrenching of all that’s been established to support that original rule. In essence…

Establishing a new paradigm means knocking off the creators of the old one…

So, there is massive motivation by the incumbents and those who’ve bought into the incumbents’ theory to crush any sort of new-wisdom capable of handling what they could not.

Anything less than an outright assault on the maverick bearers of the new rule would risk a potentially inconsolable loss of money and prestige by those now in power. At least that’s how it’s seen.

Which means that, just as Seth said, anyone arriving at the party with new knowledge, expecting a parade of cash and glory, is living on Mars.

New wisdom rarely gains acceptance without an extended period of near-masochistic suffering.

So, what’s the moral of this story?

If you come to the party with a gift cooler than the one brought by the old dude in the corner who everyone just happens to bow before as they pass, be prepared with some really good one-liners about his mama. Because, he’s gonna spend a lot of time and effort trying to paint you as an idiot in an attempt to make your gift look just plain stupid.

For those who know this in advance, though, and are willing to offer genuine innovation, take on the burden of change and hold on long enough for increasing numbers of people to awaken to your message…

The world will become yours!

So, I am curious, what do you think about this? How powerful do you think the need to avoid change really is?

Have you ever been on the maverick side of this equation?

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13 responses

13 responses to “Is visionary just another word for masochist?”

  1. This reminds me of this story I cam across last year from ThinkerToys by Michael Michalko.

    Imagine a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage there is a banana on a string. Before long a monkey walks over and reaches for the banana. As soon as he touches the banana, all the monkeys are sprayed with cold water. After a while another monkey makes an attempt to grab the banana – with the same result. All the monkeys are instantly sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to reach for the banana, the other monkeys will try to stop him.

    Now forget the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and obviously goes over and starts to grab it. But to his surprise, all of the other monkeys attack him to prevent him from touching the banana.

    Next, remove another of the original monkeys and replace it with a new one. Now all of the monkeys currently in the cage stop the new one from getting to the banana. Replace the third, fourth and fifth monkeys with new ones Each one becomes a willing opponent to allowing anyone to touch that banana.

    Now, none of the monkeys in the cage at this point were every sprayed with cold water. But they continue to prevent each other from grabbing that banana – the one food that they should all naturally love. None of these monkeys ever approaches the banana again. They have no idea why it’s off limits – But that’s just the way things have always been done around here.

    It’s past time to begin breaking free! Thanks for you thoughts Jonathan.

  2. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Corey – I love that story! It’s amazing how often we take on behaviors and refuse change without really understanding what the genesis of the original behavior was.

  3. “Have you ever been on the maverick side of this equation?”

    Yes, but it was weird because it regarded something I assumed everyone agreed on – marriage.

    Growing up, in middle and high school, everyone I knew was pro-marriage. You didn’t obsess about it but, yeah, sure, you wanted to get married.

    When I hit my 20’s, I started running into a TON of people who were anti-marriage. One of the first conversations I had with my husband was about why marriage was still relevant. He believed that marriage was a government institution, blah blah blah.

    Obviously I won that argument.

    Still, it was very strange to be the ONLY person I knew (aside from my old friends) that ‘believed’ in marriage.

  4. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Hayden – ahhhh, so YOU’RE the marriage maverick! 😉 Hey, count me in the married with kid camp. It’s and interesting point, though, when you weren’t even aware that your ideas had a maverick element to them until you began to test them. Thanks for the insight!

  5. Bob Collier says:

    Great article. As it happens, I’m on the maverick side of the equation right now.

    Watch out for my book (if I ever get it written) ‘How the Digital Revolution is Making School the New Alternative Education’. 🙂

  6. All of these ideas are right. Call it forces of mediocrity, fear of change, fear of upsetting the status quo and the difficulty of toppling those who built their lives and fortunes on the old paradigm.

    Most powerful is Corey’s story about the way we behave without even knowing why. This is exactly what happens in racism, especially in children. They don’t know exactly why they are to hate a certain group but their parents raise them with that behavior and they just follow along.

    I seem to have been a maverick most of my life since I choose to do things I enjoy even if I am the only African American in the group. I ignore the caution of those seeking to only affiliate with their own race. When those “monkeys” caution me not to reach for the banana I thank them for their concern, and do what I want anyway.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not an adrenaline junky seeking life-threatening adventures. I just enjoy Neil Simon plays, Vivaldi, among many other sane and ordinary things.

    It’s interesting to watch what happens when I walk into a group, a play audience, a church all of whom claim to welcome people of races and creed. When I’m the only one of my race (sometimes along with being the only woman)there is a decided shift in the atmosphere.

    Some people think racism is no longer a problem in our culture. Others think I’m overly sensitive.

    But it’s there, subtle and painful. I’ve been asked many dumb questions over the years: “Where did you learn Handel’s Messiah?” “How did you get a house THIS nice?” “Our products start at $500 ma’m.”

    And regarding my Ph.D. I often get disbelief and then grilling about where I went to school,etc. I stop these inquiring minds cold with “Is this an interview? I don’t remember applying for a job with you.”

    Among folks in my own race I’m seen as a maverick too for venturing into these “chilly” environments. When all along the truth is. . .

    I just want to enjoy a play, a concert, traveling to other countries. I just enjoy my life.

  7. […] there’s Jonathan Field’s post Is Visionary Just Another Word for Masochistic? I don’t know about you, but sometimes being out here on the Leading Edge of Thought feels […]

  8. Lewis says:

    I am part of a team that is implementing a great deal of change into a company. I think you got it right in part that change can knock the creators off the old paradigm off their mountain and they will attack when the threat seems like it could actually succeed. However, I don’t think it has to be that way. I think it is possible to help them through the change in a way that plays to their strengths, and I also think that companies\organizations are not always willing to take the time and money to do that. I also think trying to overlay change over the current pardigm can get you in trouble. That is why I like Otto Scharmer’s Theory U. It approaches change from a blank slate and practical design perspective providing what is need as you go rather than working it all out on the front end through some distant analytical thinking and modeling.

  9. Dana says:

    Weelll… I think both Maslow and Halbert are right. I think the fear of change comes from the drive for survival. The reason I think so is that because culture has replaced so much of our instinct, it must serve many of the same roles as instinct, including telling us how to survive. What are the aspects of ourselves we are most resistant to changing, nine times out of ten? Those connected with how we were raised and what our parents and extended social network taught us–our culture, in other words.

    Although culture has largely replaced instinct, the drive to adhere to it at all costs is based in instinct, I think.

    This is not to say that we’re always right in clinging to what we have been taught, only that there is a quite valid biological drive in that direction. Culture is supposed to serve us in a positive way, after all, not drive us to self-destruction. Unfortunately, all too often these days it does the latter.

    So this is where mavericks come in. 🙂 I think there are always a few people around who for whatever reason, innate genetic drive or something cultural, feel a need to question and tinker with everything they see. I think it’s their job to nudge the general population in a different direction in response to environmental changes. I think that’s how we’ve managed to survive for as long as we have, and how we have wound up with so many different cultures worldwide.

    Mavericks have something to teach the rest of us about adaptation to change. Meanwhile I think it would be more useful to adapt a hacker’s mindset to social problems such as resistance to positive change, rather than condemning those who resist change as being somehow morally weak. Their morals are perfectly strong, they just sometimes lead them in the wrong direction. Kind of like people who insist on continuing to live in tents on the ground even though their land is becoming flooded–they’re meeting the perfectly legitimate human need for shelter, but because of that biological drive to follow their culture they aren’t taking into account that the water table is rising or the river is flooding.

    Sorry for the ramble, hope I make sense.

  10. Tim Brownson says:

    An excellent post but I do have one part that I am struggling with. Personally I think Maslow got it absoltuely right with survival. Yes under normal circumstance people do hate to change and fight it with all their might and I see this on a daily basis with clients.

    In my experience however, that shifts with most people when they KNOW that they need to change or die. Of course there will always be exceptions, but seeing my mom pass away two weeks ago I know that she fought harder to stay with us than she had fought at anything else in her life.

    I think the crucial part is whether people know that whatever it is they need to change equates to survival. Usually they don’t. They can quit smoking next week, start exercizing next month, lose weight after Christmas etc and they seldom see these things as being critical to do now.

    Corey thanks for that great story by the way, I love it!

  11. Shama Hyder says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    I think people are scared to change but will do it for 2 major reasons.

    1) They risk losing something. The risk of losing something is much greater than the benefit of gaining. (Influence-Science and Practice by Cialdini).

    2) The current way of doing things becomes more painful than the thought of changing. To use the monkey example, the monkeys get SO hungry that they overcome the risk of the water to reach for the banana.

  12. Nicole says:

    It’s also human nature to adapt to whatever circumstances we’re put in. Be it jail or a new job.

    So with that…

    I live by the ‘just do it’ philosophy. It’s never as bad as you think and once you dive into it, it’s much better then you imagine.
    The more you know about the change your going to make, the less fear that will come with it. Educate yourself about human psychology, the risk your taking – whatever you need. Then just do it.

    It’s worth it.

  13. Hi Jonathan, Hi Shama,

    I do not think people hate change because they are scared (might be a smaller factor), but mainly because they would need to accept that their past behaviour, values or concept of the world was wrong or not good enough (if not, why would you need to change then anyway?).
    People have a desire for consistency in their own behaviour, as this comforts them that their past decisions have been right.
    Change destroys this illusion, And people hate it…