Just be prepared to get your belly button pierced…

No one should take themselves so seriously
With many years ahead to fall in line
Why would you wish that on me?
I never want to act my age
What’s my age again?
What’s my age again?
   —Blink 182, “What’s my age again?”

Heck, everyone’s saying we must innovate to stay a competitive nation. So the government is throwing money at high-tech businesses. But that only takes care of funding, and frankly, money’s easy to come by if you have a good idea. Once we have the money, we businesses have to use the money to Do New Things.

The hard part is finding the people. We need people who can push the boundaries. Who can go beyond the ordinary. Who can think new thoughts. A lot of those thoughts will be wrong and won’t work. But hopefully, enough will work so we can keep pushing forward. There’s a reason high-tech growth seems to be pushed by 20-somethings—they don’t know what’s impossible, and they haven’t yet been beaten back into conformist thinking.

A Fable that Starts True: Extraordinary People Producing Ordinary Results

A young man—college student—with a goatee and headphones sat across from me on the subway. Hunched over a book, he was wearing cargo pants, a T-shirt, several bracelets, and many necklaces. The knapsack in his lap proclaimed (in hand-written magic marker), “Life is a verb, not a noun.” A button on the knapsack: “Reading is Sexy.”

I looked around. Everyone else was wearing sensible clothes. Khakis. Button-down shirts. Gap shorts. Me? Khaki shorts and a generic polo shirt. Clothes, happily devoid of personality. The young man had more personality in his little finger than the rest of us had together. Pondering, I wondered if he would ever end up as Boring as the rest of us(1).

Step-by-step, he’s molded into Everyman

It would begin on the first day at work. “Wearing a goatee isn’t really appropriate for this office,” he would be told with a smile by the kindly secretary who wants to see him succeed. The next day, he’s cleanshaven. Bracelets, she informs him, aren’t really right for work. And why not leave the necklaces at home, too.

The next day, he shows up, feeling a bit less like himself, feeling like he’s holding back. But, eager to do a good job, he cuts his hair. He shoves the backpack under his desk and buys a smart, leather folio. He shows up “dressed for work.” A colleague sees his old knapsack under his desk, smiles condescendingly, and offers helpful advice, “As an expert at copy-writing I can assure you that technically, ‘life’ is a noun. The verb form would be ‘live.'”

A few weeks later, he finds his childhood hero is speaking in a nearby town. He wants to take a day off and go. “Sorry, kid. You haven’t accrued enough vacation time, yet.” He sighs, understandingly … and in that moment, his Life really does begin to transform from a verb into a noun.

Next comes his yearly review. His best idea saved the company a cool million, but some of his ideas are a bit … out there. We helpfully give him the Tried-and-True industry handbooks, so he can tone down the wacko ideas. He learns quickly what is and isn’t possible. And since he did a good job, we give a whopping 5% raise. (That is $1,750 given his $35K salary. We’re glad he’s not a $200K person; we’d be shelling out ten grand. He doesn’t notice that his raise amount has far more to do with his age than with the value of his idea. We don’t notice, either.)

Within a couple of years, our young friend fits right in. He wears the right clothes. He cancels his dinner dates for Oh-so-important client meetings. He knows the conventional wisdom, and can self-censor his wacko ideas in the bud. He spends his time working, attending industry conventions, and absorbing the Status Quo. He’s a success. And he’s quite unlikely to be an agent of innovation, creativity, or newness. Mission accomplished!

Conformity is our boon and our curse

The problem is conformity. We love it. We like people who look like us, who dress like us, who care about the same things, who live similar lives. It’s hard-wired, you know. Given two identical college applications with different candidate names and pictures, we prefer the one who looks and sounds like us. And never mind the Internet “revolution.” We’ve now made it possible to read only news that agrees with our existing beliefs, communicate mostly with people we know will agree, and read commentary that comes straight from our comfort zone.

Conformity has its good side, of course. It’s very easy to manage. You only need to learn one way of dealing with people, and, well, that’s that. You can pretend everyone’s the same, and since we all agree dress, emotion, purpose, and rewards in the workplace are pretty much standard, we’ll play along enough for us all to happily work together…limiting ourselves to the lowest common denominator of our uniqueness.

But we innovate, create, and find new ideas come people interact who think differently. People nudge each other outside their comfort zones, and if the environment is right, they can end up breaking existing molds and creating Great New Things. But innovation means helping people cultivate their differences and then bringing them together in ways that spark creativity.

When we all wear the same work uniform, we send the message: differences in expression aren’t allowed here. When we all work in identical cubicles, we send the message: individuality is limited to two 8×10″ pictures above your keyboard tray. When our idea of flex-time is letting someone come in at 8:15 instead of 8, we send the message: no matter what your own rhythms, they matter less than having your body here.

And guess what’s the worst of all? Hiring for “fit.” You know what happens when you hire only people you feel comfortable with? You get yet another carbon copy of the Standard Employee you already have way too many of. The candidate who makes you feel a little uncomfortable, who thinks a bit off-the-wall, will bring you genius, if you treat them right.

So bring some extraordinary results into being by bringing together ordinary people, just not your definition of ordinary. Practice stepping outside your comfort zone. Wear some clothes that you’d never normally wear. Don’t be my friend who, at age 60, confided that the only thing he can wear comfortably is a suit and tie (even at home). Go someplace new. Try a new cuisine. Stretch yourself. Find out what happens. Learn from it. Meet some people outside your normal sphere. Go to Burning Man.

But why stop there? Instead of looking oddly at the young man in your office who pierced his nose, go get something pierced yourself. Your belly button is a good choice; you can always tuck in your shirt when you want to be discrete. But above all, remember that conforming to the norm leads you nowhere but the norm. It makes for boring business and a boring life. If you’re going to dream big dreams, matter to the people around you, and create breakthroughs whereever you go, start by piercing your belly button. Khakis and a polo shirt in a gray cubicle just aren’t going to take you anywhere extraordinary.

(1) In a twist of fate, I ended up in line next to this young man several months later. His name is Phil. I’m giving him a copy of this article in the hopes that it will make a difference… back

Innovate, Compete, Win: pierce your belly button

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