Question Conventional Wisdom

June 22, 2010

One of the biggest innovation blockers comes in the form of conventional wisdom. That’s why I always try to question generally accepted ideas or explanations. While not all commonly held beliefs are wrong… all should be questioned. Just because an authority makes a statement or the general public accepts a belief, it doesn’t make it true. It just makes it accepted… at least for the moment. In 1773 King George II said the American colonies had little stomach for revolution. Oftentimes conventional wisdom is simply wrong. The evidence to support this claim seems endless; consider these examples:

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.” ~Charles H. Duell, an official at the US patent office, 1899

“X-rays will prove to be a hoax.” ~Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society, 1883

“Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.” ~Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” ~Thomas J. Watson, Chairman of the Board of IBM, 1943

“With over 50 foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn’t likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S. market.” ~Business Week, 1958

“The ordinary ‘horseless carriage’ is at present a luxury for the wealthy; and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle.” ~Literary Digest, 1899

“There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.” ~Albert Einstein, 1932

“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” ~Western Union internal memo, 1876

“Fooling around with alternating current is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever.” ~Thomas Edison, American inventor, 1889

“Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.” ~Dr. Dionysys Larder, professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy, 1793-1859

Today these statements seem preposterous. How could experts be so wrong? Did the general public really accept this thinking? Yes. Just like many people do today.

While conventional wisdom is sometimes hard to spot, its defenders often expose it by trying to discredit and suppress people who threaten it… like those with contrary views, new information or alternative answers. When defenders have little evidence or logic to justify their positions, they often attack truth seekers as they represent the greatest threat. In addition, defenders sometimes resort to manipulation, clichés and propaganda to build support for their beliefs. For example, some politicians and their followers chant “Drill Baby Drill” to reinforce the conventional wisdom regarding our national security, independence and need for more oil. While simple repetition proves nothing, it does rally the troops and reinforces conventional wisdom. The ongoing oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has many Americans reconsidering this chant and the conventional wisdom it proclaims regarding the need for more oil.

Whether it’s energy, healthcare, business or an interpersonal struggle you’re going through… it’s important to remain cognizant and not simply default to the quick, simple and convenient answers conventional wisdom offers. While eliminating independent critical thinking may be tempting… it’s rarely a good solution. At some point, conventional wisdom is always confronted by reality. If it aligns well enough, it stays; if it doesn’t, it’s replaced by new thinking. This cycle has been in place since the beginning of recorded history. It is maintained by those who blindly follow conventional wisdom, by those who defend it, by those who question it… and by those who change it and create new realities. Where do you fall within this cycle?

Relax, Breathe… Create.

October 13, 2009

It seems when I least expect it, my best ideas appear. Can you relate? Often while on a walk, taking a shower or relaxing in some way… bang! A great idea seems to magically appear. On the flip side, when I’m really stressed out and in need of a breakthrough solution, rarely does anything truly creative surface. If you’re like me, that’s when you return to the old idea well and crank up a predictable solution. It might be an interesting solution, but rarely original. It’s typically a modification of one of those good ideas that “worked” once (or twice…) before.

According to Nuno Sousa at the University of Minho in Portugal, there’s a good reason for why this happens. Sousa found when lab rats are stressed out; their responses to familiar routines become very repetitive. For example, rather than trying new maze paths that lead to food, chronically stressed rats repeatedly ran down the same dead-end paths. Read more

Write It Down!

October 3, 2009

So Many Journals

According to what I’ve read and experienced, people who write down their goals have a greater chance of reaching them. I believe the same holds true for people who write down their creative thoughts and ideas. The chance of discovering creative solutions that work successfully increases significantly.

Creative ideas are fleeting gifts. The question isn’t whether you have them (everyone does), but whether you take these gifts seriously and record them. Since we never know where or when they’ll strike us (walking, sleeping, shaving…), it’s important to be prepared at all times.

A few months back, while taking a shower, I was struck by a childhood event that involved a broken plastic baseball bat. It came out of left field (no pun intended) and started connecting to a plethora of today’s so called “problems.” Read more