I was riding my bike over Paris Mountain today, when a motorist came up behind me. There were two of us on the road, so we got into single-file to let the guy pass us, but I could tell that he was a bit nervous about passing two cyclists on the now steep and curvy road. Fair enough. Ever the considerate one, I decided to take one of us out of the passing equation, and took advantage of a fast curve to pass my riding buddy and speed on ahead. What followed was a very fun and fairly fast solo descent. As I expected, the car followed. Before every turn, I glanced over my shoulder to see if the driver was able to keep up, and for a minute or two, I spotted him coming out of the previous turn just as I was going into the next one. After a few very fast turns, I completely lost sight of him and focused on keeping the rubber on the road.
I reached the bottom of the mountain and pulled over to wait for my slower, more cautious friend. Less than a minute later, the car appeared, and I watched it slow down about fifty feet from where I was. The driver rolled down his window and started to lean out. My first thought was here we go: This guy is going to yell at me for riding like a maniac, or getting in his way, or wearing too much lycra or whatever.
But he didn’t.
He gave me a very enthusiastic thumbs-up – the kind that shakes up and down – and with a very wide grin, yelled “Wow! That was cool!” … and drove off.
Maybe he was just excited that for once, a cyclist made a point not to get in his way. Maybe he had never seen a cyclist carve his way down a mountain road the way skiers shred their way down snow-covered slopes or surfers carve they way across big waves. Maybe chasing me down the mountain a little faster than he should have was just fun. Or maybe he just enjoyed being in the moment for a few minutes.
Maybe it was a little of everything.
As a cyclist, it was nice to not be a nuisance to a motorist, for once. As a human being, however, the exchange reached down a little deeper. It touched on something that I think connects us all.
I guess there’s something viscerally appealing about going a little too fast. About breaking new ground. About bending the rules. About committing to an insanely steep slope or a really big wave, or monster air. There is something innately liberating and energizing about not playing it safe. About facing your fears. About coming out the other side of the experience with a huge grin on your face and your heart beating in your ears. You find yourself taking slow, powerfully confident breaths. You may still be moving, but your soul is quiet and still. Your mind washes as clear and deep as a Spanish summer sky.
Chasing this kind of moment isn’t for everybody. That’s why most people you know aren’t surfing big waves, or getting dropped off by helicopter on mountaintops, or tackling class V rapids in tiny little 28lb boats.
That’s also why most people you work with aren’t developing the next killer computer ap, or devising the next brilliant business model, or designing the next “it”product.
Some of us are wired differently.
Many people in the business world today – and especially on the marketing and creative end of things – like to talk about “re-writing the rules” and “breaking new ground” and “being rebels.”
Unfortunately, most if it is just that: talk.
In the end, most of us end up toning down our designs. Our ideas. Our business plans.
Why? Probably fear, mostly.
Fear that we might offend. Fear that our work will turn people off. Fear that we’ll lose market share or clients or prestige. Fear that we’ll push the cork just a little too far, a little too soon.
Fear that the client will walk away.
Fear should be the thing that drives you to train harder, fight smarter, race faster. Fear should be our motivation to excel and break new ground. To seek every possible advantage. Fear should make us bold. Fear should push us to the front of the pack, where the cheetahs or coyotes or wolves can’t get to us.
Fear should not paralyze us. Ever. Ever. Ever.
Playing it safe is not an option. It isn’t what we got into this business for. It isn’t why clients and customers came to us in the first place. Playing it safe isn’t what made Elvis the King, or Madonna a pop icon, or iPod a huge commercial success. Playing it safe isn’t what crushed Hitler’s war machine in 1944. It isn’t what broke world records. It isn’t what put men on the moon. It isn’t what cured polio. It isn’t what made anyone fall in love with you.
Whenever I see boring products on a shelf or boring advertising in a magazine, or boring copy, or a boring political platform, I can’t help but roll my eyes and ask why. Seriously. Why? Why bother? Why did someone waste time on this? Why did anyone spend money on this? Why would anyone think that being indistinguishable from anyone else (or just being… unremarkable, period) is even in the realm of good ideas?
Why play it safe? Is it smart to play it safe in love? In war? In politics? In design? In art? In business? In sports? In religion and philosophy? In literature? In our thinking? In our cooking?
Fear is a natural response. Fear is healthy. Fear is what makes us run faster, think better, fight harder, search deeper. Fear should drive innovation. Fear should drive us forward.
Fear should never turn us into cowards.
Everyone loves to talk about being bold and innovative. Everyone wants to puff out their chest and speak of the future as if it were something easily grabbed by the throat and pounded into rightful submission.
Unfortunately, most people (and companies) don’t have the oysters to actually go beyond the yapping phase. (If they did, I wouldn’t be so damn excited every time I run into a company or creative agency that actually puts its money where its mouth is.)
The good news is that I am slowly building a network of awesome, super talented, smart, visionary business people, thinkers, artists and entrepreneurs. They’re out there. I meet or discover new ones almost every day, and that’s pretty damn cool.
The bad news is that even if that very exclusive club grows to be several hundred strong, even several thousand, it will still only be a drop in the proverbial bucket.
The 1% of the 1% of the 1%.
Talk about a minority.
Controversy isn’t the worst thing that could happen to a company. In many ways, it is the very thing a company might need to define itself as a brand. Standing for something. Style. Integrity. Design. User-friendliness. Uncompromising quality. Something.
We owe it to all the kids who graduate from college and find themselves having to work for thankless companies that will waste their talent and rob us of their creativity for years and years and years.
We owe it to ourselves to be the rebels we once hoped we would be. The leaders. The groundbreaking pioneers. The people kids could look up to and get excited about emulating.
I am not saying that you should expect to singlehandedly change the world. (I’m not saying you can’t either.) I’m just saying that you shouldn’t be afraid to try.
And that when you do try, there will be hundreds – no, thousands – of us cheering for you.
And yeah, if the first few attempts don’t work, we’ll be there to help you dust yoursef off until your perseverance pays off. It doesn’t matter if you’re a junior-level media buyer or a product manager or a sales management trainee.
Don’t be a chump. Don’t be a yes man. Don’t get suckered into creating average work or falling in line behind all of the other drones who had your job before you came along.
Playing it safe sucks. It always did.
My best work has always been the result of a decision not to play it safe.
The most memorable moments of my life have come from the exact same place. 😉
Don’t just talk about rewriting the rules. Do it.