By now, we all know what it takes to become successful: as Malcolm Gladwell revealed in Outliers: The Story of Success, with a steady diet of 10,000 hours’ practice, we can become experts in our field. And yet, examples abound of novices who dive in and thrash the competition. What did Reed Hastings know about video rentals before starting Netflix? Very little, just as Jeff Bezos was inexperienced in book sales before he launched Amazon. How did they evade this iron-clad law?
In The Click Moment: Seizing Opportunity in an Unpredictable World, Frans Johansson offers an explanation. The 10,000 hour rule works well, he says, only in environments in which “the rules don’t change and you can figure out what you need to do and do it better than anyone else.” If you want to become a classical musician, a tennis star, or a chess Grand Master, starting early and getting in your hours is essential. But most fields aren’t like that. Instead, he says, “many of us don’t know what we need to do,” particularly in fast-changing industries like technology – or fields that are impacted by it. “Sometimes when the rules change, the unexpected can become our friend,” allowing newcomers with insight (like Hastings or Bezos) to succeed where others have not. “That’s why we have to invite the unexpected, rather than keeping it at bay.”
In general, says Johansson, the business world thinks about success in the wrong way – with the mentality that “if I think about it hard enough, it’ll get done.” Strategy and analytics will only take you so far, he says. “The reality of success is that it has far more to do with the unexpected, and with serendipity and chance encounters. There are specific serendipitous moments that’ll take your career or your organization and veer it in one direction, and almost all careers or companies have that moment – the click moment. Maybe they accept that idea with [regards to] romantic love,” he says, but not in business.
Yet making the effort to increase your exposure to serendipity is increasingly mandatory in today’s fast-moving society. “In the 1990s, I could take something happening in Sweden and bring it to the U.S., or vice versa,” says the Scandinavian-born Johansson. “But today it’s much harder to do that; people in the U.S. and Sweden are Facebook friends, and people will know about [new developments]. These connections are speeding things up. You might think, ‘I’ve seen it work here, let’s try it there,’ but 40 other people have that thought.” If everyone is on the same logical path, the only way to stand out, he says, is to “harness unpredictability.” So how do you do it?
To create better ideas, he says, the first step is creating more ideas. “People who change the world try to execute far more ideas,” he says. “Picasso ended up with 50,000 paintings, and that relates to unpredictability – if you could foresee what would be important, you wouldn’t waste time with things people didn’t think were worthwhile.”
Another key driver of innovation is having a broad range of perspectives at the table. “Diverse teams create far more ideas, an exponential increase,” he says. “If you can make a unique connection, that can lead to 30 more ideas right away. Better ideas come from further apart.” Indeed, he says, “Diversity drives innovation, and if you’re better at diversity, you have an edge.”
In your own life, says Johansson, you should ask yourself: “Are the people you work with always the logical choice?” If so, you might be in an inadvertent rut. Even if you think you don’t know a diverse array of people, Johansson says “we’re always encountering people who are different from us,” whether it’s people on airplanes or extended relatives with vastly different vocations. Too often, he says, we shut down those encounters prematurely. “You’re often trying to figure out what the end goal in the conversation is – and you ignore [the connection] if you’re not sure of the end goal.” But that can be a costly mistake. “If everything is planned in your day, by definition, that’s preventing something unplanned from happening.”
Finally, he says, we have to be willing to fail. After all, most new ideas don’t work, and that’s OK, as long as you’ve limited your risk with “little bets.” Notes Johansson, “With Angry Birds, there were 51 [less successful] games before it. Many times, you do things where you can’t fail. People say, ‘I’ll do research.’ But how can you fail at that? It’s important to put yourself out there.”
Where do you get your best ideas? Do you believe you can increase the amount of serendipity in your life – and if so, how do you do it?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on July 15, 2013.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.