The power of being different

The power of being different

Burbank, California; December 7, 2001; Joan Marques, MBA, Doctoral Student.



Discontinuity is more a requirement than an exception in the pursuit of a successful life these days. In every field of activity there are numerous examples of the interconnectedness between success and being different, whereby "being different" pertains to applying radical changes to the status quo.


More and more business gurus refer to radicalism as the outstanding - no, the only way - to success. At the personal level, Tom Peters encourages his readers in "The Brand You 50" to do some thorough self-examination in order to find out how they can be different; to discover the fields in which they distinct themselves from others (p. 102). At the business level, Gary Hamel discusses this issue in his book "Leading the Revolution", in which he calls for companies to be "revolution-ready," introducing terms such as "non-linear" and "discontinuous" innovation. Hamel emphasizes on the absolute importance for business organizations to attract visionaries who have the ability to transform businesses into "Gray-haired Revolutionaries." Gray-haired Revolutionaries, then, are "companies that have managed to reinvent themselves and their industry more than once (Hamel, 2000, p. 209)". Others have also discussed the power of radicalism in several pieces of literature. Kaplan (1999) rightfully states, "Substantial growth over the long horizon requires discontinuous innovation - disruptive technologies, radical innovations and discontinuities that permit entire industries and markets to emerge." (p. 16)


Of course one should also realize that not every radical change is necessarily a good one. In fact, what many don't consider is the reality that every seemingly "overnight" success has been preceded by years of trying and failure. There are numerous books out there, written by today's immortally successful people about their broad collection of humiliating slides and slips and their painstaking efforts to get up again, before they reached the point that their star rose to the sky.


Being radical is risky. Risk-averse people will not easily go for significant change. It has, by the way, been examined and proven through the years that human beings are risk-averse by nature, and therefore, also change-averse. It's the same problem that withholds organizations from, for instance, encouraging diversity in the workplace: people tend to hold on to what they know. The unknown is a source of fear. Members of another "culture" (which can be race, ethnicity, generation or anything else that's different) require more time, money, and effort to understand, and the risk for failure in collaborating with them is therefore greater. Of course success, if reached in this setting, will be much greater as well! However, since we all feel best in our "comfort-zone" of familiarity, we have a tendency to stick to that, even if success is mediocre with similar people and established processes.


Another problem with applying discontinuity is the fact that it impinges on established?and therefore convenient?patterns. Imagine the CEO who has led the company to its current level and is now on the edge of retirement. It is likely that he will try to influence the choice of his successor, and thereby will ensure that his style will be continued. He might persist in doing this, even if he was once a radical innovator himself!


So being different is powerful. But what's powerful is not easy. It requires a forceful change of perceptions and habits. It requires bravery. And it requires something that is often perceived by our surroundings as temporary insanity. Many people who dared to do something entirely different in their life have had to break through established personal patterns. Oftentimes they look back at their visionary act as a deed that represents a part of them they were previously unaware of. It is, in hindsight, as much an astonishing experience to them as it is to their environment. That may explain why so many of us--when it comes to drastic changes--are "incidentalists", and why, as Hamel states in his aforementioned book, Silicon Valley is full of the bones of one-time visionaries. After all, it takes a lot of guts to make more than one giant step in your life.


In my own opinion it takes a lot of courage, but helps immensely to:

§         Get used to uncertainty

§         Have no expectations about tomorrow

§         Be in constant awe of everything that reveals itself to you

§         Maintain a sense of naiveté within

§         Detach yourself from your material belongings


It is only when you transcend the fear of losing the status quo that you will be able to advance to other levels without looking back.


Mama Cass Elliot once sung: "Different is hard, different is lonely, different is trouble for you only; different is heartache, different is pain, but I'd rather be different than be the same"... How right!


So be different. Even if it will raise eyebrows. Even if it will make others wonder about you and your choices. Even if it will estrange you from some of the people you value most. Because it feels so good when ultimately you can look back at your life and know-- like Hamel (2000) stated it-- that you managed to leave your fingerprints on your own (and maybe also your organization's) future...





Hamel, G. (2000). Leading the Revolution. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Kaplan, S. M. (1999). Discontinuous innovation and the growth paradox. Strategy & Leadership, 27 (2), 16-21.

Peters, T. (1999). The Brand You 50 (5th ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.