How often do you think differently?

Today is October 6 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you think differently?” Successful people who have navigated the chaos learned at some point in their life that they needed to develop a habit of thinking differently. Henry Ford, Sam Zell, Dick Fosbury and Émile Allais navigated the chaos by being unconventional and thinking differently.

Highly creative people who think differently have figured out that failure is a learning experience and, as such, is a necessary and expected part of future success. So, while roughly one-third of anyone’s innovation capacity comes from their genetic endowment, two-thirds of it is still driven by the environment.

As Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen concluded, from their study of over 5,000 entrepreneurs and executives, almost anyone who consistently makes the effort to think different can do so. Individuals labeled as innovators of new businesses, products, and processes spend almost 50 percent more time trying to think different compared to non-innovators. But it is important to remember that the habit of thinking differently is available to anyone willing to put in the effort, time, and dedication required to change their behavior. As such, thinking differently is hard work.

In April, 1928, a journal called “The Forum” published an interview with Henry Ford who commented on the apparent increase in the complexity and rapidity of life. Ford was skeptical about whether there had been a commensurate increase in thought. According to Ford “But there is a question in my mind whether, with all this speeding up of our everyday activities, there is any more real thinking. Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is the probable reason why so few engage in it.”

Businessman Sam Zell understood the value of unconventional thinking. Zell is an American businessman, with investments in commercial real estate, energy, and other industries. Zell is the founder and chairman of Equity International, a private investment firm focused on building real estate-related businesses in emerging markets. In addition, Zell maintains substantial interests in, and is the Chairman of, several public companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange and is chairman of Equity Group Investments (EGI), the private investment firm he founded in 1969. According to Zell:

“There were many times in my life when I would have liked to follow the herd. Instead, I have always followed my gut -- and sometimes it's been really lonely. In 1991, I was standing in the lobby of a bank, and they had agreed to sell me an office building at 50 cents on the dollar. I kept looking over my shoulder and wondering why there were not all sorts of people waiting in line behind me. After all, this was an incredible opportunity. Maybe I was wrong? But I thought it through again and decided that I knew what I was doing, so I kept going. By 1994 all those people were there in line, but the bulk of the opportunity had passed. When you look at The Forbes 400 list and take off everybody who inherited money, what's left are people who went right when everyone else went left. Conventional wisdom leads to mediocrity.”

Zell choose to go against conventional wisdom as did Dick Fosbury. Athletes competing in track and field jump over a horizontal bar for an event called the high jump. In the 19th century athletes jumped over the bar using a straight-on approach or a scissoring of the legs technique as the jumper landed in sawdust landing pits. With advancements in the landing pads jumpers started to implement the Western roll technique where the inner leg was used for the take-off while the outer leg was thrust up to lead the body sideways over the bar.

While athletes worked on improving their performance, Portland, Oregon native Dick Fosbury eventually discovered a new technique during the 1960s that would revolutionize the event. In high school, despite the dire warnings of every coach who watched him, he invented the 'Fosbury Flop' and reached six fee seven inches. At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, in front of 80,000 spectators, the 21-year old Fosbury cleared a record breaking 7 feet 4 1/4 inches.

After applying the Western roll technique for the early part of his career, Fosbury took advantage of the raised softer landing areas and leveraged such developments to think differently. As he approached the bar, he directed himself over head and shoulders first, sliding over on his back and landing in a fashion which would likely have broken his neck in the old, sawdust landing pits. During Fosbury’s early days of practicing his new technique at the University of Oregon people said that his approach was unnecessary. The usual way of jumping over the bar was good enough. His approach went against the best practices of high jumping. Luckily Fosbury ignored those early critics and went on to establish a new way of thinking and jumping. Author Walter Isaacson noted “Smart people are a dime a dozen. What matters is the ability to think different... to think out of the box.”

Another athlete that navigated the chaos by creating an unconventional approach to their sport is skier Émile Allais. Allais was a daring champion French skier who helped shape his sport by developing and popularizing a new style of skiing in the 1930s with skis parallel to each other rather than angled inward in a V shape. The French Skiing Federation adopted that as its official style. Skiers all over the world started to use the parallel method of skiing. Simply by changing the position of his legs and skis, Allais helped promote a more smooth, efficient, and fun form of skiing. Jean-Claude Killy, the French skier who dominated the sport in the late 1960s, credited Allais for teaching him to take risks and hailed Allais as “the father of modern skiing.”

Allais often challenged the status quo and did a somersault in an event and landed on his skis without losing time. The New York Times once described him as “a congenital candidate for the suicide club” and marveled at how he often seemed out of control before miraculously recovering. He impressed competitors so much that a German skier once called Allais “the greatest all-around skier the world has ever known.”

Henry Ford, Sam Zell, Dick Fosbury and Émile Allais all navigated the chaos by thinking differently and using an unconventional approach.

How often do you think differently?