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?” In April 1928, “The Forum” journal 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.” British economist John Maynard Keynes echoed similar sentiment when he wrote "The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones." For those who navigate the chaos and practice the art of living well thinking differently, and escaping old ideas, often becomes a habit. Artist Dale Chihuly, businessman Sam Zell, and high-jumper Dick Fosbury each navigated the chaos by thinking differently.


American artist, glass sculptor and entrepreneur Dale Chihuly needed to think differently and escape old ideas. Although disinterested in college at first, Chihuly discovered his love of art when is studied abroad in Florence, Italy and eventually graduated from the University of Washington in 1965 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in interior design. Chihuly began experimenting with glassblowing in 1965, and in 1966 he received a full scholarship to attend the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He studied under Harvey Littleton, who had established the first glass program in the United States. He has been a hit since 1976, when Henry Geldzahler first acquired three Chihuly glass baskets for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Unfortunately, two terrible accidents would force Chihuly to change his career path.


A 1976 traffic accident in England blinded his left eye. Ironically, the very element that he turned into art, and made him famous, also nearly killed him as he flew through a glass windshield on a rainy night in England. Three years later he dislocated his right shoulder in a bodysurfing accident. These two events prohibited Chihuly from holding the pipe involved with glass blowing. Not to be deterred he hired others to do the work. Unable to create the glass art he taught others and learned how to become “more choreographer than dancer, more supervisor than participant, more director than actor."


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.”


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.

  • Chihuly lost sight in one eye and then dislocated his right shoulder making him unable to create art. He found a way to think differently and become ‘more choreographer than dancer’ and taught others how to create art. Have you had to think differently about your approach to doing something you loved in order to stay in the game?

  • Zell noted that the people who succeed are those ‘who went right when everyone else went left.” How often do you go right when everyone else went left?

  • Do you agree with Zell in that ‘conventional wisdom leads to mediocrity?’

  • Fosbury took advantage of new padding to completely reinvent the sport of high jumping. When is the last time you took advantage of something new to think differently about one aspect of your life?

  • Chihuly, Zell, and Fosbury each went against the conventional wisdom of their day, maintained their bias towards action, and found a way forward. As you reflect upon today’s question, how often do you find yourself being limited by conventional wisdom, catch yourself doing so, and then challenge your own assumptions to think differently?