“What would happen if I did the opposite?”. It’s an approach that worked for George Costanza in a classic Seinfeld episode, but it’s rarely something we think about – let alone act upon – in real life.
Doing the opposite – going against the grain, bucking conventional wisdom – can be scary. It can result in failure. It welcomes skepticism. It invites derision. It makes people uncomfortable. It’s especially frowned upon in the slow-to-innovate legal industry.
It is also the indispensable action that is inextricably linked to virtually every breakthrough idea that has moved the needle of human progress forward.
Conventional wisdom is, by definition, a generally accepted theory or belief. Any action or idea that is contrary to conventional wisdom is, therefore, generally not accepted, and the person propounding it is considered wrongheaded and counter-cultural – that is, until the radical is proven right, and the new idea replaces the old. As Albert Einstein said: “The only sure way to never make mistakes is to have no new ideas.”
Put more simply, rejecting conventional wisdom is risk taking.
Many think that the time to take chances, buck the system and eschew conventional wisdom is when we are young – that as we age we must accept certain “realities” about life. But the exact opposite is true!
It is with time and experience that we become more aware, more attuned and (should) learn to think independently. It is when we are young that we are more susceptible to the conventions of wisdom. Many young people lack the real world experience and maturity to buck the status quo or, as Seth Godin likes to say, “make a ruckus.” This is in part due to the fact that the modern day educational environment prioritizes memorization and socialization (sit quietly, be obedient) over the need to think critically.
So it is left to those of us who have seen the world, worked in it, and in many ways been frustrated by it, to change it. After all, as lawyers we’re highly educated, battle-tested, and have the scars to prove it. We should be willing, even happy, to carry the torch of change.
But it is not a challenge that most accept willingly. That’s because there is a sense of comfort in convention, but it is false. As Mark Twain said: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” Sometimes you need to rock the boat. Indeed, anyone who thinks or acts contrary to conventional wisdom is considered crazy right up until the moment he or she proves it wrong.
Here are some examples that, the next time you’re considering following the crowd, may inspire you to do the opposite.
The Fosbury Flop
Dick Fosbury was a scrawny, average athlete who competed on his high school track team in Oregon. By all accounts, and according to conventional wisdom, he wasn’t good enough to be competitive in his chosen discipline, the high jump.
At the time, high jumpers utilized a technique similar to a hurdler, jumping over the bar one leg at a time in a scissor action. Fosbury couldn’t compete with taller, more athletics jumpers using this technique, so he invented a new one. Instead of going over the bar feet first, he jumped with his back to the bar, clearing the bar face up, back down in what would come to be known as the “Fosbury Flop.” He was ridiculed, and even his coach urged him to abandon this weird technique.
It was only a few short years later that Fosbury stood on the podium at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, gold medal in hand, having just set a new Olympic and U.S. record for the high jump. Today, it is conventional wisdom that the Fosbury Flop is undoubtedly the best way to clear the bar…until, of course, it’s not.
Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s, was presented with a dilemma: How to win games with a fraction of the budget of big market teams like the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers?
Conventional wisdom held that, to win, a team needed position players that hit for a high batting average and flame-throwing pitchers who could rack up lots of strikeouts. But those players cost money, and money was something that Beane didn’t have at his disposal.
So Beane turned to Paul DePodesta, a former economics major at Harvard for help, who was a disciple of the self-educated statistician Bill James and his analysis of baseball statistics called “sabermetrics.” What they found, and ultimately acted upon, was the fact that the traditional measures of evaluating a baseball free agent or draft pick – measures such as speed, size, athleticism, arm strength, batting average – that had been conventional wisdom in baseball since its inception as a professional sport, were wrong. They were not accurate predictors of success. At a minimum, they led teams to overpay for players.
Beane and his team analyzed statistics from the previous decade and found that certain statistics – such as on base percentage – were much more relevant predictors of success, but greatly undervalued in the marketplace. Accordingly, Beane was able to stock the A’s with players who are highly productive despite lacking the gaudy stats – and commensurate price tag – of higher profile stars.
According to Beane, “We can’t do things the way everyone else does, because of our payroll. We had to create our own niche and stay disciplined about staying in it.”
The strategy paid off as Beane consistently led the A’s to the playoffs. While Beane was ridiculed for his approach at the time, today sabermetrics is mainstream. One of the most successful and sought after executives in baseball, sabermetrician Theo Epstein, became general manager of the Boston Red Sox at 28 years old, won two World Series championships, and is now leading the resurgent Chicago Cubs.
The Wright Brothers
Outmanned and out-financed, and faced with the very real possibility that they would die in pursuit of their dream, Wilbur and Orville Wright decided to proceed nonetheless and create the first airplane.
In the early 1900’s conventional wisdom held that American astronomer Samuel Langley would lead the breakthrough in manned and powered flight. The U.S. government invested $70,000 in Langley’s efforts. The Wright Brothers were but a sideshow, only able to invest $1,000 of their own money into their venture. The “smart” money was on Langley. The Wright brothers soared nonetheless. The rest is history.
It’s conventional wisdom that the modern day assembly line is the fastest and cheapest way to manufacture goods. But it was a radical idea when proposed by Henry Ford over 100 years ago. At the time, automobiles were considered a luxury item, and were hand-crafted piece by piece for wealthy patrons. The idea of producing the Model T on a large scale at an affordable price point for the masses was considered crazy.
Ford pushed forward, nonetheless, creating one of the most iconic cars, companies and industrial breakthroughs in history. John D. Rockefeller called Ford’s assembly process “the industrial miracle of the age.”
Waiting an hour or more for a pizza was standard, it was conventional wisdom – at least until Tom Monaghan and Domino’s Pizza came along.
This small, upstart Ann Arbor-based pizza maker upended the industry with its 30-minute delivery guarantee. Using fast cooking ovens and other efficient processes that others in the industry had not even considered, Domino’s quickly became dominant in the market.
When Joe Flom was a young lawyer at Skadden, it was conventional wisdom that respectable Wall Street law firms and lawyers should not take on corporate takeover work. Flom, who didn’t fit the mold of the typical Wall Street lawyer, saw an opportunity. He dove into this type of work during the 1960’s, and when the corporate takeover boom of the 1970’s and 1980’s came around, Skadden was positioned to be the go-to firm. All of the firms that considered this type of work undignified in the past were racing to catch up.
Legal Tech Startups
It’s only after technology entrepreneurs disrupt an industry that the disruption seems inevitable. During the throes of it, most people don’t see it coming. Such is the case in the legal industry.
Increased competition and pricing pressure changed the competitive landscape in the last decade. Sensing this shift, non-legal entrepreneurs stepped in. From overseas document review firms to Silicon Valley technology startups, alternative service providers continue to chip away at work that traditionally was within the exclusive domain of lawyers and law firms and create new channels for how clients find lawyers. Companies such as Legal Zoom, Avvo and Rocket Lawyer, which were once seen as novelties, continue to encroach.
At the same time, the encroachers face new obstacles. Much like the legal, regulatory and competitive gauntlets that companies like Uber and Tesla have faced trying to bring their products and services to markets full of entrenched forces, legal tech startups are grappling similar challenges. The most recent example is the joint ethics opinion by three New Jersey Supreme Court committees which decided that New Jersey lawyers can’t participate in client-linking services offered by Avvo because of ethics issues stemming from the company’s “marketing fee.”
The battle rages on. Conventional wisdom continues to shift.
Always Question Assumptions
As a lawyer, you’ll hear lots of advice based on conventional wisdom that “this is way things are done” (or “not done”) when it comes to business development and building your practice.
Be on the lookout for prefatory statements that signal a statement of conventional wisdom, such as “it goes without saying.” Beware the use of straw men – such as “they say” – used to make a point of conventional wisdom.
Question assumptions. Think differently and critically. Challenge the status quo. Ask, “Does this make sense?”. If it doesn’t, consider doing the opposite. That’s how breakthroughs happen. After all, great minds don’t always think alike.