How to Succeed in Business Without Really Meaning To

And here we have this morning’s second reflection on Malcolm Gladwell’s must-read “The Gift of […]

Emily Hornsby / 6.27.13

And here we have this morning’s second reflection on Malcolm Gladwell’s must-read “The Gift of Doubt”.

Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote a piece for The New Yorker on the quirky but charismatic economist Albert O. Hirschman and his unorthodox ideas about creativity and success.  Despite being a “planner” himself, Hirschman thought that creativity can only be improvised. It is only when the careful plans fall through, when we find ourselves at the 11th hour sitting in front of a blank Microsoft Word document and an empty bag of stress Oreos, that we’re forced to produce our most innovative work. Why, according to Hirschman, is this the case? Because we’re lazy! Gladwell quotes Hirschman:

girls-hannah laptop

[People are] apt to take on and plunge into new tasks because of the erroneously presumed absence of a challenge—because the task looks easier and more manageable than it will turn out to be… Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.

So, success is born of failure and creativity is accidental. Hirschman himself recognized the parallels to Christianity:

We have ended up here with an economic argument strikingly paralleling Christianity’s oft expressed preference for the repentant sinner over the righteous man who never strays from the path.

Creativity comes through the embrace of chaos and the release of control. Hirschman even criticized organizations like the World Bank for trying to remove obstacles and secure economic and infrastructural stability in developing countries. For Hirschman, obstacles cause frustration and anxiety, which spur motivation. This chaotic unpredictability serves as the motor of creative energy—getting the rug pulled out from under us knocks us into a free fall that builds more momentum than standing securely on our feet.

An extension of this idea is that we are both failures and successes in spite of ourselves. And yet, we only take credit for the creative endeavors that happened by accident and not the mishaps—that time that I gave an old lady the finger in a fit of road rage or was curt on the phone with my mom because I was having a terrible day, those are all the exception. I only did that because the situation got out of my control—the circumstances changed suddenly and unexpectedly and I was caught off guard. But when we stumble upon an idea in spite of our carefully crafted, drafted efforts, we attribute it to our own latent genius. Hirschman explains this much more eloquently (and economically) than me:

HOWTOSUCCEED_cast_phIWhile we are rather willing and even eager and relieved to agree with a historian’s finding that we stumbled into the more shameful events of history, such as war, we are correspondingly unwilling to concede—in fact we find it intolerable to imagine—that our more lofty achievements, such as economic, social or political progress, could have come about by stumbling rather than through careful planning. . . . Language itself conspires toward this sort of asymmetry: we fall into error, but do not usually speak of falling into truth.  

And so, rather than creating a confidence in his own flexibility and inventive prowess in the face of catastrophe, Hirschman doubted and even distrusted himself. Our ineptitude to plan for unforeseen obstacles can be freeing and humbling. For Hirschman, this humility was embodied in a personal mantra—he wanted to “prove Hamlet wrong.” Gladwell explains, “Hamlet shouldn’t have been frozen by his doubts; he should have been freed by them. Hamlet took himself too seriously. He thought he needed to be perfect.”

Growing up, I was a stubborn and headstrong kid.  My grandpa tells me that he remembers me, at my 4th birthday party, standing on my chair at the head of the table, telling all of my friends what to do—ruling the birthday festivities like a queen in a paper party hat crown. As such a little tyrant, I had a propensity to get very frustrated when I couldn’t easily get my way or succeed at a task—when a friendship bracelet become one nightmarish knot, when I had mistaken salt for sugar in a batch of cookies, or any other life-altering, therapy-inducing fiasco. My mom would tell me that my frustration was a good sign—it meant that my brain was working hard and I was learning, whether I was adding fractions for math homework or trying to make an origami walrus from the instructions in a Klutz book.  I always felt better when my mom said this, perhaps because it shifted the focus off of my success or failure (which both seemed hopelessly beyond my control) and onto the chaos of the process itself. And while my daily frustrations now often have higher stakes than origami, trying to control all of the variables is exhausting. Making peace with chaos, or providence, as the case may be, which might just mean surrendering to it, takes a huge weight off.  It’s in the midst of the wastebasket full of crumpled ideas, the sticky notes covering every surface, the unexpected traffic (and the token blind senior citizens), that revelation often hits, but if Hirschman is right, it might not look like what you expected.