Thinking Differently and Challenging the Status Quo

I share how thinking differently, challenging the status quo, following our curiosity and a lifelong Lerner attitude can help us become more successful.

Thinking Differently and Challenging the Status Quo
Apple's think different advertising campaign, 1997
Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones - we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” - Steve Jobs, 1997

A powerful statement that captures Apple's philosophy. Thinking differently and challenging the status quo has shaped the type of company that Apple has become. It has helped Apple become one of the most distinguished companies of all time.

Apple has changed the world.

Monkey Banana Experiment

A few years back, I came across this wonderful little experiment (which I am now calling the "monkey banana experiment"), that shines a light on human behaviour.

A group of scientists placed five monkeys in a cage. At the cage’s centre was a tall ladder with a bunch of ripe bananas at its top. Every time a monkey started up the ladder, the scientists soaked the other monkeys with cold water.

After a while, any time a monkey started up the ladder, the others would grab it and beat it up. Soon none of the monkeys dared to go up the ladder, regardless of the temptation.

Next, the scientists removed one of the monkeys from the cage and substituted it with a new monkey. As soon as this new monkey spotted the bananas, he tried to climb the ladder.  The other monkeys beat him up at once. After several beatings, the new member of the group learned not to climb the ladder - even though he never really knew why it was “forbidden.”

A second new monkey was substituted for one of the original five, with the same result – and the first substitute monkey even participated in the beatings. The process was repeated with a third new monkey, then a fourth, and finally a fifth, each time with the same result.

In the end, the cage held a group of five monkeys who had never received a cold soaking – but who would beat up any monkey who attempted to climb the ladder.

If any one of the monkeys in the experiment had thought differently and decided to challenge the status quo, pushing the boundaries of what others tell them is possible - that monkey would have been rewarded with the bananas. There are three salient lessons here:

  1. Don't let others project their limitation onto you. You shouldn't allow them to define your potential or what you're capable of achieving.
  2. Don't follow others blindly without understanding why - this is the common belief fallacy (see article).
  3. Diversity of thought leads to more successful outcomes.

Thinking differently (i.e. diversity of thought) has been proven to be a critical ingredient in all successful teams - whether in business, sport or otherwise. Diversity ensures we avoid falling into the trap of groupthink, where people surround themselves with those of similar beliefs. It traps them into an echo chamber, where everyone around them has the same old thoughts and ideas.

The monkeys had nothing to lose by continuing up the ladder and aiming for the bananas, but everything to gain. This asymmetry of risk plays out through several mini-games in life. Where you're risking nothing for a potentially large reward, the odds are stacked in your favour.

Perhaps the only downside is the social disapproval from the other monkeys. The unsaid expectation that they had to fit in with the rest, forgoing their individuality.

The Western Education System is Flawed

The pressure from our peers or society in the broader context isn't something that applies just to monkeys. Humans also have very similar social structures - the tendency to cave under peer pressure. We have an innate need to "fit in".

It begins with our education system, which is partly at fault. To be a good student, we need to be compliant. Our education system does not encourage pushing beyond the realms of what is possible or being creative and following our intuition/ curiosity. Good students are compliant and the system teaches us to be good at following the rules laid out before us and not challenging anything—intellectually curious students who challenge their teachers and are labelled a nuisance or troublemakers. I would know, I was one always to be questioning my teachers, making it clear to them when I didn't think their explanation was adequate.

At school, challenging the status quo is punished. Students quickly learn not to challenge the status quo. They're trained not to challenge the status quo, and live most of their lives by following this dogma.

The irony is that a lot of what we're taught at school ends up putting us at a disadvantage in the real world. To get ahead in life, we end up having to unlearn what we were taught at school. Some may go as far as saying that our education system is wasting some of our most productive years. It's become outdated and redundant. It's begging to be modernised to fit the 21st century requirements.

We now live in a world where we can learn anything on demand. We're fortunate in the fact that there's nothing we can't learn ourselves online. A host of leading universities even share the lectures and courses taken by their students, freely online.

We're the first generation of humans to benefit from this advantage, and this is the future of our education system. Where learning can be self-directed by the individual, allowing greater creativity and leading to a society of polymaths, which I'd argue, would make for a far superior society.

If there's one thing you've taken away from this article, it's to remain curious, think differently, embrace diversity, challenge the status quo and never stop learning.

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