by Steve Tobak
Soon after the dot-com bubble burst, I attended a conference where the CEO of a company that had seen its market cap gain and lose $50 billion in less than two years, began his speech with, “Our industry is made up of geniuses that act collectively like idiots.”
The room erupted with laughter as hundreds of high-tech executives that had spent the past six months trying to hold it together for their management teams, their employees, and most of all, their investors, found release for a world of pain and frustration.
While most people think of that era as a time when irrational exuberance gripped an entire industry and sent markets soaring to ludicrous heights and crashing back down to Earth in the blink of an eye, I see it much differently, courtesy of an executive who had the cajones to lay it on the line for leaders who were smart enough to know better.
What caused the bubble and its inevitable crash was the common belief among nearly everyone – executives, analysts, investors, pundits and experts – that worldwide demand for internet services and infrastructure would rise indefinitely.
To me, the tech bubble remains the most glaring example of the potentially devastating impact of one of the most pervasive concepts in the modern world, the oxymoron known as conventional wisdom.
The truth is, there is nothing conventional about wisdom. Wisdom is rare. And wisdom originates entirely from individuals, as does critical thought, problem solving, breakthrough insights, innovative concepts and creative ideas.
Granted, small groups or teams can provide a fertile environment for idea generation, but make no mistake: each and every idea comes from an individual’s brain. And the larger the group, the more likely it is to succumb to the pressure to conform, also known as groupthink.
What about the supposed wisdom of crowds or the smart collective? That only works in limited situations that primarily involve information retrieval or discrete answers to simple questions. Anything more complex than asking a crowd to choose between four alternatives on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, forget it.
There is no wisdom in crowds. Likewise, what’s commonly called conventional wisdom is nothing of the sort. Conventional wisdom maintains the status quo. It creates barriers to independent thought and breakthrough ideas. It’s an impediment to change – the only thing that can ever lead to improvement. And it stops innovation dead in its tracks.
Likewise, strongly held beliefs or opinions – especially those fostered by crowds, organizations, convention, or societal norms – stifle critical thinking and common sense. There’s certainly nothing wise about that.
If you want to be successful in this world, you have to learn to think for yourself. To challenge what’s known as conventional wisdom. To break from the status quo. To stay off the bandwagon.
You have to learn to carve your own path and formulate your own opinions. To think and behave as a unique individual. To be true to yourself, not beholden to anyone else or anyone else’s ideals or beliefs.
The most important thing you can do to improve your chances of having a fulfilling career and a happy life is, from this moment forward, to question how you spend your time, how you behave, and how you arrived at the path you’re on. Be true to yourself. And if you’re not exactly sure who that is, it’s about time you started to find out.
And when you’re in need of insight, ideas, perspective, or direction – don’t search Google – search yourself. That’s where you’ll find real wisdom.