As we approach the new year, one topic of innovation seems particularly relevant: personal innovation. We know what business innovation is, and technological innovation, and innovation in the sciences—but what’s personal innovation?
A few months ago, I awoke extra early one morning and jumped in the car. I flicked on the headlights, turned up the heat and squinted at the controls. It was an unusual morning. The sky was still dark and the air was crisp. And most of the cars in the parking lot were still dormant, cold dew in the grass. It was a perilous morning: I was driving into the heart of D.C. and I didn’t know the top news of the day. I might as well have been driving with a mask over my eyes.
I’m a resident of the Washington, D.C. area and Mike Allen’s POLITICO Playbook, his morning email compendium of the top news, is a daily ritual, but this morning I was out the door before the email was distributed. I tried to manage the streets as best I could, and reminded myself why I was doing this: because the day before, Mike Allen had invited his readers to an event being hosted by POLITICO and featuring a panel discussion on the new HBO film “Game Change.” Like most events in D.C., it started early—around 7:00 a.m., catering to those who had to be back at the office by 9.
I arrived just as the first colors began to fade up, turning blacks to greys and greys to white. I parked the car and crossed the street, siphoning through the cool catacombs of the empty Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue and taking my seat in the cozy theater just a few rows back from the front. After a few minutes, as more and more people filled the room, I caught glimpses of the famous writers and director and political stars who had produced the film. Everyone was in dark black and greys, with dark shadows under grey eyes, grasping coffee and wiping their noses from the cold. And then I noticed a bright face in that crowd, moving quickly from group to group.
He was middling in height and unassuming in character, but before I had time to orient myself he had come to my seat with a smile, arm extended: "Hi, I'm Mike Allen. Thank you for coming." And he shook my hand. Then he moved on to the next person. And the next, and the next. He continued on, climbing the steps and moving up and down the rows. Shaking every person's hand and thanking them—personally—for joining in the event. And it was a fun event: eye-opening, as the film too was eye opening—but the most memorable part of that morning wasn’t the film or the darkened drive, it was the privilege to share in the energy and the enthusiasm of Mike Allen. You wonder how someone gets ahead in the world? Is it a great idea or brilliant execution? Shake their hand and you'll see that their eyes are sincere.
Too often, we celebrate those who innovate in terms of process and in terms of product, but seldom do we celebrate those who innovate in terms of personal excellence. We may laud and appreciate such people, but we don't give them enough credit for the hard work they do to produce something unique: integrity and respect. In journalism, integrity is often talked about, but seldom quantified. Instead, we measure journalism in the number of readers, or the number of links, or the number of exclusives or even the number of words. We like to measure it in the kinds of interviews a reporter can snag, and the clever headlines they can write. Integrity and respect, though, is what we are really looking for. Someone who respects our point of view and our intelligence, as well as the point of view and intelligence of those being written about. We are looking for a writer who—above all—respects themselves and their own responsibilities. Mike Allen meets all of these criteria, and that, above everything else, is what makes Playbook so successful. And so rare.
In the areas of business we have best practices, and we champion ideas like continuous innovation. We talk about how the best companies have a commitment to trying to create better products—and yet rarely do we apply this same thinking to our own lives and our own conduct. Rarely do we apply it to our personal character. Instead, we excuse our own conduct. We are what we are, we say—this is our personality, this is how we act, and other people can just deal with it. We accept ourselves as a static commodity. But no business, no idea is static; the world is changing faster than ever. How, though, can we assume that our good ideas will change the world if we ourselves don't believe in our own power to change and improve?
Business best practices are about setting performance goals and trying to meet them. About reviewing what worked and what didn't, about continuous improvement. Being better. And yet, when it comes to personal decisions, we scoff at the notion. Who decides what’s better, we ask defensively. Well, it's quite simple: just as Apple built a phone that they wanted to use, just as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the book that he wanted to read, so should we become the person that we ourselves would want to know, that we would want to talk to and work with and be around.
Just as in business innovation, these ideas are simple; the hard part is execution. You have to be committed to it. You have to be committed to being great. In personal matters, though, this presents some challenges. To declare yourself great opens you up to a great deal of criticism. You’ll be accused of being arrogant and self-aggrandizing. And you’ll doubt yourself: are you really so much better than everyone else? Are you really so great?
No. But you’re committed to greatness. That means always asking what it means to be a great friend, a great son, a great employee, a great boyfriend or girlfriend, a great husband or wife, a great father or mother. In today's world it is easier than ever to stand out from the crowd just by showing a little bit of respect: If the phone rings while you're talking to someone, don't answer it. If a text arrives while you’re writing an email, don’t read it. Give people the attention that you deserve or want. Create the environment you wish you worked in. Take out the trash even when the last person failed to do so; let the car into your lane even though you yourself were just cut off; hold the door open for someone, even if they’re a few steps behind. Do the hard thing, the great thing, and do not be angry.
But you might wonder: why do I have to be the person who works harder, why do I have to be the person who shuts off all of the lights at the end of the day, and why can't I complain or just take it easy like everyone else? But ask yourself, do great companies take it easy like everyone else? Do great people take it easy like everyone else? No, they're the ones who refuse the easy path. To achieve higher goals, you need to have higher standards and higher expectations. Why do you have to act different? Because you're not like everyone else. You are different. You're great.
Steve Jobs liked to quote Picasso: Great artists steal. And he was right. Great companies are wise about stealing the best from their peers. Jobs stole the simplicity of the Cuisinart food processor in designing the original Mac. Sam Walton stole the everyday low price from J.C. Penney. The founders stole the ideals of the old world in drafting the U.S. Constitution. And so you should recognize the best examples you know, and extend, modify and repurpose them as your own. Some people are good at staying in touch; observe how they do it. Some people are good at comforting friends; see how they achieve it. Some are good at listening, others at telling great stories; some are good at balancing schedules or teaching their kids to show respect or teaching their dog to stay out of the kitchen. Learn from the best you know and adopt it. Adapt it. And at the same time, learn from the worst. Rather than grow angry at friends or strangers, as an investor might grow angry at a misguided company, try to figure out what went wrong and learn from their mistakes. It’s easy, and yet so rarely approached with the seriousness and dedication we devote to the same exact practices and principles in our professional lives.
Great companies have great energy. Do not be tired. Do not complain. Do not make excuses for yourself because it's late at night or you skipped lunch or you didn't get enough sleep or you have too much to do or you need to teach some other person a lesson. I promise you, the only thing you can teach another person by being inconsiderate is how inconsiderate you are. Instead, go out of your way for others in the same way a great company goes out of its way for its customers. Oh, you dropped your $400 iPod Touch and shattered the screen? We understand; here’s a replacement. No charge. Oh, we miscalculated the MPG rating on your new car? Here’s a credit card to make up the difference in your fuel bill forever into the future. Plus 15% for your trouble. Going out of your way will lead to new places, new opportunity and adventure.
Be generous with your time and attention and ideas. How many hands did President Obama have to shake to become President? How many jaded tech journalists did Steve Jobs have to charm? Everyone, no matter who they are, is worth your time and attention and can teach you something about the world and what it means to be better. And when you do have a conversation, have a real one. Always try to understand what matters most to other people—because we are more connected in our passionate interests than our shared experience. In these moments, always look for the new. Remember that there is no new value in repeating your own thoughts, because you already know your own thoughts. That's a waste of time and time is valuable. Instead, try to understand others and what they have done and think. If they are a musician, try to see music as they see it. If an architect, try to see buildings as they see them. If an entymologist, try to see bugs as they see them. Don’t talk about yourself; listen as a good company listens to it's customers and understands the rhythm of their lives.
Once, on a bus ride from one of the NASA launchpads at Cape Canaveral, my uncle found himself sitting next to another scientist. My uncle was in charge of exploration at NASA at the time, and they began to talk excitedly about the future of space, digging into the details of rocket propulsion and the science and economics of spaceflight. It was a long bus-ride and a great conversation. When they finally arrived back at base, my uncle apologized, because he hadn’t introduced himself. “Hi, I’m Craig,” my uncle said. “Jim Cameron,” the scientist answered. For an hour they had talked about something that mattered to each of them, and it never came up that Jim Cameron was the writer and director of Titanic and Terminator. Because it didn’t matter to the discussion. Because each of them, instead, was interested in learning something new.
This means eliminating blind spots. The corner store was blind to the Sears Roebuck catalog. Horse hands were blind to Henry Ford’s car. The telecom industry was blind to the iPhone. We all have blind spots, areas of our understanding that aren’t filled in yet. Blank spaces on the map, even in the places we think we know the best. Have you ever seen the roof of your office building? Have you ever walked your usual path in the opposite direction? Have you ever seen what the other offices on the other floors of your building look like? Or the store room at the back of your local Starbucks? Or the ladies room if you're a guy, the men's room if you're a girl? Have you ever looked up at the trees when riding your bike, or looked down at the ants outside your window and watched for twenty minutes to see where they were going, or where they had started? In this world of information we expect knowledge to arrive by digital means—but so much of the world and of our lives isn't digital. Some of our biggest blind spots are in this non-digital world. Don't miss it.
And so in this new year, 2013, go out and discover. You don't have to be a scientist or a journalist or a blogger to ask questions. And you don't have to be a company to be committed to excellence. Don't be content to circumscribe yourself to what's already been written. Don't leave it to others to find out for you, to ask or to answer. And don't doubt yourself. This may not be your conversation, or topic of expertise, or even your business, but it is your life. And being great is about more than being kind or being good—it's about being active. What have you done? What are you going to do today? Do something new. Be better.