How to Start a Movement by Entrepreneur, Musician, Writer, and a Former Circus Performer, Derek Sivers

 

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Derek Sivers. Via: (sivers.org)

 

Last week, I was thinking a great deal about leadership. I wanted to know what makes someone a leader and why do we seem to over glorify leaders above their followers. I found a few intriguing sources about the topic. One of which that stood out to me was this short TED video, delivered by Derek Sivers, one of the most curious and thoughtful people I know.

The inspiration of this talk comes from a video Sivers has watched about a shirtless dancing guy at a music concert who accidentally creates a massive dancing party. Initially, the shirtless guy dances by himself, loses himself in the music in the midst of a huge crowd. A few seconds later, because of the shirtless guy’s infectious killer dance moves, a guy from the crowd joins him. Now the shirtless dancing guy is not alone. He has a partner to dance with. Their boundless gladness electrifies the rest of the sitting crowd. Until finally everyone leaves their comfortable sitting zone and gets up to dance with them. 

Sivers sees that the video embodies the process of how a movement is created. He says that in the beginning process of creating a movement, the job of a leader is nurturing her first few followers and making them clearly aware about the movement, not about the leader. Meanwhile, the job of the first few followers who want to attract more followers is by teaching people the easiest way to follow the movement.

Towards the end of the talk, Sivers says something that I agree wholeheartedly: “We’re told we all need to be leaders, but that would be really ineffective.” Back when I was in college, I was familiar with this message because that’s what my professors and academic advisors preached. What makes me uncomfortable with this message is we seem to think that followers are unimportant, unlikely to make a profound contribution to their groups. But, the video proves us otherwise. Followers are significant too. Without them, a movement will not exist. Yes, we need leaders who are unafraid to take the initiative to make their visions a reality, but also we are in dire need of followers who have the guts to champion their visions.

Here is the transcript of the TED Talk:

 

“A leader needs the guts to stand alone and look ridiculous. But what he’s doing is so simple, it’s almost instructional. This is key. You must be easy to follow! Now comes the first follower with a crucial role: he publicly shows everyone how to follow. Notice the leader embraces him as an equal, so it’s not about the leader anymore – it’s about them, plural. Notice he’s calling to his friends to join in.
It takes guts to be a first follower! You stand out and brave ridicule yourself. Being a first follower is an under-appreciated form of leadership. The first follower transforms a lone nut into a leader. If the leader is the flint, the first follower is the spark that makes the fire.
The second follower is a turning point: it’s proof the first has done well. Now it’s not alone nut, and it’s not two nuts. Three is a crowd and a crowd is news. A movement must be public. Make sure outsiders see more than just the leader. Everyone needs to see the followers, because new followers emulate followers – not the leaders.
Now here comes two more, then three more. Now we’ve got momentum. This is the tipping point! Now we’ve got a movement.
As more people jump in, it’s no longer risky. If they were on the fence before, there’s no reason not to join now. They won’t be ridiculed, they won’t stand out, and they will be part of the in-crowd, if they hurry. Over the next minute you’ll see the rest who prefer to be part of the crowd, because eventually they’d be ridiculed for not joining.
And ladies and gentleman, that is how a movement is made! Let’s recap what we learned:
If you are a version of the shirtless dancing guy, all alone, remember the importance of nurturing your first few followers as equals, making everything clearly about the movement, not you.
-Be public. Be easy to follow!
-But the biggest lesson here – did you catch it?
-Leadership is over glorified.
Yes, it started with the shirtless guy, and he’ll get all the credit, but you saw what really happened: It was the first follower that transformed a lone nut into a leader. There’s no movement without the first follower. We’re told we all need to be leaders, but that would be really ineffective.
The best way to make a movement, if you really care, is to courageously follow and show others how to follow. When you find a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the first person to stand up and join in.”

Two Prominent Creativity Researchers, Adam Grant and Rex Jung, on What It Means to be Creative

 

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Image by Pierrick Van Troost. Via: (Unsplash)

 

Rex Jung, a scholar who has spent more than a decade studying the nature of creativity, said in an interview with Krista Tippett that one of the best ways to become creative at our chosen field is by doing a lot of practice or getting a lot of experience in that field. Jung wholeheartedly agrees with the notion of 10,000 hours coined by Malcolm Gladwell. Jung says:

“I think there are some strategies to cultivating creativity. In thinking about Dr. Davidson’s work in neuroplasticity, you need to get some stuff in you head, some raw materials, in order to be with which to be creative.
You practice, practice, practice. That 10,000-hour thing is probably right, not 10 years. But it takes a lot of time to change the structure of your brain and there are several studies out there now. You know, the famous juggling study where they have novices who don’t know how to juggle. They image them, then they juggle for three months, they image them again and they see that literally a portion of their brain, a small chunk, but a portion of their brain is beefed up like a muscle in service of that concerted thing that they’re doing with their brain. And that is the thing. The important thing is they’re doing a very new thing in a concerted way. And their brain says, hey, if we’re going to be doing this thing in the environment over and over and over, I’m going to build tissue to do that so that we can do it easier and more efficiently.
So if you’re going to be creative, pick one thing, get a lot of experience in that one thing, and do it over and over and over.”

He also touches on the necessity of down time that can spark one’s creative fire:

“That playfulness is a second aspect where you can have down time basically and play with ideas, whether that’s the long walk or the recess or whatever we talked about. This downtime is incredibly important to allow that raw material to come together in novel and useful ways as transient hypofrontality. This persistence is–perseverance is incredibly important because, once you find a good idea, pushing it forward into the world is going to be difficult and a lot of rejection is usually the matter of course for people who are creative.”

Then Jung goes on to explain that some of the greatest artists in the world achieve mastery because they’re willing to produce a greater volume of work than their peers, which later gave them more variation to shape their work and a higher chance of originality (Dean Keith Simonton of UC Davis wrote a paper about this issue of creative productivity among artists)

“We haven’t touched upon this, but research almost invariably shows that highly creative people put out lots and lots of ideas. And they’re not all brilliant. You have a lot of failures and it’s not the one-hit wonders that win the day. It’s thousands and thousands of ideas. Picasso put out, you know, 20,000 individual pieces of art, and I can guarantee you they’re not all good.”
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Image by Kevin Laminto. Via: (Unsplash)

 

When I heard this conversation, I was instantly reminded of a book titled Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant that I had read exactly a year ago. I think if I could gather Rex Jung and Adam Grant to sit down and discuss the notion of 10,000 hours as a way to hone our creative skill, Grant would have disagreed with Jung. In the book, Grant openly debunks the myth that the notion of 10,000 hours is an important ingredient to create creative geniuses. He writes that while aspiring creators must hone their craft through an intense and continuous practice, too much practice won’t propel them to become revolutionary creators.

Of course, this is intriguing because how is too much practice being perceived as useless? To answer this question, Grant focuses his attention on the lives of child prodigies, a group of people that we always consider who will grow up and make a massive dent in the universe. Although child prodigies never seem to lose their talent and ambition, they, according to Grant, rarely go on to change the world.

This is what Grant says (Emphasis is mine):

“Although child prodigies are often rich in both talent and ambition, what holds them back from moving the world forward is that they don’t learn to be original. As they perform in Carnegie Hall, win the science Olympics, and become chess champions, something tragic happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new. The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies and beautiful Beethoven symphonies, but never compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights. They conform to the codified rules of established games, rather than inventing their own rules or their own games. All along the way, they strive to earn the approval of their parents and the admiration of their teachers.
In adulthood, many child prodigies become experts in their fields and leaders in their organizations. Yet ‘only a fraction of gifted children eventually become revolutionary adult creators,’ laments psychologist Ellen Winner. ‘Those who do must make a painful transition’ from a child who ‘learns rapidly and effortlessly in an established domain’ to an adult who ‘ultimately remakes a domain.’ “

Grant continues to write that many child prodigies feel too comfortable with their abilities and achievements that they feel reluctant to question and to challenge the ideas that they have been told. This resistance to reflect on what they have learned is the reason why some child prodigies never make the leap to become revolutionary creators.

He says:

“Most prodigies never make that leap. They apply their extraordinary abilities in ordinary ways, mastering their jobs without questioning defaults and without making waves. In every domain they enter, they play it safe by following the conventional paths to success. They become doctors who heal their patients without fighting to fix the broken systems that prevent many patients from affording health care in the first place. They become lawyers who defend clients for violating outdated laws without trying to transform the laws themselves. They become teachers who plan engaging algebra lessons without questioning whether algebra is what their students need to learn. Although we rely on them to keep the world running smoothly, they keep us running on a treadmill.”

Though Grant finds a “hole” in the theory of 10,000 hours, I still think that, just like what Jung believes about the power of practice, it is one of the most necessary ingredients to become excellent at what we aspire to do. When we invest time and energy to hone our skill, we’re fifty steps further than people who are just passively sitting, doing nothing, and still wishing to be creative. Practice still counts and will always give you a firm foundation to help you to become creative. But, another important point to ponder: once we start to feel comfortable with the skill that we have, it’s time to explore other domains/skills/ideas that we have never explored before. The more we step out of our comfort zone, the richer our life experiences will be. Those life experiences that we slowly accumulate over time can stretch our minds and imaginations wider, and this is the best way to get creative.

Helen Keller on the Shape of Healthy Optimism

 

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Helen Keller. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

A few days ago, as I was taking an afternoon walk around my house, I struck up a conversation with a young man of magnetic warmth. He was busy cleaning the swimming pool at the community center of my housing complex. His shirt was white with tiny holes around his neck, his skin was brown, and his shiny black hair was unkempt. I did not remember how we began the conversation, but I remember he said that he has to pay for his own college tuition with the money he gets from this cleaning job and other jobs he has. Since his father died of cancer years ago, he becomes the sole financial supporter of the family. He has bills to pay, a little brother and a sick mother to care for, and of course, dreams to pursue.

These unforgiving circumstances don’t make him jaded or scared. That’s what he told me as he scrubbed the edges of the pool. He sees all of these as adventures. He acknowledges the harsh reality he inhabits and he chooses to be hopeful. This is a man who has steadied his nerves, and knows he has a lot of work to do and would bear anything to get it done.

I like hearing story like this because it shows me that hope has the power to propel ourselves forward in life. Hope can get us out of the grim days of living. His story instantly reminds me of a book of essays titled Optimism by Helen Keller. She’s one of the most hopeful humans I have ever known. This book is her personal reflection on how to be hopeful and undefeated by hardship.

Keller was born a healthy child in 1880, but then a mysterious illness (perhaps rubella or scarlet fever) made the nineteen months old Keller deaf and blind. This strange illness made her a rebel and unruly, until a young woman named Anne Mansfield Sullivan, the 20-year-old graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind, came into her life as her teacher. Sullivan was Keller’s champion and the reason why Keller becomes the woman we admire today, even decades after she died. Without the unconditional love and support of Sullivan, Keller would have lived and died miserably in a small town in Alabama. With her, Keller was able to taste the sweetness of hope and experience moments of joy and meaning. 

My favorite part of this book is when Keller writes about “the rash optimism.” This rash optimism, according to Keller, is false optimism because it blinds us from seeing the reality at every turn. It doesn’t want to acknowledge the messiness of life, and is more like wishing that everything will turn out just fine without doing ‘the work.’ This kind of optimism is very passive and won’t solve any problem we have.

What Keller suggests is optimism that reveres truth and hard work. This is the healthiest kind of optimism that she can think of. This optimism uses darkness as a lattice for invention, a chance to increase strength and perseverance.

She writes:

“It’s a mistake always to contemplate the good and ignore the evil, because by making people neglectful it lets in disaster. There is a dangerous optimism of ignorance and indifference. It’s not enough to say that the twentieth century is the best age in the history of mankind, and to take refuge from the evils of the world in skyey dreams of good. How many good men, prosperous and contented, looked around and saw naught but good, while millions of their fellowmen were bartered and sold like cattle! No doubt, there were comfortable optimists who thought Wilberforce a meddle some fanatic when he was working with might and main to free the slaves.
I distrust the rash optimism in this country that cries, “Hurrah, we’re all right! This is the greatest nation on earth,” when there are grievances that call loudly for redress. That’s false optimism. Optimism that doesn’t count the cost is like a house builded on sand. A man must understand evil and be acquainted with sorrow before he can write himself an optimist and expect others to believe that he has reason for the faith that is in him.”
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Miss Keller at Work in Her Study. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Keller achieves this lush and firm perspective on optimism not from her ignorance of the existence of evil, but from her supreme awareness of its existence. From this awareness, she decides to take what pains the world and uses the pain to grow her sense of optimism.

She writes:

“I know what evil is. Once or twice I have wrestled with it, and for a time felt its chilling touch on my life; so I speak with knowledge when I say that evil is of no consequence, except as a sort of mental gymnastic. For the very reason that I have come in contact with it, I am more truly an optimist. I can say with conviction that the struggle which evil necessitates is one of the greatest blessings. It makes us strong, patient, helpful men and women. It lets us into the soul of things and teaches us that although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it. My optimism, then, doesn’t rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good, that it may prevail. I try to increase the power God has given me to see the best in everything and everyone, make the Best a part of my life. The world is sown with good, but unless I turn my glad thoughts into practical living and till my own field, I cannot reap a kernel of the good.”

To live with a sincere hope in this age of constant cynicism is not only rewarding, but it is the best kind of life we have to pursue. May Keller’s spirit of optimism help us get through the dark days of living.