Nobody does it that way.
This line stops a conversation before it begins.
If no one does it that way, it means it can’t be done.
If no one does it that way, it means we’ll get ostracized or rejected.
If no one does it that way, it means we don’t know what results await us.
If no one does it that way, it means we’re not going to do it that way.
So we stick to what’s worked in the past. We launch the same marketing campaign and make the seventeenth sequel to the Fast and Furious series. We pay lip service to doing things differently, but our commitment to originality carries the same sincerity as a glib politician pledging campaign reform.
When push comes to shove, we conform, rather than flout.
Resisting conformity causes us emotional distress—literally. A neurological study showed that non-conformity activates the amygdala and produces what the authors describe as “a pain of independence.”
To avoid this pain, we become the by-products of other people’s behaviors. In our personal lives, everything from our clothes, favorite movies, religious beliefs, and the books we choose to read are influenced by others. Businesses chase the latest fad or trend and do things simply because their competitors are doing them.
In one representative study, participants were quizzed about a documentary they watched: How many policemen were there when the woman got arrested? What was the color of her dress? A few days after they took the test, they returned to the lab to get re-tested. This time, they were shown the responses of other participants, some of which had been intentionally doctored to be false.
Roughly seventy percent of the time, the participants changed their answers and went along with the wrong answers given by the rest of the group. Even after the experimenters told the participants that the group answers were wrong, the fake social proof was so powerful that half of the participants stuck with the wrong answers when they were re-tested.
Imitation is easy. It provides the path of least resistance. It can even deliver some results in the short term. But it’s a recipe for long-term disaster. As Warren Buffett put it, “The five most dangerous words in business are ‘Everybody else is doing it.’” Over time, imitation makes a trend obsolete. This “monkey see, monkey do” approach creates a race to the center. The companies who prevail are those that decide to buck the trend and explore the edges.
Consider Patagonia’s 2011 advertising campaign.1 The company asked, Instead of doing what everyone does and asking people to buy from us, what if we asked them not to buy from us? The result of this thought experiment was a full-page ad in the New York Times that ran on Black Friday. The ad featured a Patagonia jacket with the headline, “Don’t buy this jacket.” With this ad, Patagonia became “the only retailer in the country asking people to buy less on Black Friday.” The ad worked in part because it supported Patagonia’s mission of reducing consumerism and lightening environmental impact. But it also ended up helping the company’s bottom line by attracting customers who shared the same mindset.
Dick Fosbury used the same method to revolutionize the Olympic high jump. When Fosbury was training to be a high jumper, athletes would use a technique called the straddle method, where they would jump face down over the bar. But Fosbury, a 21-year-old from the middle of nowhere in Oregon, prided himself on doing things differently. He asked himself, What if I did the opposite of what everyone else is doing? Instead of jumping face down to the bar, what if I jumped backwards?
His approach at first invited ridicule. A newspaper called him “The World’s Laziest High Jumper.” To his coaches, the Fosbury flop–as it came to be known–was an outrageous and dangerous departure from well-established norms. They tried to convince Fosbury to drop it.
Ignoring the naysayers, he kept gradually improving his technique and earned himself a spot on the 1968 Olympic team. The laughs eventually turned into cheers as Fosbury proved his critics wrong and took home the gold medal at the Olympics—by doing the exact opposite of the “best practice.”
Fosbury knew a secret missed by many others: The low-hanging fruit has already been picked. You can’t beat a stronger competitor by copying them. But you can beat them by doing what they’re not doing.
The next time you’re tempted to follow the herd, ask yourself, “What if I did what no one else is doing?” Even if you don’t follow through, the thought process involved in generating the answer will likely produce unexpected breakthroughs.