It feels like I’m in a 2020 version of Groundhog Day.
If you haven’t seen it, the movie is about a grumpy TV weatherman (played by Bill Murray) covering the famous Groundhog Day festivities in a small Pennsylvania town. He gets stuck in a time loop, repeatedly reliving the same day.
My days in self-isolation play on repeat. I get up in the morning at the same time each day and have the exact same thought when I see myself in the mirror as I brush my teeth: “I badly need a haircut. I wonder if I can cut my own hair?”
I then repeat the same activities, in largely the same order. Every now and then, I escape the confines of my isolation to take a walk outside, performing the same awkward dance to maintain the strict six-foot sphere of hygiene from all passersby.
It’s a choose-your-adventure book that always has the same ending.
Even the emails I get are the same. If you’re like me, you’ve received dozens of emails sporting some variation of the same banal title (“Special Message from our CEO about COVID-19”) and repeating the same overworn soundbites (“In a time of unprecedented uncertainty”) and cliche phrases (“Dear valued customer”).
Human beings are wired to emulate others, especially in times of unprecedented uncertainty (see what I did there?). As I write in Think Like a Rocket Scientist, “Particularly in conditions of uncertainty, we tend to copy and paste from our peers and competitors, assuming they know something we don’t.”
But this “monkey see, monkey do” approach creates a race to the exceedingly crowded center. Newspapers chase the same stories and businesses copy each other’s marketing strategies. It’s like that Chinese proverb: One dog barks at something, and a hundred others bark at that sound.
You can escape this time loop by doing what Bill Murray did in Groundhog Day (spoiler alert).
Murray breaks the repetitive cycle by doing the opposite of what he had done before. Instead of reporting with disdain on the Groundhog Day festivities, he reports them enthusiastically. He sets aside his selfish desires and performs various acts of charity. He becomes the creator of his destiny, waking up in bed to a brand new day, having escaped the time loop.
Here are some ideas you can use to channel your inner Bill Murray:
Instead of sending the same email with the same soundbites as your competitors, stand out in your customers’ inboxes with an email that snaps them out of their trance. (see this example here).
Ditch the standard playbook everyone else is using. Director Quentin Tarantino is a master at this strategy: He makes you believe a scene will proceed in a conventional direction, but then takes a shocking turn to jolt the audience and create a moment that lingers with you for a long time (e.g., John Travolta’s character accidentally shooting someone in the back seat of a car in Pulp Fiction).
If you’re looking for employment, don’t apply to the same jobs as everyone else. I frequently tell my students that applying for job postings circulated to the student body is one of the worst ways of finding good employment. Why? Everyone and their cousin is applying to those jobs, trying to pluck the most accessible fruit on the tree. Reach for the fruit that others ignore—the one obscured by all the leaves.
Ask yourself, “What if we reversed the industry standard or a common best practice?” Consider Patagonia’s 2011 advertising campaign. The company ran a full-page ad in the New York Times on Black Friday that 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.
Conventional thoughts lead to conventional results.
It’s only through unconventional thinking that you can escape your time loop and wake up in a new reality.
P.S. To learn practical tactics for developing unconventional thinking, order my book, Think Like a Rocket Scientist, and pay close attention to Chapter 2 (First Principles), Chapter 3 (A Mind at Play), and Chapter 4 (Moonshot Thinking). If you order the book, you’ll also get amazing bonuses listed here, including a digital version of the book you can download within seven days of your pre-order. Just your receipt to [email protected].
I’ve been ecstatic about the early reviews. The book was named a “must read” by Susan Cain (NYT Bestselling Author of Quiet), “endlessly fascinating” by Daniel Pink (NYT Bestselling Author of Drive and A Whole New Mind), and “bursting with practical insights” by Adam Grant (NYT Bestselling Author of Originals). The book is also Adam Grant’s # 1 pick among his top 20 books of 2020.