Should I play by the rules or follow my instincts?
Shall I persevere or give up?
Should I strike back or forgive?
The big guys don’t have final say. They only hold the power we give them.
During the nineteenth Century, there was a group of seven artists in France who met regularly to eat, drink, advise on one another’s work and, increasingly, strategize a way of getting it noticed.
During that same time, the Salon in France was the end all, be all of the artist community. To be showcased by the Salon was the best shot an artist had at success. As such, the application process was very strict; the acceptance rate of paintings highly competitive. To be accepted, an artist had to paint to the Salon’s precise, exacting standards of what a painting should be. Put another way, “the reason that the Salon was such an issue for the group of Impressionists was that time and again, the Salon jury turned them down.” (Gladwell)
The problem was that these artists painted in unconventional ways, and their work violated the rules of academic painting. As Malcolm Gladwell writes in David and Goliath, “The acceptance by the Salon came with a cost: it required creating the kind of art that they did not find meaningful, and they risked being lost in the clutter of other artists’ work.” And after being rejected a number of times, and being faced with pressure to surrender their lifework for the Salon, they instead chose to go a different direction.
In December 1873, those seven artists as well as several others founded the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, rented a space, hung their art, and then threw the doors open.
The critical response was mixed. But the public loved it. They flocked to these new artists, who “freely brushed colors that took precedence over lines and contours… painted realistic scenes of modern life, and often painted outdoors.” Previously, still lifes and portraits as well as landscapes were usually painted in a studio… these artists “used short broken brush strokes of mixed and pure unmixed color—not blended smoothly or shaded, as was customary—to achieve an effect of intense color vibration.”
Those seven artists were Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Cézanne, Berthe Morisot, and Edgar Degas, the earliest Impressionists, whose work has since gone down in history.
The selectivity – and prestige – of the Salon (as well as Ivy leagues and your dream company and any other body you think holds all the cards) can only maintain that status because it’s validated by those who subscribe to the model. The minute we don’t, it loses that.
Innovators fight giants
Psychologists measure personality through what is called the Five Factor Model, or “Big Five” inventory, which assess who we are across Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism.
The psychologist Jordan Peterson argues that innovators and revolutionaries tend to have a very particular mix of these traits: Innovators have to be open. And innovators need to be disagreeable.
As George Bernard Shaw one put it:
As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in David and Goliath, “[innovators] are people willing to take social risks – to do things that others might disapprove of. This is not easy. Society frowns on disagreeableness.” There is tremendous pressure to fall into line, and perceived rewards for doing so.
But to build things, we go nowhere without the willingness to challenge convention. “If you worry about hurting people’s feeling and disturbing the social structure, you’re not going to put your ideas forward.” (Gladwell) And if you don’t put your own ideas forward, you’re never going to get any farther than what role the system wants you to play.
The point, however, is not to do disruptive acts for the sake of disruptive. The point is to do acts that we believe to be important, and disregard social cues that tell us to instead follow status quo.
To play as an innovator, it takes a different set of traits:
- Limited investment in, allegiance to, or fear of the institution or system – the giant
- Strong investment in or allegiance to their own objective
- Lack of care for what others think
- Belief (“Power can come in other forms… in breaking rules, in substituting speed and surprise for strength.”)
- Drive (“Effort can trump ability and that conventions are made to be challenged.”)
- Desperation (“To play by David’s rules you have to be desperate. You have to be so bad that you have no choice.”)
And when it comes to asking themselves “should play by the rules or follow my instincts? Shall I persevere or give up? Should I strike back or forgive?” or how to decide to do things that are seen by others as disruptive, innovators often say:
“There was no decision to make.”