The Best Place to Work

January 02, 2015


Ron Friedman on "The Defining Feature of Renowned Artists, Star Athletes, and Successful Organizations."

Sally covered The Best Place to Work by Ron Friedman for our Jack Covert Selects Review series last month, and we ran a manifesto from the author on ChangeThis about why Everything We Know About Great Workplaces is Wrong. Both pieces seem to have resonated, so we're following up with an excerpt from the book itself. It is a little different from the other pieces, though, because instead of exploring common workplace myths and realities, it focuses on what is different about those considered to have a particular genius in their field and the one thing you can do to be more like them—fail more often.

The Defining Feature of Renowned Artists, Star Athletes, and Successful Organizations

Dean Keith Simonton is a social psychologist with a fascinating specialty.

While most researchers in the field are content dissecting the life of the average undergraduate, Simonton investigates a different population. Among his subjects are the likes of William Shakespeare, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Leonardo da Vinci.

Simonton studies genius. Creative genius, more specifically, asking questions like: Where does it come from? How does it develop? And what can we do to foster it in our own lives? By examining the lives of highly creative individuals, including their backgrounds, educational upbringings, and productivity, Simonton is able to offer a number of interesting observations on the ways successful artists differ from others in their fields.

So what's different about geniuses?

For one thing, Simonton argues, creative geniuses tend to hold a broader array of interests than their average contemporary. While working to find a solution in one domain, they'll often dabble in unrelated fields, often through exploring the worlds of art, music, and literature. It might look as if they are slacking off, but it's often these extraneous experiences that fuel their ability to find unexpected connections. Simonton also believes that, compared to others in their fields, creative geniuses receive only a moderate level of education. Too little formal study and they lack enough knowledge to make a valuable contribution. Too many years in the classroom and their thinking becomes tethered to the status quo.

But perhaps the most interesting finding in Simonton's research is his observation that creative geniuses don't simply offer more creative solutions. They offer more solutions, period.

What do Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy, Picasso, Monet, Bach, Mozart, Wagner, Schubert, Brahms, and Dostoyevsky all have in common? They all produced far more than their contemporaries.

Importantly, not every one of their creations was a masterpiece. Today, in fact, they are remembered for a mere fraction of their complete body of work. Creative geniuses simply do not generate masterpieces on a regular basis. Yet the quality that distinguishes them would be impossible without the quantity of attempts.

Simonton likens the success of creative ideas to a genetic pool. If you're reading the words on this page, you're obviously alive and well, thanks to the genes that program your body. But will your genes still be around a century from now? That depends on a variety of factors, among them the number of children you produce. The more offspring you introduce into the world, the greater the chances of your genes being passed on to succeeding generations.

In Simonton's view, a similar principle applies to creative ideas. The more solutions you generate, the more likely you are to stumble upon a winning combination that lives on, because it is considered both novel and useful.

It's worth noting that quantity alone, of course, is never enough. If I were to quit my job and dedicate the rest of my life to painting landscapes, the likelihood of my work being inducted into the Metropolitan Museum of Art would still be incredibly slim. Yet "slim" is a vast improvement over my current odds. Because in the absence of quantity, my chances are nil.

The interesting implication of Simonton's research is this: Creative geniuses don't just attempt more solutions; they also miss quite often.

We're often told that Thomas Edison failed hundreds of times before successfully inventing the light bulb. But not all of Edison's failures were salvaged by a happy ending. Edison also invested nearly two decades (decades!) trying to find ways of extracting iron from sand, as a means of reducing the cost of the metal. He ultimately abandoned the effort and reluctantly sold his company, losing a fortune in the process. Edison is hardly the only famous inventor to have failed on a colossal scale. Before the iPhone and iPad revolutionized the world of personal computing, Steve Jobs accrued a remarkably long list of failures that includes the Apple I, the Apple II, the Lisa, the Newton personal digital assistant, and NeXT hardware.

A similar observation can be made for star athletes. When Babe Ruth set the record for most career home runs and most career strikeouts in a single week, he knew the two measures were inextricably linked. "If I just tried for them dinky singles," Ruth told reporters, "I could've batted around .600."

Ruth's hold on the career strikeout mark lasted nearly three decades before his record finally fell. And who eventually claimed the embarrassing distinction? For a while it was sixteen-time All Star Mickey Mantle. Then along came an outfielder who shattered the previous mark: five-time World Series winner Reggie Jackson.

Not a bad club to belong to.

And it's not just baseball where failure seems to accompany greatness. In basketball, Kobe Bryant has missed more shots than any player in history. In football, the record for most career interceptions by a quarterback is held by eleven-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion Brett Favre.

As Daniel Coyle points out in The Little Book of Talent, successful athletes don't just fail during games. They go out of their way to seek out failure during practice. Hockey great Wayne Gretzky, for example, would often fall flat on the ice during skating exercises. It's not that he'd forgotten how to skate. He was deliberately pushing his boundaries, experimenting with the limits of his ability.

When practice is effortless, Coyle argues, learning stops. It's by walking the precipice between your current abilities and the skills just beneath your reach that growth happens. Master performers don't get to where they are by playing at the same level day after day. They do so by risking failure and using the feedback to master new skills.

The willingness to grow through failure is an approach that's not limited to individuals; a surprising number of leading organizations tend to do the same. Take Google. We all know about its game-changing products, including its search engine, Gmail, and Google Maps.

But what about Google [x], the homepage customization tool that lasted all of one day? Or Froogle, a price comparison tool whose name confused so many users it had to be dropped? How many of us remember Google Reader, Google Web Accelerator, Google Answers, Google Video Player, or Google Buzz?

As far as missteps go, it's not an inconsequential amount.

"Our policy is we try things," said then Google CEO Eric Schmidt, when announcing in 2010 that the company was pulling the plug on Google Wave. "We celebrate our failures. This is a company where it is absolutely OK to try something that is very hard, have it not be successful, take the learning and apply it to something new." Cofounder Larry Page echoed the sentiment. "Even if you fail at your ambitious thing, it's very hard to fail completely. That's the thing that people don't get."

And in a way, that's what makes them so prolific. It's the successful innovators' dirty little secret: They fail more than the rest of us.

Excerpted from The Best Place to Work by Ron Friedman.
Copyright 2014 by
Ron Friedman.
Reprinted courtesy of
Perigee Books, an imprint of Penguin Books USA.
All rights reserved

Ron Friedman, Ph.D. is an award-winning psychologist and the founder of ignite80, a consulting firm that helps smart leaders build extraordinary workplaces. An expert on human motivation, he contibutes to the blogs of Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, Forbes, and Psychology Today.

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