The Secret to Innovative Work: Be Different, Not Better

Often, we think the way to stand out from the pack is to be better. And sometimes that is the answer: to become an improved version of who you were yesterday, to do what the “other guy” is doing with a few added features. However, this is often a losing strategy, as you are making iterative improvements on someone else's work.

The Secret to Innovative Work: Be Different, Not Better

A better way to become world-class at what you do is to change the game completely. Don't be better; be different.

(HT to Casey Graham who taught me this idea who heard it from Victor Cheng.)

For years, I was obsessed with comparing myself to others, constantly measuring my own accomplishments against the work of others. No matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried, I always felt like a failure. I could never shake this idea that my work, no matter how good or successful, was always a fraction of what someone else had done. Unable to enjoy my success, I was caught in the comparison trap, which robbed me of my unique contribution to the world.

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Teddy Roosevelt was right. Comparing yourself will rob you of your joy. Not only that, it will cheat you out of any real success you could ever achieve, because you will constantly be questioning yourself, seeing what you do not for what it is, but for what it's not. And you will find subtle ways to sabotage your own efforts, never thinking it's good enough. People will compliment you, and you won't be able to hear them. They will be impacted by what you do, and it won't matter. And over time, people won't want to hear you drone on about how this isn't good enough or what you imagined. Because, to be honest, that's pretty damn disrespectful.

It took a brutal awakening to face this in my own life. My unhappiness with my work was a slap in the face of everyone who'd ever read a word I'd written or experienced any of my creations. And I had a decision to make: I could keep trying to be a better version of someone else. Or I could learn the art of becoming myself. Perhaps success was not so much about being better, anyway. Maybe it was more about being different.

Different is better than better

Different is almost always better than better. In any field—business, academia, athletics—the individuals and organizations who stand out are those brave enough to pave their own way. To go in a direction few have gone before and wait for the world to catch up.

Why does this work?

Because it grabs your attention. A slightly better version of the iPhone is not going to make headline news. Bing won't ever beat Google in search attention. And you won't be the next Taylor Swift by singing slightly better versions of her songs. That's not how it works. Even if you are better, people won't care, because it's not just enough to be better. You have to be different.

One of the reasons different is better than better is because all of the aforementioned examples were originals; they were doing something the world had never really seen before, not like that. Certainly, they built on what had come before, but they did something new with it. This is a concept in branding that is often referred to as “same but different.” In other words, take an idea or model that someone has used before and essentially proven, and then tweak it in some substantial way. The iPhone wasn't the first smartphone and it certainly wasn't the first phone with a camera or even a music player, but it was the first device to combine all three of those features in a simple, beautiful touchscreen. It was different, not necessarily better. And by creating a category of one, they dominated that category by being first in it. Anytime you are first in anything, you will win. Kleenex owns the “facial tissue” strategy because they were first.

Costco succeeds because it's not trying to be a better version of Wal-Mart. The Grateful Dead have attracted millions of fans over the years precisely because they weren't trying to be a better version of the Beatles. This strategy works because it forces you to play by a different set of rules. You take the attention away from what you're not and focus it on what you are. When you play the game you want to play, you win every time. Because it changes the terms of the game entirely and frees you to dream of completely new possibilities.

This is the only way to get comfortable in your own skin and to truly stand out in a world of copycats and charlatans: Be different, not better. This is the stuff of innovators and pioneers, of world-changing inventors and entrepreneurs, and where true genius is found. I believe it is also a practice we can all do if we are willing to let go of the lies that hold us back from being the best at what only we can do.

You can't beat them if you join them

The first belief is the idea that the way it has always been done is the way it should be done. You need a bigger vision.

One belief that holds us back from becoming the best at what only we can do is the idea that someone else has figured it out. If we were to just follow in the footsteps of greatness, we would be able to be as good if not a little better than the last guy.

And that's true… to a degree. Getting caught in the comparison trap will help you improve. You might even become a slightly better version of what came before. But this is rarely how we get paradigm-shifting innovations and world-changing creations, like putting a person on the moon or splitting an atom or understanding how the human mind works. These steps forward were, in fact, giant leaps not because they merely built on the work that came before but because they were willing to take massive wrongs in what potentially could have been the wrong direction.

Yes, there is a place for iteration, for slow and steady improvement based on precedent. But for every 99 physicists in a laboratory, building on the work of their predecessors, there is a lowly patent office clerk doing thought experiments on the nature of the universe.

For every thousand startup employees trying to keep up with the insane hours is a kid dreaming of doing things completely differently.

For all evening news co-anchors aspiring to be the lead anchor is a woman from Tennessee who dreams of owning her own network someday. The world does not get an Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs or Oprah Winfrey simply by trying to do what has been done a little better.

More than our circumstances, we are limited by our imaginations.

So the first belief that holds us back is the idea that we should merely pay attention to the way it has been done or the way it is being done. This kind of thinking, to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, is the death of joy. Yes, comparison kills your contentment, but it can also destroy any possibility of success you might have because to substantially change the world, you have to first believe it is not flat. You have to go against the grain of what “everyone” says or does or believes. You can't beat them if you join them. At some point, you've got to go your own way and face the rejection and hardship—and greatness—that comes from such courage.

Your limitations are leverage points, not liabilities

Another false belief is that our limitations stand in the way of our success. Essentially, we think of them as liabilities when, in fact, they can become tremendous leverage points if we let them.

All your weaknesses, all your deficiencies and setbacks, are not necessarily the obstacles you think they are. As Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius is reported to have said, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” Or as Ryan Holiday succinctly summarizes: “The obstacle is the way.” In other words, what we often think is holding us back may, in fact, be the secret keys to our success.

But most of us don't think this way. I certainly didn't and still often don't. Many of us tend to think, “If I were born in another place, to another family, with another set of circumstances, I could be someone different.” And of course, you could be. You would be. Completely different. But that's not how it happened, did it? So what good is it to consider these questions? They only serve to distract and slow us down.

When we wait for our limitations to go away, when we actively resist them in hopes of making a way for what we really want, the path often becomes more difficult and confusing. What if all the things you thought were working against you could be leveraged in your favor in some way? What if, as a trained martial artist, you were able to work with the seemingly negative energies coming at you and redirect them to serve you? Indeed, I think you can.

What if all the things you thought were working against you could be leveraged in your favor in some way?

Jeff Goins

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When Southwest Airlines started losing a pricing war against another airline company in the early 1970s, they decided to change the game entirely, shifting the focus away from price to experience. When their competitor slashed the price of a flight from Dallas to Houston from $26 to $13, Southwest decided to start giving bottles of whiskey to each passenger each time they flew with the low-budget airlines. Their customers came back in droves. Why? Because what would you rather have? An extra $13 in your pocket or a fifth of Scotch? The traveling professionals opted for the booze. And for several months that year, Southwest Airlines was the largest distributor of liquor in the great state of Texas.

Why did it work? Because they changed the game and decided to be different instead of better. When we lean into our limitations, we open up a world of possibilities that we might otherwise miss. The things that we think hold us back can become the perfect frame for the art we create that separates us from everyone else.

You aren't competing with anyone but yourself

Finally, the third belief that prevents us from doing our best work is that success has anything to do with anyone other than us. Often we measure our success against our perception of what other people are doing. We compare and contrast; we measure and calibrate based on what we see others doing. In this age of 24-hour news cycles and endless updates on social media, this game of watching the “other guy” can continue forever.

It seems that we know virtually “everything” that is happening with our friends and family and coworkers. Of course, we all know these are curated feeds, sharing the highlight reels of only what our peers want us to see… or do we? It seems there is a very real part of us that does not know this, that wonders if someone else might have all the answers, that somehow the answer still exists somewhere outside of us.

And there's nothing inherently wrong with being aware of what's going on in our world and even in our industry or neighborhood. But when we fixate, when we focus on the activity of others at the detriment of our own work, we lose two races: the one against that person and the one against ourselves. And the truth is that in life, we aren't really competing with anyone. No one has to live your life but you. And no one gets to live your life but you. So why are you measuring yourself against what someone else is doing? They don't have your circumstances, your situation. They don't know what it's like to be in your shoes.

My son Aiden likes to create his own board games, and when I'm playing with him and start winning, he'll say to me, “Daddy, I forgot to tell you about a rule.” And of course, the rule always has to do with something that gives him an advantage and allows him to win. I haven't talked to him about the ethics of gaming just yet, but I have to admit: I'm a little proud. I mean, why not? It's his game, after all. Why not design the rules to work in your favor? Who would create a game that they keep losing at? Well, the truth is you and I do this all the time when we turn our gaze away from our work and focus on what other people are doing, finding subtle ways to feel sad and sorry for ourselves for not measuring up to some impossible standard that keeps changing.

So we are left with the decision to either try to play someone else's game or finally settle into playing our own and owning the process. We get to decide what winning and losing looks like. We get to determine when we have finished the race and run it well and when we need to keep going. Certainly, there are bills to pay and mouths to feed. There are deadlines to meet and even commitments to keep. But we have more control than we realize. We get to set the terms; we decide what success looks like.

Why not play a game you can win?

And the game you win is the one where you determine the rules are, what success looks like, and hopefully, you do this in a way that works in your favor. The goal, I think, should not be to beat everyone else. That will only create anxiety because there'll always be someone who comes along at some point and is a little better. In the words of Jerry Garcia, “Don't be the best, be the only.”

What this means is that when in doubt, stay in your lane. Run your own race. Do your thing and let the chips fall where they may.

Embracing the Portfolio Life

What all of this really leads to is what I call the Portfolio Life, designing a body of work that integrates all of who you are and what you do in a package called “you” that you can be proud of. To do this, you have to:

  1. Let go of what other people think (they don't really care about you as much as you might be led to believe).
  2. Own your weirdness by leaning into your limitations and making them a part of your work that you talk about and embrace them instead of avoiding them.
  3. Stay in your lane. When it gets hard and you start feeling distracted, focus on your category of one—being the only instead of the best.

What would it look like if you started doing this today? What would this make possible for you?

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