I fly a hundred thousand miles or more each year, and usually when I get off my plane I’m met by the driver of a black car. I’ve probably talked with hundreds of drivers doing the same job, chauffeuring people like me around and hustling for tips. In St. Louis, my client regularly hired the same young guy to meet my plane. He liked to talk to me about his work. No one told him to do that, he just started talking. In one conversation I asked him: Who do you work for? He said all his business was with two companies. I asked, do they know you? What’s your specialty? He said other car services required a half day’s notice, but he would come if they called at the last minute. Also, he was willing to drive long-distance: if they needed a ride from St. Louis to Chicago, he’d get on the highway.

I said, if you’re valuable to them, if you’ve got a special niche, one of those companies might be willing to commit to a long-term arrangement with you, so they know they can always get a ride from you when they want it. And if they’re willing to make a formal arrangement, you could probably find a business partner who would put up some money to buy some cars.

This advice wasn’t special. I’ve given it to other drivers and equivalent advice to lots of other solo practitioners in different businesses over the years. But the next time I saw this young man, he said, “I want to tell you something. I’m no longer just a driver. I got a partner and we bought two Lincolns. I own the company.” He wasn’t rich, but the whole way he talked about his life had changed: I own the company.

Psychologists call this self-authorizing behavior. This young man changed his behavior and made himself the author of his own life. No one had told him to talk to me while he drove me to my conference. No one had told him to act on what I said. No one told him how to seek out someone in his community who could put up money to buy two cars. But he saw that his life – and almost everyone’s life – is like that moment in the old Western movies when a townsperson rides back into town with the bad news: “We’re on our own. The cavalry isn’t coming.” To me, that moment in the movie, when a man rides in, dusty, exhausted, and grim, shows the key existential moment in creativizing. It’s the moment that you realize no one else is going to save you. You’re bankrupt and no one is going to bail you out; your marriage is broken and it’s not going to get fixed; you’ve got an illness and it can’t be wished away; you have the same unrealized dream you’ve always had, and no one but you can make it come true. The feeling at the moment is hard to take, but it clears your vision. Now you see what the townspeople in the Western see: if we’re going to get rescued, we’ll have to rescue ourselves.



Of course, we all try to put that moment off. We deny. We criticize. We blame. Everyone does it– people come to me all the time with stories of the outrageous bad luck they’ve had, the unfairness and stupidity of the people they had to work with, the outrages committed by the evildoers who’ve done them wrong. Some martial vast evidence to prove the thesis that life sucks. It’s like what you hear on political talk shows, at either end of the spectrum: the other side is not just wrong, they are crazy, immoral and evil – probably all three. Even if these views are sometimes correct, they aren’t any help if what you want is to creativize. Because that kind of thinking comes from a position of reaction, of criticism. People talking that way are not self-authorizing; they’re just criticizing, saying everything that’s wrong with what others do but nothing about what would work better. But innovation can’t be done by critics. It takes authors.

When I hear people stuck in the reactionary mode, people who are too busy critiquing and explaining and blaming to self-authorize and start building something new, I ask them: okay, well, what would you do? Let’s say you’re right and people around you are crazy. What would a sane person do? Let’s say this or that member of Congress is an idiot. How would you solve the problem? Forget your vicious boss for a moment, your undermining parents. What would a good boss say? What would good parents do? These questions shift your thinking because they stop you from endlessly moving away from something, and start you moving toward something new – that is, they start you innovating.

As you think through your innovation goals, notice your feelings. Are you feeling helpless or impatient? Are you waiting for the cavalry to come charging to the rescue? Well, I’m sorry. The cavalry isn’t coming. Do you feel stagnant or stuck? Is there always a critique on the tip of your tongue? These are signs that you aren’t self-authorizing. Instead, try this:

  • Picture what you want.
  • See it clearly.
  • Now picture someone who could advise you about taking a possible next step. Someone who could help you answer the question: “What could I do to make this work?”
  • Find that person. Have a conversation. Don’t criticize their ideas, just collect possibilities, imagine how the story could go if it had a happy ending. Be an author, not a critic.
  • Then try one of that person’s suggestions or one of your own ideas.

Without anyone telling you to, do an experiment in your own life. Start a new chapter. Move your story forward.


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Don’t most people notice the weather?  Yes, but they don’t respond to it.  In my home state of Michigan, there were signs as far back as the 1970s that the auto manufacturing jobs on which so many relied were leaving the country.  By 1994, Michael Moore had made his movie “Roger and Me,” about the horrific effects of outsourcing on his hometown of Flint.  Word was out.  I personally had two friends who took it upon themselves to get new training before their manufacturing jobs disappeared.  They started to ask themselves and their friends: is there any reason to think the number of auto factory jobs is going to go back up again?  Is the work I do so special that it will be necessary no matter what happens to the auto industry?

When they thought about these questions, they realized the answers were no and no.  So then they looked around for industries where the weather was better.  Online sales were growing every year, and one of my friends had always liked and been good with computers.  The population of elderly people in Michigan was growing, and my other friend – a big, burly guy, the last person you would have guessed – had always had a feeling for caring for the elderly.  In the end, one became a website designer and the other a nurse.  Yet most people with jobs in the auto industry kept going to work as if they didn’t see the storm clouds or feel the first drops of rain.  Either they felt the sensations and didn’t think about them or they had no way to apply their creativity to what they observed all around.

How can you shift from passive notice of the weather to active response?  To begin, make time to reflect on the larger changes going on around you.  Instead of using all your time to check items off the to-do list or kick back and relax, give yourself a half a day a month, or two hours here and there, to watch the weather.  Put it on your calendar.  Treat it as one of your most important meetings.  When the time comes, learn about changes going on in your area and your industry.  How could you start?

  • Read a news magazine or industry publication that you normally skip
  • Replace an hour of “entertainment” television each week in favor of a news or documentary program about an issue you are concerned about
  • Browse an online news aggregator such as HuffingtonPost or Google News, that gives a wide range of experts and observers a place to comment on the trends they observe
  •  Make use of the expertise and experience of the people all around you.  Make a point to talk to different folks at community gatherings – at a party, after religious services, at a school event – and ask them what’s new in their business or their neighborhood.  Where do they see opportunities?  Or what has them concerned?
  • When you travel, talk to the people traveling alongside you.  The person next to you on the bus or plane, or in the seat nearby when you stop for a bite to eat.  The driver of the airport shuttle or the taxi.  Are things changing around here?  What’s on their minds?
  • Join a group on Facebook or another social networking site that provides neutral information on big-picture issues that concern you – health, education, finance, etc.  Remember that the goal here is to choose a group that will expose you to new points of view, not just reinforces the views you expect to be true.
  • If you have children in your life, discuss issues of the day that get raised at your child’s school.  Work to help them develop a big picture perspective.  As you help them to think for themselves, you may find that they are learning things or encountering situations that are new to you as well.  

In any of these ways, you can begin to become aware of the changes on the horizon.  But don’t just sit alone to wonder and worry – find others who are interested in watching the weather and discussing the longer-term possibilities.   “I saw on Huffington Post that X and Y.  Do you think that will happen here?”  “I read in the newspaper that …” Start an ongoing conversation, with others and with yourself.  Conduct thought experiments: When you look up at the sky, what do you see coming?  What might that mean?  Is that something that’s going to matter for you?

The most important thing is to remember that you are starting a learning process that will take time.  If you spend one afternoon learning and talking, chances are you won’t end the day with any answers at all.  That’s exactly where you should be.  For now, your goal is to establish the innovator’s habit of looking up and identifying some clouds you need to keep an eye on, some areas down the road that are expecting sunshine.  

Discover the power of constructive conflict and how it can help foster innovation. By reading The Innovation Code, you will learn how to harness tension and transform it into positive energy to successfully implement your innovation projects.

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A journalist asked me, “Is the Euro going to go up or down?”

“Up, of course,” I said. That got his attention.  

“Why? “

“Because it’s down now.  That’s what currencies do.  They go up and down.”

“When?” he wanted to know.  “When is it going to go up?”

All I could do was smile.  “If I knew that, I wouldn’t be telling you.  I’d be off buying Euros.”

We would all like to know right away which of our ideas for how to make our lives better is going to succeed and which isn’t, so we can be perfectly certain of success.  That’s why people buy so many of those checklist-type books with titles like Seven Steps to Get Rich Quick.  We’d all love to find a foolproof checklist that will succeed everywhere, for everyone, forever – but as we find out sooner or later, there’s no way to get that kind of perfect information.   Just watch any old science fiction movie. It may be good or bad, but with hindsight we always find that the filmmaker never gets the future right.  If you watch “2001,” you’ll see that the story assumed that by 2001 there would be two bases on the moon, one run by the United States and one by the Soviet Union.  At the same time, when a character in the movie makes a video phone call, he has to sit inside a phone booth and pay by the minute – the creators were able to imagine an American moon base but not a free Internet phone call on a handheld device.  And though it’s supposed to be the future, everyone is dressed in closely tailored 1960s clothes, because that’s what was in style when the movie was made.  There is no data on the fashion future, either.

Even graduates of business school fall into the trap of thinking they can know what the future will bring.  MBAs typically try to understand the future by doing more research on the past, so they can document and repeat what worked before.  But as innovators know, the game keeps changing.  What worked before won’t necessarily work again.  There is no certainty.   If you don’t believe me, go read the checklist-style business books on innovation that were popular five years ago.  It’s the reading equivalent of slowing down on the highway to get a look at a car wreck. Innovative business practices that were heralded as the next new thing are strewn to the side of the road.

Take a business practice from that era called Total Quality Management.  It was the innovative management approach developed back when the Japanese were suddenly making cars of much higher quality than we were making in America.  Our cars were full of defects, and lots of Americans started to buy Japanese.  To become competitive again, the Total Quality Management approach said that everyone involved in making a product like a car, including people outside the company such as suppliers and customers, had to participate in checking and maintaining quality.  It was a very good idea about how companies could make fewer mistakes, and by about the year 2000 American quality ratings were indistinguishable from those of Asian companies.  TQM worked.


The trouble was, too many business people forgot that TQM was an innovation developed to solve a specific problem at a specific time.  They forgot that their fabulous data about TQM only applied to the past, and that there was no data from the future.  TQM came to be seen as a cure-all, a required “improvement” for any company.  But eliminating errors is not the only thing companies have to do well.  And in fact, while American car companies were focusing increasingly on reducing the number of mistakes they made, Japanese and Korean companies shifted focus.  They started to ask: how could we build exciting new luxury cars?  How could we break into what has always been an American and European market?  They had shifted from reducing errors to expanding into new markets, and the fact that American companies were hyper-focused on reducing manufacturing errors meant the Asian companies had plenty of time and room to innovate – and pull ahead of American manufacturers again.


All those American companies that jumped on the TQM bandwagon were making the same basic mistake: they thought that past success was a guarantee of future success.  We all do this at times.  Every year, it seems, as college admissions news comes in, I hear about some family shocked that their child hasn’t gotten into any college except a safety school.  They say something like: “How could that happen to Billy?  He was such a smart little boy.  Why, when he was four years old….”  They’re still relying on the mental picture they have of him from years ago – and ignoring more recent potential pictures, like the one of his school losing its standards, or the one of smart Billy, bored in his failing school, cutting classes and getting into trouble.  


If past performance can’t predict the future, and you can’t rely on the methods that worked yesterday to work again for you tomorrow, then what can you do?  How do you meet the uncertainty of the future – the only place where you can grow? By taking the mental stance of the successful creativizer.  Neither hiding from change nor lost in endless preparation and research.  Uncertain – but not upset to be uncertain.  Because life can’t be fully plotted in advance, only understood in hindsight, the innovator goes forward uncertain but curious, interested, and responsive to new data as it comes in, and comes in again tomorrow.

Discover the power of constructive conflict and how it can help foster innovation. By reading The Innovation Code, you will learn how to harness tension and transform it into positive energy to successfully implement your innovation projects.

Learn More