Initiative In The Water: Practical Steps to Finding the Next Big Idea
In 2005 David Foster Wallace gives the commencement address to Kenyon College’s graduating class. As he approaches the podium he clears his throat, sips some water and conveys his congratulations before telling the following parable:
“Two young fish are swimming in the ocean when a wise old fish approaches them and says, “Good morning, boys, how’s the water?” The young fish swim on for a bit when one looks at the other and says, “What the hell is water?””
The point of the story, Wallace says, is that the most important things in life are often the things most difficult to see and talk about. As the address proceeds, the origami of Wallace’s lesson unfolds as he urges the class to avoid the kind of egocentrism that will inhibit their happiness by being aware of the water around them.
Like all good parables, Wallace’s interpretation of his story can be reassigned to numerous aspects of adult life. In this instance, I’d like to talk about initiative and innovation and how the future belongs to the young and old fish among us who are bold enough to imagine water.
In the startup age, businesses everywhere have clung to the belief that innovation remains the key long-term relevance. While this is an accurate notion, most have been unwilling to commit to real change. A reliance on expense savings has created a scarcity of “good jobs” while recent college graduates and long tenured employees have realized that education and experience no longer guarantee success.
With a feeling of instability and insecure optimism, the search for the next significant idea ensues. Brainstorm and strategy sessions commence, vision statements are established and breakout groups are assigned to identify innovative opportunities for change and big, bold, audacious ideas. Individuals, many with overwhelming student debt and an abundance of competition are encouraged to see the future finished in advance, to draft goals, set benchmarks and intensely monitor progress on the path to achievement.
None of this is a bad thing, of course. All are relevant strategies to identifying creative and effective solutions to a problem. In time (as history has proven) answers will be realized by following this approach. The problem is, while all of the brainstorming and P&L revisions occur, some innovator somewhere, has been failing. And failing, etc.
This is the crutch of the problem for most of us. We want to get it right. We want to dial-back the risk by taking calculated, educated steps. We want to be so prepared, so strategic in our approach that the future we see in our mind will be the future we realize. So we research and we plan and we execute. And ultimately, we will fail. Or we will succeed too slowly, which becomes a failure in itself. All of this is inevitable, because failure is an important part of creation that cannot be side-stepped.
Don’t worry, this is not another article about the entrepreneurs approach to failing fast. This isn’t even about moving fast. It’s about a change in direction, for no other purpose than to experience change. It’s about forgetting notions of success and failure. Innovation begins with taking the initiative to do something, anything, differently than you’re currently doing it, because right now you’re doing it all the same as everyone else.
One of the things I most love hearing from the people I coach is, “Tomorrow, I think I’ll try…” It implies that planning has occurred, some type of analysis has been completed and a strategy is in place. It also reveals that this has all happened quickly and the expected timeline for execution will be equally quick. It echoes a sense of REAL optimism. Secure optimism.
In this place of secure optimism, every minor change will qualify as progress. You can take a new route to work, or say something new when you make that sales call. Veer from the script. Go to a new networking event each week. Read a new blog every day or eat at a new restaurant. Send an important email before bed rather than first thing in the morning. Scrape away routines that squash creativity. Ask a new question you’ve never asked. Download new productivity apps and identify what’s missing. Take a step, fill the gaps then take another. Ask yourself, “what if” and then finish the sentence with the first thought that comes to mind. Then…act. Immediately. Excuses are the reasons you give yourself for failure BEFORE you’ve failed. Ignore them and move.
Innovation is not about working meticulously to identify a new solution. It is about forcing yourself to be so present and in the moment that the next innovative step appears before you. This is how I interpret Wallace’s fish story. When the wise old fish swims by and says, “Good morning boys, how’s the water?” it was a challenge to change course, to find the initiative, to be bold enough to look for the water.
Ideas float around us all, just in our periphery. We may not be able to look closely enough to see them, but with subtle shifts in perspective it is surprising how quickly they materialize. What the hell is water? Be the one that asks. And then be the one that veers to the right and feels for it. What if?