The Deviant’s Advantage

“All good things which exist are the fruits of originality.” – John Stuart Mill (On Liberty, 1859)

The history of great ideas is a history of boldness and ridicule. The printing press, to take a relatively old example, was condemned as a tool of the devil. The steam engine was a folly. Marconi’s radio contraption was thought to be a loony idea, as was the idea of sending the human voice over electronic wires, creating music from plastic plates, making photographs move, and, more recently, generating heat and energy from nuclear power  And it’s not just inventions. Many of today’s most mainstream cultural innovations were once considered oddball or crackpot. Take modern art, for example. Or jazz. Or ecology.

There is a corollary to this in business. That’s the thesis of Ryan Mathews and Watts Wacker, whose new book, “The Deviant’s Advantage,” is getting a lot of positive buzz among serious business readers and some good reviews in the press.

Mathews and Wacker believe deviance has been given a bad name. In fact, they argue, deviance in business has been responsible for many of the most successful marketing programs of the last 50 years. Take, for example:

* Volkswagens

* Victoria’s Secret lingerie

* Virgin Airways

* Viagra

And that’s to mention nothing but products with names that begin with “V”! “The Deviant’s Advantage” tells the stories of some of these companies and the men who founded them: Larry Ellison of Oracle, Bill Gates of Microsoft, Ray Kroc of McDonald’s, and Sam Walton of Wal-Mart.

Of course, we are talking about “positive deviancy” here — not the kind that results in bombings and suicide cocktails. The authors’ term for the voice of positive deviance is the “devox.”

The book is full of such neologisms, but it’s also written in a relaxed and friendly way. That makes its shortcomings forgivable and its good advice more enjoyable.

I know from experience that virtually any time you try to do something radically different in business you will be met with disbelief, disagreement, and — unfortunately too often — scorn.

No one likes to be the object of contempt, especially if it comes from your peers. But contempt and/or ridicule will be your fate if you try to do something big or new or important, so you might want to consider that and prepare for it.

When I think about my own experience and the careers of those I’ve mentored, it’s clear that the guys who were likeable and fit in never achieved much more than an ordinary amount of success. The star performers — the ones who made the big breakthroughs and/or made the big money –all encountered a great deal of negative reaction from their peers.

What’s comforting to know — if you are committed to excellence and prepared for scorn — is that your deviant ideas, if they are successful, will eventually be practiced and even embraced by those who scorn them.

According to Mathews and Wacker, deviant ideas — aided by changing language about them — move from the Fringe to the Edge, then to the Realm of the Cool, then to the Next Big Thing, and finally to Social Convention. The big money is made in the last two stages — which seems just, if you ask me. Those who are bold enough to pursue the new idea when it is still considered deviant should be rewarded amply if and when that idea changes the world.

Are you bold enough to be deviant? Are you able to withstand your contemporaries’ scorn?

And what about your business? Do you tolerate deviance? Encourage it? Or dissuade it?

It’s something to think about, don’t you agree?

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]