The Upside of Unfamiliar Territory

by David Heitman

I heard an interesting interview on NPR this weekend with Thomas Dolby, longtime music pioneer, Silicon Valley engineer, soundtrack writer, music director for TED and now game developer.

I was struck by a comment in the interview where he said,

“I love being in a situation where I don’t really know what I’m doing. That’s when my creative juices really get stimulated. If I just trotted out the same formula, I’d be bored instantly.”

Whether creative professionals, business leaders or artists have Dolby’s courage to admit it or not, what he said is unquestionably true: that when we find ourselves most strained by new and unfamiliar realities, the best new ideas arise.

Of course, most of life is lived in the comfort zone of one’s expertise; where intuition, fueled by a mental museum of past experiences, can be leveraged for guidance and good judgment. This is why people hire experts, whether they be consultants, designers or plumbers.

But every quantum leap of creative growth comes from grappling with the new, the unfamiliar, maybe even that which is threatening. One could, I suppose, on that basis, be thankful that the recession, globalization and Google-ization of the past few years have supplied ample opportunities to navigate the unknown and create new solutions. For innovators like Dolby who enjoy the swim in unfamiliar waters, the last few years have represented an ocean of inspiration in which to reinvent just about every industry you can think of.

In our business, there is tremendous pressure to make a science of marketing. In today’s era of data-driven communications and measurement of every response, click and conversion tool, there certainly is no excuse for failing to monitor the effectiveness of marketing with a watchful eye on numerous metrics, and then making real-time adjustments based on the feedback.

But such left brain marketing metrics are only half the story. One wing of the airplane.

Creative breakthroughs, poetic expression and imagination are what give all that data a soul. Like Dr. Frankenstein, you can sew all the parts together, but without the spark of creativity, the lightning bolt that quickens the machine, you don’t have a sustainable brand.

Every great leader—political, religious or business—will in private moments, and sometimes in rare public ones, admit that the unfamiliar is daunting and uncertain. This was the genius of Lincoln and Churchill—men of strong conviction about the justice of their cause, but willing to admit the uncertainties that lay before them and the people they led. It is the leaders who move forward heedless of their own ignorance who endanger the organizations or nations they lead.

So while “I don’t really know what I’m doing” may not be the thing you’d put at the top of your resume or the first page of your company’s next proposal, it may actually be the best reason you should be hired.