It’s Time to Break the Rules: A guide for troublemakers and changemakers

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As someone with Asperger’s, I’ve always experienced the world from a different set of rules than those used by ‘normal’ people (neurotypicals (NTs)). Occasionally I get in trouble, even with friends. I remember once my neighbors Gus and Randy came over to watch TV and brought an ugly (ugly!!), cheap glass ashtray as a ‘visit’ gift – a gift to watch TV? The next day I brought it back.

SD: I’m never going to use this, and I hate it. Maybe give it to someone who will appreciate it.

Gus: (Laughter) You’re returning a gift!?

Randy: (Silence. Anger. Annoyance.)

SD: Randy, are you mad at me because I returned this? Do you want me to keep it? You seem to be mad at me. I don’t understand why.

Randy: (Silence. Silence. Silence.)

Gus: Oh, come on, Randy! It’s a cheap ashtray! We can use it as a Secret Santa gift.

Randy: (Staring at me with intense eyes. Silence. Staring.) WHO DOES THAT!!!!

SD: I do.

Because I experience the world so differently, I often neglect assumed, and apparently innate, conventional social rules. For survival, I developed others that make more sense to me. The good news is that using my own atypical rules and reasoning, I’ve spent my life resolving curiosities about choice and decision making that didn’t seem to have answers in standard thinking and yet make a difference.

With my atypical brain, I’ve invented values-based systemic brain change models (used in sales, decision making, leadership, habit formation, behavior change) that I’ve trained world-wide and have written several books on.

The bad news is that because my ideas have no precedent, the path to adoption is challenging. And yet, I’ve mostly figured it out.

In this article I offer what I’ve learned to help those troublemakers out there with great ideas that go against convention. After all, without troublemakers nothing changes.

RIGHT RULES DON’T CAUSE INNOVATION

At the start, I’d like to say that my innate rules aren’t wrong, they just operate from a different mindset than the perceived wisdom, enabling me to create out-of-the-box concepts. I don’t even realize they’re outside the box until I get pushback.

Eventually, the right people show up with curiosity and excitement. Once I was training my change model with a graphic on systemic brain change that took me 3 months to figure out. A woman raised her hand. “Where did you get that graphic? I’m a neuroscientist and that part is missing from the field. Where did you get it! Can I use it?” Music to my ears.

I’ve always known my ideas are to be shared and used by others. But how could I disseminate them when such a high percent of a reading audience uses more traditional thinking? To learn how, I had to learn the principles of ‘normal’ discourse and expectations. I had already learned that using my own unique communication process, the ideas got rejected out of hand.

Early on I recognized I had to show up as ‘normal’ if I wanted to share new thinking. When I was 11 I began taking notes of normal conversations; eventually I noticed patterns that offered new rules I could teach myself. I had to learn basics, stuff most two-year-olds know, like saying ‘Fine, thanks, how are you?’ when asked ‘How are you?’ To this day I don’t understand why that’s a valid response.

By now, and armed with probably half a million rules in my brain, I show up as NT most of the time, albeit a bit ‘charming’. I still get people annoyed when I over-share or interrupt even when I announce at the beginning of a conversation that I’m an Aspie.

But I’ve learned some rules that helped me share my models and innovate change.

10 RULES FOR INNOVATORS

To start, because my ideas are different from the perceived wisdom, folks who seek convention are initially opposed and I get ignored, or worse. But I’ve learned it’s just what happens to folks who break the rules. Rule #1: don’t expect to fit in. Be willing to be overlooked or ignored.

Over time, I’ve figured out who to share new ideas with; mainstream isn’t the place for me to start. Certainly, early adopters are more curious, accepting, and less judgmental.

So that brings up a few questions: who do I share my ideas with so they’ll garner acceptance and adoption? How much am I willing to dumb down a new concept to help it be understood? Should I just seek folks who easily understand? Am I targeting the right audience? How can I test my message so I don’t frustrate those who might understand with just a bit of help? Rule #2: choose who to share the ideas with.

I always work hard to understand the rules in a particular environment so I’ll have an idea which ones I’m breaking. It makes it easier to know where rejection will come from: if I don’t know where I’m at, I can’t get where I’m going (I’ve got a bunch of fun one-liners in Morgenisms you can enjoy.). But given I’m offering wholly new thinking, I understand I may first be ignored, made wrong, or not believed. Indeed, according to the norms, I AM ‘wrong’! Rule #3: don’t take it personally, it’s part of the process.

It’s important for me to know if an idea is worth spending time on. For the times I have a ‘wonderment’ (like in, “Hmmm. I wonder why people can’t hear each other accurately?” which was the start of my book on how to listen without bias), I’ve created a trigger to alert my brain to a circuit I’ve labeled ‘Wonderment’ where I have unfettered curiosity. Once I find myself immersed in questions, and in the middle of confusion, I know I’m on the right track. Rule #4: choose ideas that seem endlessly stimulating and you’re willing to devote a lot of time and energy on.

Frustration, curiosity, dead ends… during my process everything changes, even when it takes years; there are no ready answers and limitless places to look for new ones. I don’t even know all the questions to pose until I’m finished. So I keep stimulating my brain for just a smidge of a thought, a slice of a wonderment.

I make sure new inspirations flow in: Books. Podcasts. Plays. Hiking. I stay away from talking heads with conventional ideas that promise if you do X you’ll be successful. I just read a book on how New York City sanitation trucks get scheduled! I read ezines on topics I have no knowledge of. I travel to unusual places with unknowable rules to learn new patterns: I’ve spent a week with the Shuar Indians living in a mud hut with creepy things crawling up the walls (Pretty, but ewwww). I’ve spent a week in Uruguay living on a sheep farm failing badly at training a Border Collie.

I never know when new ideas will emerge but keep my brain stimulated to spark them. Rule #5: be infinitely flexible.

Time to think is crucial. I schedule specific hours every week to do nothing but think. I keep 20 pads of paper and pens scattered around the house to catch idea. I collect them at the end of the week to see what I’ve got. I never know what will work or what new ideas will go with what. So I try and try, fail and fail, scribble, and fail, and try, and…. Until one Eureeka moment when I know I’ve got it, when all feels settled. Rule #6: make ‘thinking’ a tool of your profession and devote specific time for it.

Get your brain in shape as if you were an athlete. I get plenty of sleep, no longer drink (sometimes a beer on a Saturday) because it muddles my brain. I remove drama as much as possible. I work out (walk 2 miles a day, one hour of weights in the gym 2x/week) and eat really healthy. With no exercise and bad food, I get logy. Rule #7: get yourself in brain-shape so you have the clarity necessary to innovate.

Mistakes are wonderful things. I make loads. And sometimes I revamp something that took me months or years to design. You must be ok with getting it wrong often. If you’re a perfectionist or need to be ‘right’ all the time, breaking rules and developing new ideas isn’t for you.

But each failure, each error, each dead end, eventually opens a path to an answer. There’s a lot of passion, self-trust, and self-discipline involved. I just have to keep going even when it’s a mess, when I’m confused, when it seems all wrong and going nowhere. After all, if there were a place I could learn it, it wouldn’t be anything new. So I’ve learned to trust the process.

It took me 10 years to create a new form of question. I began with wondering how it was possible to get into my brain to find stuff when I kept thinking just one way and I knew there were others. Eventually I developed Facilitative Questions that enable brains to discover where their best answers are stored. I’ve taught these to about 100,000 people! Rule: #8: be humble; failure and confusion are part of the process.

For me, I get impaled with an idea that I cannot shake and it rumbles around my brain every waking moment, even in my dreams. When you’re new at this, be stubborn: don’t acquiesce to the thoughts of Others who tell you you’re doing something impossible, or you’re wrong. You ARE! Get over it and keep going. Rule 9: be stubborn; being wrong is right.

The persistent problem is how to message the new ideas so they’re accepted. Left to my own devices, I can explain a concept in a sentence or two. But no one would understand me, so I’ve learned to incorporate industry idioms, styles of speech, regularly used phrases, and accepted knowledge.

The biggest challenge is inspiring curiosity instead of rejection. It’s a brain thing: incoming sounds (including words) get translated into meaning only when they’ve been sent through habitual, unconscious brain circuits (neuroscience books call words ‘puffs of air’). So people automatically think according to their historic assumptions.

The trick is to help trigger folks from an assumption to a curiosity. Some people automatically become curious when an incoming idea seems confusing; most people ignore it or reject it out of hand when it goes against a belief.

We’re never told that information, in and of itself, doesn’t cause new thinking unless it’s being sought (i.e. there’s a place in the brain waiting for that specific data); unless I get my ducks in a row and choose the right message to the right people and generate new brain circuits, I’m wasting my breath.

So how can you initiate curiosity so your new ideas get accepted? Just because you’ve got a great idea doesn’t mean it will be heard or accepted. But you must figure it out. Rule #10: Try several approaches to sharing new ideas, including questions, storytelling, personal examples, initiating sharing to understand Another’s thought process; develop outreach to fit the messaging to the audience.

So it’s a process. A very humbling process.

GETTING NEW IDEAS HEARD

What would you need to know or believe differently to begin your own wonderment program? To believe that your ideas are worth disseminating? That you can make a difference?

With so much change occurring – in business, technology, media, management, climate change, etc. – we’re all going through shifts in thinking and are open to change. It’s the perfect time to break rules and develop new models, new ways of working and thinking and communicating.

Obviously with your new ideas in hand, you must get them accepted and disseminated. So how? Do you want to make a difference in your personal sphere – for yourself or your family? Do you want to make a difference in the world? In your company?

The big hurdle to get over is how to help Others understand you; they have no brain circuits to translate your ideas. What will you figure out to resolve this problem?

It’s the problem all innovators and inventors must solve. Tesla never figured it out. Neither did Cezanne. Did you know he only sold one painting during his life – to Matisse who wanted to learn from him? Did you know it took 40 years for broad adoption of the telephone after it was invented? People continued using Morse Code to communicate! And remember how long it took folks to believe the world was round? Had nothing to do with the science, or truth.

It’s a complex issue. To break the rules in a way they’ll be adopted, you must not only change your own beliefs but facilitate others in changing theirs. Without belief change new ideas aren’t accepted. To break rules, you’ll need to help folks supersede their comfortable, automatic beliefs and message the new in a way that doesn’t offend.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, he didn’t explain the engineering or coding; he used a huge screen with visuals, showing each component and simply showing the functionality of that component. Suddenly those things you secretly wanted were at your fingertips and had a name. He used what you already knew and believed and took it to the next logical step.

Breaking the rules to generate new innovations is a dark and lonely road. But it’s possible, and it’s necessary. The question is: are you willing to make a difference?

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