Authenticity, Radical Self-Expression, and Pull Innovation


Image Credit: Doug Buckley of

John Hagel (@jhagel) is probably my best source of inspired news right now. It’s almost like he’s in my head daily… thinking about the various aspects of institutional innovation, and how to create environments that are ripe for learning, and unexpected bounty, and the liberation of the human spirit through what we used to call “work”.

Today, he tweeted about an article in Fast Company by Linda Tischler (“Joi Ito’s Plan for Urban Innovation: ‘Let a Thousand Weirdos Bloom‘”). You can read the full article at the link; I just wanted to quickly highlight one of the article’s quotes-in-large-fonts below which (as intended, no doubt) caught my eye.

This article is about planting the seeds for a dynamic innovation culture, something that many cities are attempting to plan and/or do to stimulate growth. Ito argues that innovation won’t – and shouldn’t – wait for planning and infrastructure development… if a group of people can come together, figure out what they need, find ways to get what they need, and then go realize their ideas… that’s the recipe for emergent innovation. It’s also the main message of Hagel’s 2010 book, The Power of Pull. (I am a firm believer in pull, and design all of my university courses and syllabi based on this notion.)

So here’s Ito’s quote:

Find your own weirdos,

and figure out how to amplify them.

So to innovate, you need to find these people! But here’s the catch: the word weirdo. Who are weirdos? We need to know who they are to be able to find them! Is it just people who are different than us… people who are “diverse”? Is the weirdo the girl who wears crazy clothes and has blue hair, or the guy who’s decided to become an Asatru priest, or the evangelical Christian who doesn’t smoke, drink, or dance? Are YOU a weirdo?

In my case, yes, I think I’m a weirdo. I’m not pretending that I think I’ve grown up, even though I’m now 37 and have family and job responsibilities. I like chasing tornadoes, collecting hot springs, and playing with poi… and this summer, I want to learn some circus acrobatics and partner-stunt yoga (which seems way more exciting than regular yoga). My kid’s friends’ moms have jobs and cook and use Pinterest for recipes. We don’t really have much to talk about or common interests, so I assume this means I am a weirdo. Some relatives even talk behind my back, probably with raised eyebrows, about how weird I am. But I could be a much weirder weirdo. For example, I really like wearing fishnet stockings and knee high boots (not gaudy ones, mind you… totally respectable ones) but I wouldn’t wear them to work for fear that other people would think I am weirder than I actually am, and maybe look down on me for it.

Some of my friends do not think I am a weirdo at all. Of course, I have other friends and acquaintances who are way more weirdo than me (like the girl who I’ve met several times, but have never seen without stilts). Perhaps they are comparing me to the weirder weirdos.

But!! Everyone is a “weirdo” – it’s just that we’ve been taught not to be loud about our weirdoness, and not to openly share our hidden interests, desires, and talents. It’s a real shame. Even I struggle with the fear of radical self-expression, because it hurts not to be accepted – or worse, to be considered unprofessional. Can you believe it? Yes, if I wore a dragon costume to work one day, the other professors would certainly question my sanity and professionalism. And so I don’t wear one. But shouldn’t I be able to? Shouldn’t I be free enough to boldly and creatively express myself without fear of disapproval or recrimination?

That’s one of the reasons that I so love and honor the principle of radical self-expression. In admitting that I honor it, I’m challenging myself every day to look for ways to express myself, and to combat the fear of being me in a world of other people who are, undoubtedly, all normal.

But I have to be free to be me if I’m going to be a high-powered, innovative contributor. AND SO DO YOU. I would love to meet your weirdo side, the one with the skills and abilities and interests and talents that might not be socially or professionally acceptable. They’re part of YOU. And we have to meet each other on this authentic level before we can CREATE COOL STUFF together… and be PRODUCTIVE at it.

Find your own weirdos: Start looking at all the people around you in a different light. They all have something valuable to contribute… that might have nothing to do with their job title or responsibilities. They might be afraid to expose their vulnerability, and let you know what they can REALLY provide.

Figure out how to amplify them: Help your co-conspirators be comfortable with their radical self-expression. And to do this, the best thing YOU can do is learn how to be comfortable with your own. I’m not saying it’s easy… I’m just saying you should try. Daily.

I won’t comment on this other large-font quote in Tischler’s article, but you’ll probably be able to guess how I feel about it now:

The barrier now isn’t lack of money, it’s lack of permission.

(Whose permission are you lacking?)


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