A Harvard professor says rebellion is a talent we can all learn

Dare to be different and everyone will benefit.
Dare to be different and everyone will benefit.
Image: Reuters/Regis Duvignau
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So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow—or a pair of red sneakers. Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino, who studies nonconformity, once taught a class wearing a suit and crimson kicks instead of her traditional leather loafers. She discovered that this sartorial trick made students perceive her as more intelligent, effective and powerful. Her takeaway? Constructive rebellion, in fashion and in other matters, can work for everyone.

Gino’s new book, Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules in Work and in Life, highlights the importance of rebels with a cause. She argues that constructive troublemakers are more successful than people who follow professional or social conventions, and that they have a positive influence on the rest of society, too.

Rebels conceive of creative solutions that conventional thinkers can’t reach. They do this by balancing expertise and experimentation, tempering experience with a beginner’s questioning approach, continually asking, “Why do we always do things this way and why not change?”

Counterintuitively, the more expert you become in your field, the more mired you are in the rules, and the less likely you are to ask these basic but very important questions which lead to creativity and innovation. Speaking on the NPR podcast Hidden Brain, Gino explains, “[W]e really need to shift our thinking. Rebels are not troublemakers. They’re not outcasts. Rebels are people who break rules that should be broken. They break rules that hold them and others back, and their way of rule-breaking is constructive rather than destructive. It creates positive change.”

How to burn a sardine

Gino’s curiosity about constructive nonconformity was piqued when she came across the bizarre recipes of the acclaimed Italian chef Massimo Bottura, who upends traditional cuisine conventions with quirky dishes like “the crunchy part of the lasagna” and whose cookbook offers instructions how to best burn a sardine.  Now an internationally renowned master chef, Bottura began cooking when he dropped out of law school—which he only attended to please his parents. He started a restaurant in Modena, Osteria Fracescana, despite having no professional cooking experience, asking himself, “Why not?”

But he didn’t stop there—he mastered his craft and continues to cultivate a curious, creative approach. Perhaps most importantly, he still acts like a beginner, despite being a three-star Michelin chef. Gino points out that the master can be found sweeping the sidewalk in front of his restaurant every morning, stocking shelves, and unloading trucks. And he encourages everyone who works with him to be bold and take on a range of roles, all with the underlying principle that mistakes will be made, but that creativity leads to success.

“No matter how turbulent the sea is, we will succeed,” is how Gino describes the chef’s philosophy. The professor argues that more of us should adopt this approach, and says she’s tried to become more rebellious herself. “We’re so often focused on efficiency and getting things done. We have a very long to-do list. But what that often comes at the cost of is allowing us to explore…And that’s too bad because curiosity leads to all sorts of great results and great outcomes,” she tells NPR.

Beginner’s mind

The sense of continual openness Gino studies and wants to encourage in others is known in Zen Buddhist philosophy as “sho shin,” or beginner’s mind. In the classic text by Suzuki Roshi explaining Zen to Western thinkers, Zen Mind, Beginnner’s Mindthe monk explains that mastery of any practice, whether it’s flower arrangement or philosophy, involves keeping a perpetual freshness of spirit. He explains:

if you can keep your beginner’s mind forever, you are Buddha.  In this point, our practice should be constant.  We should practice our way with beginner’s mind always.  There is no need to have deep understanding about zen.  Even though you read zen literature you have to keep this beginner’s mind.  You have to read it with fresh mind.  We shouldn’t say, “I know what is zen” or “I have attained enlightenment.”

As soon as you think you already know it all, you lose the ability to create something new. Gino notes that talented rebels maintain a perpetual tension between expertise and experimentation. Balancing the two requires a certain humility—like the excellent Zen student, the master chef doesn’t decide he knows everything about cooking, but discovers its possibilities anew with every day and every dish.

To avoid becoming predictable and boring, and to cultivate this kind of freshness in ourselves, we must keep asking questions, according to Gino. You may be steeped in knowledge, but there’s always the possibility there’s something you haven’t considered. Staying in touch with that leads to innovation. It can even save lives.

Necessary rebellions

Beyond the kitchen, this ability to maintain a beginner’s mind can have incredibly important consequences—for example, in medicine. Gino says her research on cardiologists and open-heart surgeries showed that entrenched professionals were more resistant to advisories to change, even if it might benefit patients, than newer surgeons. “When we gain experience, often we feel like the expert, and we think that we know better, even when we hear information or when we see evidence that speaks to the fact that we’re wrong. And so having that learning mindset as we’re gaining experience is so, so important.”

In some cases, expertise becomes an obstacle to accomplishment because we’re too sure we know what we’re doing. Gino notes that talented rebels—people who know what they’re doing, but don’t assume they know it all—can take a fresh approach in emergency situations. Gino says a great example of rebel talent is US Airways flight 1549 pilot, Captain Chesley Sullenberger—or Captain Sully, as he’s better known today. In 2009, his plane, headed to Seattle from New York, lost all engine power after striking a flock of geese. Air traffic controllers instructed him to land at the nearest airport but he knew the plane couldn’t make it, so he landed on the Hudson River instead. Everyone got off the plane safely, and the incident came to be known as the Miracle on the Hudson.

Another example of talented-rebel thinking arose in the Trader Joe’s supermarket hostage seize in Los Angeles on July 21. Mary Linda Moss, an artist who underwent trauma therapy and healing work, used her experience to inform a horrifying situation that could have ended in tragedy for many. Moss was in the store when wounded gunman Gene Atkins ran into the store, taking dozens of shoppers and employees hostage. The artist defused the situation by being compassionate and calm during an emergency. She slowed down police negotiators when she sensed they were stressing Atkins and causing him to panic, despite being desperate to get out of the crisis situation herself.

To ensure the safety of the hostages, Moss talked to Atkins, binding his wound ed arm with her shirt and negotiating on his behalf with cops, at one point even standing between Atkins and a sharpshooter spotted on a roof outside. She took a bold approach—there seemed to be no way to safely disarm him physically, so she disarmed him with kindness instead.

Moss tells the Los Angeles Times that she put her hand on the gunman’s heart and told Atkins, “There’s always hope. I know you have a good heart, and I know you don’t want to hurt anybody.”After a three-hour standoff, during which time Moss convinced Atkins he could survive and even have a life worth living in prison, he agreed to leave peacefully. Atkins exited the supermarket surrounded by the hostages he’d been holding, wearing handcuffs that he instructed Moss to put on him. She says she manipulated him “in a good way.”

A more conventional approach to being held by a gunman might have been to recoil in fear. Moss did the opposite. She got close to Atkins and made him trust her.

The Art of War

Gino’s guidance on constructive rebellion echoes ancient wisdom. In the fifth century BC text The Art of War, military mastermind Sun Tzu advises that wise generals sometimes break rules. The guide is still used for leadership and life advice today, offering strategies and tactics for soldiers, businesses leaders and for individuals interested in group dynamics.

Although Sun Tzu emphasizes the importance of discipline and loyalty—generals working in service of people and government—he notes that there are occasions to disobey commands, writing:

When the laws of war indicate certain victory it is surely appropriate to do battle, even if the government says there is to be no battle. If the laws of war do not indicate victory, it is appropriate not to do battle, even if the government orders war. Thus one advances without seeking glory, retreats without avoiding blame, only protecting people to the benefit of the government as well, thus rendering valuable service to the nation.

In scholar Thomas Cleary’s 2009 translation of the classic Chinese text, he explains in commentary that defying military orders was commendable when it was done not out of personal interest, but to save lives and help the government. “Such loyal employees are valuable to the nation,” Cleary writes.

Gino would no doubt agree with this assessment. She believes that many of us avoid difficulties by going along with all the rules, but we also avoid possibilities. We don’t often challenge ourselves to stop and ask which restrictions work and make sense, and which ones could stand to be improved.

Not all rebellion is positive, the professor warns. A rebel talent must present constructive options rather than just naysaying and going against status quo for the sake of rebellion itself. They must acknowledge others’ point of view while presenting something new. And as Sun Tzu remarks, rules are best broken when it will benefit everyone—not just you.

Still, without people willing to speak up and present a fresh perspective on conventions, it’s difficult to solve complex problems and innovate. Rebels ensure we don’t get stuck in a societal rut. If we recognize their contributions and embrace curious nonconformity ourselves, we’ll lead more successful and creative lives and get better at solving complex problems. Gino tells NPR, “Rebel leaders and rebel employees are people who really try to surround themselves with people who think differently and with people who do challenge them.”