Many of the most successful people are not necessarily the smartest or the most talented. Often, the race goes not to the swift, but to the most audacious. You too can become a game-changer by putting the Audacity Principle to work in your own life.
Esteemed neuroscientist Solomon Snyder in the early part of this century penned a bold and controversial essay – The Audacity Principle. In essence, Snyder argued that beyond any innate talent or other qualities, the truly great scientists all went about their work with a bold and unconventional mindset which enabled them to discover the brave new worlds that eluded the merely average scientists.
Snyder began by noting that 99% of the discoveries are made by 1% of the scientists. If his claim is an exaggeration, then not by much. The truly earthshaking discoveries in science, from Galileo and Newton to Einstein to the present day, can be attributed to a mere handful of scientists.
This lopsided distribution of greatness also can be observed in the arts, sports, business and virtually any other field. And as with scientists, the greats in all fields display this same audacious mindset.
What lies within this quality of audacity and how can we use it to achieve our own breakthroughs?
You might suppose that talent and creativity are the key ingredients to achieving greatness. Of course, some innate ability is essential. But it is not necessarily determinative. As much recent psychology and neuroscience research shows, mindset and efficient practice are often the more critical factors, and the brain’s ability to change can mean that what you do and think can impact any innate abilities you have.
Beyond ability, whether native or developed over time, originality and creativity also are important. But as Snyder points out, “Original ideas are only part of the story. A special sort of energy is required to overcome the fear or inertia that hinders scientists from essaying risky, unprecedented experiments.”
Like elite artists, elite scientists see the world differently and refuse to blindly accept conventional explanations and ways of doing things. While others get bogged down in needless complexity, the greatest scientists “seek simplicity, whereupon novel concepts emerge. The ability to divine unifying notions out of a morass of data seems critical.”
Einstein famously visualized himself pursuing a light beam, which led to his theory of relativity discoveries. Visualizing yourself pursuing a light beam is a fantastic example of audacious thinking. Einstein clearly employed unconventional means to think about a problem differently than everyone else – and attempted to get to the root of the issue through a simple visualization rather than getting bogged down by the complexities that prevented other scientists from finding a solution.
The concept of simplicity is key. Some of the most successful businesses were originally mapped out on the back of a napkin while those with teams of strategists and reams of strategic planning documents foundered. Warren Buffet made his winning investment decisions by simply looking at company annual reports, achieving results that stock analysts using all kinds of complicated models can only dream about.
If you’re trying to solve a problem and getting stuck, the first questions to ask yourself are whether there is a simpler solution, whether there is a more streamlined way of looking at the problem or what aspects of your thinking about the problem might actually be hindering a solution.
In addition to seeking simplicity, a key element of audacious thinking is courage. According to Snyder, “Equally important is the intellectual and often emotional courage to enunciate such simpliﬁcations. Courage is requisite for many reasons. Challenging established authority is always risky.”
To be courageous in this context is to be “intellectually fearless.” To be clear, this does not mean being arrogant. Nor does it mean being reckless or substituting bluster for hard work. It does mean being willing to go for it when it matters, to not get bogged down in endless planning or wallow in extreme self-examination or self-doubt.
Planning and self-examination are critically important. However, if you want to achieve something great, you’re going to need to ask the tough questions, try new approaches, look at problems in new ways, and ultimately be willing to pull the trigger and just go for it.
Another important aspect of courage – perhaps the most important – is to not care about failure. Again, this does not mean to go into situations unprepared and not worry about your level of performance. Rather, after you’ve done everything in your power to prepare, “just do it” and focus on the process rather than whether you’re going to succeed or fail.
And if you should fail, pick yourself up and try again using a new approach. As Snyder explains, “In almost all instances known to me, the most successful scientists have addressed the riskiest projects and have thus encountered more failure than success. But, as in venture capital investing, a few major successes more than compensate for large numbers of failures.”
Michael Jordan said something similar about his own game-changing career: "I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."
By the way, try to imagine Michael Jordan playing basketball without audacity. You can’t.
Steve Jobs was fired from the company he founded before he went on to world-changing success. Walt Disney was fired early in his career as a journalist because his editor thought he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”
The first 12 publishers who looked at J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter rejected it. Before starting Kentucky Fried Chicken, Colonel Sanders tried to sell his chicken recipe to restaurants, but was rejected hundreds of times. These are just a few examples in a very long list. The vast majority of successful people in any field failed many times.
Putting The Audacity Principle to Work For You
Simplicity. Courage. An intellectual curiosity to see things in new ways. A willingness to just go for it. To implement the Audacity Principle is simply to focus on things differently – and differently from everyone else.
You can start incorporating the Audacity Principle into your own life by asking yourself these questions whenever you are working on any project or trying to solve any problem:
1. Is this way of doing it the only option?
2. What are three other ways this could be done?
3. Do I need to be doing this? What would happen if I didn’t do this at all? Is this the most important problem for me to solve, or could I achieve more by devoting my energies to a more meaningful issue?
4. If I tried this and failed, what would be my next step? What else would I try in order to ultimately succeed?
5. If ____ (insert any current or historical figure whose successes and outlook you admire) were approaching this issue, how would they see it? What aspects of this issue would they focus on and what steps would they take? If ____ were trying to solve this problem, would they think this was an important problem to solve or would they focus their energies elsewhere in order to achieve the goal?
By actively questioning yourself, you will avoid complacency. You’ll stop doing things just because everyone else is doing them or that’s the way they’ve always been done. You’ll focus on what matters and you’ll generate novel and more effective solutions to accomplish what matters. You’ll break out from the pack and find your own version of greatness.
In short, you’ll become audacious.