Sex writer and satirist Cynthia Heimel once said, “When in doubt, make a fool of yourself. There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth.” (When the Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’ll Be Me!, Grove/Atlantic Inc., 1996)
I think it helps to be a bit of an idiot if you want to be a successful entrepreneur. Idiocy is certainly not a skill they generally teach in business school, but given the huge rate of small business failure perhaps they should.
We all naturally gravitate towards playing it safe. Current business structures are still variations on command-and-control. I guess they have to be somewhat defensive constructs, built to fend off anarchy and existential business randomness, while creating dependable profit. Nevertheless, I believe in salubrious chaos and risk. And a healthy dose of seeming idiocy in the business process helps keep one weighted toward the seminal and the cutting-edge.
Perhaps my view on this is formed in part by the fact that I was an actor for many years before becoming a businessman. The acting profession tends to lend itself to many good stories. Here’s one.
A friend of mine, Paul, was playing the role of “Jamie Tyrone,” the older son in Eugene O’Neill‘s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, starring Rip Torn. Rehearsals had gone very well for my friend, but, with two weeks left in the rehearsal process, Paul felt he had fully realized his character and was ready to open. His quandary was what to do with himself for the last two weeks of rehearsal, so he went to Rip Torn and asked him what he would do with this actor’s conundrum. Paul recounts that Rip Torn thought it over for a moment, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Fuck it up.”
Exactly. He was saying let go of the safe, even perfect, to grasp for more. Idiotic, but wise.
Best selling author Paul B. Brown wrote an article in Forbes last year titled “Want To Build A Successful Company? Give Up Control.” (Forbes Online, 9/8/13, 7:00 AM) Accepting that I am a fool helps me appropriately give up control every day. Brown offers four simple but compelling reasons to not overly control your company. To paraphrase Brown,
- Your business won’t grow bigger than you (the owner/CEO) can handle.
- With control you lose corporate flexibility. Nothing moves fast when everything must be green-lighted by you.
- You don’t encourage the maximization of your employee’s gifts and passion when tightly riding herd on them.
- It is exhausting.
A cultivated idiocy is helpful in keeping down the inner Attila the Hun. For me, awareness of my inner idiot keeps me free and loose and mindful. It reminds me to always be open to the new and respect the non-rational. It encourages a useful, practical business humility that is still serious, but doesn’t take itself seriously. It allows one to be a fool and encourages others to be fools with you. Indeed, to “Fuck it up,” as Rip Torn so eloquently suggests. It’s a reminder that we are ultimately not in charge of life, but rather merely surfers and dust motes riding a cosmic maelstrom ultimately beyond our ken. It makes business fun and silly and a thing of joy, not just a grim automaton for creating lucre and power and control.
As producer Samuel Goldwyn put it, “Give me a smart idiot over a stupid genius any day.” Thanks, Sam.