Don’t complain about the game. Change the game you’re playing.
In the annals of self-help and fluffy business books, this idea is nothing new. But it seems to bear repeating, anyway:
So if you wanted to change this business model of orifices, as Jobs described it, would you play it safe, as the Nokias and Motorolas of this industry have been doing for many years, or rewrite some of the key rules, from pricing to UIs, as Apple has done with the iPhone?
— Apple’s iPhone dilemma: Wall Street or customers?
As above, so below. As in business, so in life. Because business is life, too. And so is design. And product design. And business. These things are all the same thing.
A Bedtime Story for Pig-headed People
There was once a little girl who figured out something important about the world at a very young age.
The thing she learned was not without its costs.
When the girl was little, she was already too stubborn and willful to listen to the kids who told her “you can’t.” But she was too young and naive to notice the subtler approaches for what they were, and she usually listened to grown-ups.
Time passed, and the little girl grew up. Sometimes she failed, but mostly she succeeded. Above all, she learned things. She learned, for example, through several harrowing adventures, why the other kids really disliked her and why the other teachers made her take spelling tests even when she always got all of the words right on the “pre-test” before studying.
She learned that adults are almost always just as confused as kids, only bigger and with more destructive toys. She came to understand that the “real world” is basically a game filled with people playing along. Then she spent the next decade or so refusing to play by the rules, and remaking every “game” she played in.
Every step of the way, she had people telling her she couldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) do things the way she was doing them. Sometimes they were well-meaning at heart (or at least, that’s what they told themselves), other times they were just petty.
They said You can’t make jokes in your company brochure. Don’t say ‘may contain nuts.’ Nobody will hire you. Act like a professional.
And You can’t not graduate high school. You’ll never go to college. You’ll never earn any money. You’ll end up doing sales or something. Plus you’ll always regret missing your prom.
And There’s no room for another Mac web site. Seriously. You won’t get any readers.
But while they shook their heads, wrung their hands and sighed (and tried to force their will on her), she just kept on doing what she was doing. And sometimes she failed, but mostly she succeeded. Above all, she learned things.
She’s not old enough to qualify for “happily ever after” yet, but she’s surprisingly happy and successful. And all the time, people wonder how she does it, assuming that she has some kind of magic that they don’t have.
She spends a lot of time trying to explain that she’s not magical at all, just pig-headed.
This is Not Actually a Bedtime Story
So the girl in the story was me. Duh. No, I never thought I’d fool you, I just wanted to run with the bedtime story concept. And then contradict myself in the next section. I never claimed to be predictable.
I’m not even predictable to myself. This article is not going the way I expected, by way of example. Heck, I can’t even entirely understand my past: I’m not entirely sure, looking back at my life, how I turned into the person I am. It’s a bit of a mystery to me in some ways, and an open book in others. Hindsight is not 20/20—that’s a lie. It’s more like 20/50. Maybe 20/40, at best.
But I can tell you one sure thing about all the naysayers you and I met and meet and will meet in life:
Those people are almost always wrong.
This is where my apparent navelgazing ties back into the beginning of this essay. The article I quoted was talking about changing the rules of the game, rather than playing the game everyone else is playing. And the article was also talking, indirectly, about these people.
The people who insist on telling you that you can’t are often actually saying I can’t. For whatever reason: fear, self-doubt, teachers, managers or parents who quash them (whom they let squash them), a complete lack of belief in their own power, a kind of sublimated jealousy and rage because you succeed where, of course, they “can’t.”
It’s true that this stuff sometimes comes straight from the mouths of people who care (or purport to care) about you, your business, your product, your career, whatever. They may think they’re trying to do right by you, but I’ve found that the people who say such things are afraid of life… not just for themselves, but for you, too. They’re afraid you might fail because they’re so horribly afraid of failing. They’re afraid that you might succeed, too, because what kind of light would that cast on their failure to do exactly what you’re doing right?
Of course you might fail.
This thing’s not over til the fat lady sings—and your corporeal vessel is rotting in a casket somewhere. Until then, it’s all up in the air and nothing is final. You can’t get through life without screwing up spectacularly, anyway, so you might as well choose opportunities to screw up awesomely. Awesome screw-ups make better stories than mediocre screw-ups. Awesome screw-ups are rich goldmines of good old-fashioned learned-my-lessons and opportunity.
Of course, you might succeed instead.
If you’ve taken the time and effort, in fact, it’s quite possible that your instincts are right. Things can be made to work. It takes sweat and blood and passion and the willingness to adjust your course and dedication and hope and repetition and self-honesty and all sorts of other touchy-feely things, but it can often be done, one way or another.
But don’t worry, success won’t shake off all the naysayers. (It might mean your employers, teachers, or parents back off, though. But then again, maybe not.) They’ll stick with you to the bloody (or champagney) end. If you succeed, they’ll write it off as luck. If you fail, they’ll take great glee in poking you with sticks and I told you so‘s. They’ll even invent failures according to some weird inverted logic, just so they can feel like they’re scoring points on you. The better your apparent success, the more self-congratulatory they become.
Think of them as remora fish: they’ll be with you forever, but totally forgettable. No, better yet—think of them as a barometer. If somebody, somewhere, isn’t screaming that you are going to fail, you must not be trying very hard.
The Pithiest Lesson
It all comes down to this: Some people make themselves into doers. The rest make themselves into what they probably call realists, cynics, or John C Dvorak—but often, in reality, they’re merely complainers.
That’s just the way life is.
But you get to choose which you are, which you become. And you can change, if you want.
The Burden of Proof (and Learning From Your Mistakes)
I’m all for going anti-establishment (but not for the word “anti-disestablishmentarianism,” because that’s just crazy). Don’t let the naysayers convince you that they know better than you… usually.
I don’t mean to say that you can literally do anything. Of course we’re all bound by reality. (Then again, it seems that every century discovers that reality is not what we thought it was.)
And I don’t mean that every idea that pops into your head is worth fighting for to the bitter end. Lots of ideas are bad. You have to learn to discriminate them for yourself… and that, in my opinion, comes only through playing full-contact life.
And for that matter, not all advice is bad. I also don’t mean you should ignore everybody who ever says anything negative about your plans. Sometimes they’re right. It depends on who they are and how they say it. It also depends on your idea and how much legwork you’ve done to satisfy yourself that it’s a good one.
There are things you can do to increase your odds.
When you’re developing your thing, look for cues from “the real world” to see if it makes sense. Hit the stacks. Stretch your mind—and your research skills. Have people succeeded doing your kind of thing, in your field or in some other field? (Winning strategies to learn from often appear in weird places.) Where’s the precedence?
And if you’re getting advice, look at the person who’s giving it (which would obviously include me, paradoxically). What have they done in life? Are they high-achieving individuals, by their own measure? (This might mean an utterly relaxed, non-rich, non-lauded, non-traditional lifestyle… if that’s what they wanted.) Do they have any real reason to claim to know what they’re talking about? Are they—god forbid one dare to ask—happy?
If no, then they’re probably not the people you want to listen to. After all, who takes his car to the mechanic whose own car never runs?
Case in point: There may not be a direct precedence for the iPhone since nobody has done it with phones, but boy have other companies made a killing designing closed systems that sell through user delight rather than a long list of features. (Including Apple, a few years before. Big “duh” on that one. Analysts—complainers, not doers—will never learn when to stop pooping on others’ success, will they?)
Help Yourself Succeed
Balance is not only good, it’s the natural state of the universe. If the Seesaw of Gumption and Knowledge is vacant at one end, you will never get to go up and down. You can’t expect to succeed just because you’re doing your own thing. You have to work for it. You don’t win just by being contrary.
If your idea is, say, to drop out of high school because it’s killing you slowly with its embrace, teach yourself, start a business and make yourself semi-famous in your field through teaching people stuff—and, say, you researched it, and have books and reasoning to back you up—well, more power to you. It worked for me.
If your thing is to do business with personality, sustainability, or really great customer service, go for it. If you want to be multidisciplinarian in a weird way, please don’t hesitate. If you want to opt out of the part of our society that says you have to have a 9-to-5 job, house, car, spouse and 2.54 kids to be happy, we’ll be delighted to welcome you. If you want to live your life differently, define everything you do with a given purpose, invent something new, build something radical… I have two words for you: rock on.
Do the work. Then do your thing.
Other people will tell you different, but screw ‘em. People like that don’t invent the iPhone. People like that don’t change other people’s lives for the better. People like that often don’t do much, period. And they’re very often not happy.
Instead, go and play in a touring band while being a consultant. Teach programming with comics. Form an entire business around helping companies understand something nobody even cared about a few years ago in a country that’s not even your homeland. Make art out of math. Revive the tradition of musical vagabondery. Turn a squatted building into a grassroots center for culture and art. Go from knowing nothing about photography to being truly kickass in 6 months. Run for president. Change graffiti from vandalism to art form. Keep building and loving something that everyone claimed was a failure before it even started.
Approach serious topics with humor. Enter a crowded market. Do things you’re uncomfortable with. Zig where your competitors zag. Write everything with personal pronouns, stories, and metaphors. Take things away instead of adding. Use funny colors. Redesign. Move. Do business by your principles first, always. Do what you feel in your gut is right.
Remember, Lest Ye Morph into a Fox “News” Show Host…
Just remember to back up your pigheadedness with research and hard work. Ignorance and laziness combined with pigheadedness turn you into… well… one of those other people.
Talk to me.
I want to hear your voices. Tell me your stories.
 For a while I was a hyper-’professional’, obnoxious little businessperson—when I started doing consulting as a young teenager. Then I realized I hated it, and that the people who kept pushing me in that direction weren’t exactly paragons of success and happiness. Then I named my company “infocookie,” met clients in t-shirts and jeans, made jokes in the brochure and brought them cookies baked with my favorite recipe. And then I grew up even more and designed this. Yeah.
 Yes, for those who haven’t gotten the memo: I don’t have a high school diploma. Not even a GED. Oh, my life has been one long disappointment since then! If only I had listened to the guidance counselor! (Mr. Johnson, for the record: I was right about everything I said to you.)
 I’ve lived a strange life. I ran a very successful Mac-oriented “news and opinion” site from 1999 to 2003 or so (as a kid). My original idea was to write with personality, and explain tech for lay audiences. The income from the ads helped me move out of my mother’s house at a young age and shore up the dry times in my consulting biz.