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The Price of Non-Conformity

A few weeks ago I saw Malcolm Gladwell speak at an American Express OPEN event about entrepreneurship and his new book, David & Goliath. As part of the talk he mentioned while entrepreneurs are often viewed as financial risk takers, their greatest skill is often their ability to take social risks. Here’s BusinessWeek describing an article of his from 2010 (the full New Yorker article is behind the subscription wall):

While entrepreneurs want to minimize their financial risk, they’re often more willing to take social risks. During the housing bubble, people thought Paulson was crazy — including the people on the other side of his trades. Sam Walton, another of Gladwell’s examples, borrowed money from his in-laws rather than go to a bank. The willingness to risk reputation and social standing is “just another manifestation of their relentlessly rational pursuit of the sure thing,” he writes.

Anyway, I was reminded of the idea while reading this short piece about some research on the effect of informality on power. Essentially we see non-conformity as a sign of status:

Silvia Bellezza, a doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School, and Francesca Gino and Anat Keinan, two professors there, first studied the link between accomplishment and informality. They found that scholars who dressed down at an academic conference, eschewing blazers for T-shirts, had stronger research records, even controlling for age and gender.

Of course this kind of goes against Gladwell’s point, which suggests that the hardest part is the non-conformity … So not sure what it proves. But it’s interesting.

December 31, 2013 // This post is about: , , , ,


  • Perry Hewitt says:

    I think these are actually different points. The first is about taking risks without necessarily having the collateral behind them. The second is about plumage — it’s just that the richest guy in the room now wears an ironic T-shirt instead of an ascot. There’s no risk taken because the collateral — be it cash or research — is already in the bank.

  • Sara Hodgdon says:

    These both remind me of the recent HBR post about asking job candidates about their hobbies in order to predict superstars. The takeaway was that those whose hobbies help build the skills they’ll need on the job are more likely to be highly successful. When your career is the primary focus of your life, and all emotional energy and social capital is invested in pursuing your goals, you aren’t concerned with violating personal relationships or choosing fancy clothes.


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