On being different – are you an apple or an orange? Or maybe an applorange?

Dec 26, 10 On being different – are you an apple or an orange? Or maybe an applorange?

Posted by in Books, Business

“Sameness” and “difference” are the type of yin and yang concepts that are bound to get one’s imagination going. And to me they’ve always been fascinating. Combined with my fascination for people and the workings of their minds, these two concepts have been an intellectual leitmotiv for as long as I can remember. What makes people different? What sets them apart? What makes outliers, mavericks, iconoclasts? How are people similar? Are there things we all share? Why do we strive for differentiation and then end up with sameness? To make a point, take teenagers, whose striving for differentiation is probably more blatant than that of any other age group’s . Emo, punk, rock, hip-hop, whitewashed jeans, all black outfits, piercings, tattoos – all are marks of differentiation, signs that shout – “I belong to this group!” or “This is my tribe!”. But when everyone strives to be different, the paradox is that everyone ends up being the same. I’ve just finished a great book, “Different”, written by a marketing Professor at Harvard Business School – Youngme Moon. Besides having a real knack for writing, which kept me interested from beginning to end, Youngme Moon managed to get me thinking on how this paradox of differentiation leading to sameness ends up ruling our lives. The book is about brands and the way brand competition leads in fact to a “competitive herd” where everyone is striving to “keep up with the Joneses”, so much so that companies end up offering the same range of benefits to a growingly bored mass of customers. Think of all the shampoos that promise to “increase volume”, “make your hair silky”, “offer a new and enhanced formula” -in their quest for “brand augmentation” (adding more and more characteristics and benefits to the product) they end up creating what Moon calls a “category blur” – a situation where the customer can no longer distinguish between brands and ends up being loyal to none. Moon also analyzes what makes some brands stand out...

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If you can’t move the mountain, then climb it out of your way!

  A friend told me this today, and I didn’t get it at first. But then I understood and it dawned on me that he was right – when you’ve tried all the usual approaches to solve a problem and it seems without exit, then maybe it’s time for some lateral thinking. What is lateral thinking and how can we benefit from it? Well it’s about creativity, out-of-the box ideas and novel solutions. Something highly valued in today’s world, where increasing uncertainty calls for proportionately increased amounts of lateral thinking. However, this concept is as elusive as it is seductive. The more we try to apply it, the more it escapes us. Surely all of us have experienced in our lives the equivalent of a writer’s block . With the same frustration as the writer who chases that novel idea that seems never to come, we have moments when we feel trapped by our apparently unsolvable life problems. And since I’m no stranger to this state of mind, I’ve tried to get a glimpse into the science of it. Neuroscience comes with some interesting explanations for this phenomenon. In his book, Iconoclast, neuroscientist Gregory Berns explores the ways in which our brain sabotages us when we try to find our way out of a difficult situation by using lateral, instead of vertical thinking. The brain is an energy consuming machine, and a very efficient one too. Our neural networks are built in such a way as to minimize energy consumption for any cognitive task. This is why, after the initial period of learning some new skill, when the brain works hard to accumulate new information and neural activity is at its peak, we start finding it easier and easier to access the information – think of learning a new language and then practicing it extensively, or of learning how to drive. After enough repetition, we start going on auto-pilot – did you ever get home using a familiar route and not even know how...

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