I’m in the midst of reading a fascinating book, “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World” by Adam Grant.
The following excerpt really caught my attention:
“The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists… The starting point is curiosity: pondering why the default exists in the first place. We’re driven to question defaults when we experience vuja de, the opposite of deja vu. Deja vu occurs when we encounter something new, but if feels as if we’ve seen it all before. Vuja de is the reverse – we face something familiar, but we see it with a fresh perspective that enables us to gain insights into old problems.”
Grant uses the example of Warby Parker, and how its founders changed the belief that the only way to buy eyeglasses was to go to a store and try them on, since that is the way it had always been done. They questioned such an assumption, and eventually came up with their idea of offering potential customers the opportunity to try on empty eyeglass frames by ordering them online for free and then returning the frames after they tried them on. This turned into a billion dollar insight.
I’ve experienced vuja de many times, particularly when I’ve had the chance to watch another teacher.
Just this morning I was mentioning to another teacher that I’ve struggled with trying to come up with a good explanation as to (yawn alert) what exactly is meant by bond premium and bond discount. He then went on to show me how he explains it, in a way I had never seen before, that offered a different insight into bonds that I had never thought of. And I’ve taught the topic for over 30 years!
Another example happened a couple of days ago in a class that I team teach with another faculty member from Finance. She was explaining the basics of (yawn alert) the dividend growth model for stock valuation. The approach she used for explaining why the future price of the stock is irrelevant when trying to find the intrinsic value of a stock today was not the way I have taught that topic in the past, but her method was much easier for the students (and me) to understand, and so I made sure to keep notes for when I may have to teach the topic in the future.
One other example, a non-teaching one, involved our home freezer. When we first bought a freezer, we put it in our basement. We thought that we would not be using it that often and thus it would be best to keep it out of the way. And there it stayed for several years, until one day my wife and I were talking about how much of a pain it was to go into the basement when we wanted something out of the freezer. We thought about it for a while and then realized that the garage, which we can access right from our kitchen, might be a better place to have the freezer. Now it’s been in our garage for a few years, and we can’t believe it was ever anywhere else.
In a great article about vuja de, Warren Berger credits the comedian George Carlin as having come up with the phrase, using it to describe “the strange feeling that, somehow, none of this has ever happened before.” Here’s a clip:
Carlin’s daughter feels the vuja de way of looking at the world — of observing familiar, everyday things as if one were seeing it for the first time — is the way Carlin went through his life and it’s how he got much of his material.
Jerry Seinfeld, an heir to Carlin who developed a similar observational approach in his comedy, shared that same fascination with mundane behaviors and quotidian details. “I do a lot of material about the chair,” he told an interviewer recently. “I find the chair very funny. That excites me. No one’s really interested in that – but I’m going to get you interested! It’s the entire basis of my career.” But before he can make us care about a chair, Seinfeld must make it interesting to himself — he must look at it fresh, from a vuja de perspective.
Berger then goes on to point out that Stanford University professor Bob Sutton was among the first to make a connection, more than a decade ago, between the Carlin vuja de perspective and innovation. Sutton, and later Tom Kelley of IDEO, pointed out that innovators could potentially spark new ideas and insights if they could somehow manage to look at the familiar—their own products, their customers, their work processes—as if seeing it for the first time.
To achieve this change in perspective, it can be helpful to step back from everyday routines and habitual behaviors. This might involve injecting some element of newness into overly-familiar work routines — such as shaking up teams, changing schedules, or even just holding your meetings in a different and unusual place.
Berger does make a key distinction between Carlin and innovators. Carlin, in the end, was a commentator; he brought inconsistencies and irrational behaviors to light, but wasn’t in a position to change them. Innovators, on the other hand, can actually address some of those failings and shortcomings they notice.
And as Grant points out in his book, the power to be an innovator, to be an original, is in all of us. It just requires us to look at the familiar in a different way, to experience vuja de, and to then act on that insight.