I’m reposting my March 2014 HBR.org piece here because I enjoyed writing it and also because I wanted to use this fun “releasing your inner George Carlin” piece of art (which I also use in my lectures). The article got some nice comments over on HBR.org, so if you feel moved to chime in you can visit there and join the conversation or start one here in the comments below this post. For starters, would love to know if anybody else is a big fan of George Carlin, like I am?
Can You See the Opportunity Right in Front of You?
Do you find your household thermostat to be endlessly fascinating? How about that smoke alarm installed in your basement — spend much time gazing at it with wonder? Tony Fadell did. The founder of Nest has had a lifelong penchant for looking at mundane everyday household devices and wondering Why hasn’t somebody improved this thing? That tendency led him to reinvent the aforementioned gadgets — and recently resulted in a $3 billion payday, when Nest was acquired earlier this year by Google.
Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of Twitter, became similarly fascinated by those clunky credit-card reading contraptions, used by retailers to take a card imprint. They seemed hopelessly outdated in a mobile culture of on-the-go transactions. Dorsey reasonably wondered why there wasn’t a simpler, more portable device that could be used anywhere, enabling anyone to accept a credit card. This led to the creation of Square, a sleek card reader that could be plugged into any smart phone or tablet.
The stories behind these two red-hot tech successes show that innovation opportunities are often right in front of us — but they may involve objects or situations that are so familiar, so mundane, that we fail to pay any attention to them. Which brings us to the late comedian George Carlin and the powers of vuja de.
That term was made up by Carlin, in a bit of wordplay that put a twist on the familiar concept of déjà vu, that sensation of being in a strange circumstance yet feeling as if you’ve been there before. Imagine the reverse of that: you’re in a situation that is very familiar, something you’ve seen or done countless times before, but you feel as if you’re experiencing something completely new. This is vuja de, Carlin told his audience (video): “the strange feeling that, somehow, none of this has ever happened before.”
Carlin died in 2008, but I spoke with his daughter, the comedian and radio host Kelly Carlin, who is writing a memoir of life with her father. She 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. “When the familiar becomes this sort of alien world and you can see it fresh, then it’s like you’ve gone into a whole other section of the file folder in your brain,” Kelly Carlin said. “And now you have access to this other perspective that most people don’t have.”
Carlin used that perspective to develop a style of observational, questioning humor that could be thought of as the “Why” school of comedy. “It was observing our everyday life — baseball, dogs and cats, the way someone stands in front of the refrigerator — and asking, Why do we do things the way we do them?” Kelly Carlin explains. She often interviews other comedians on her podcast series Waking from the American Dream, and told me she thinks comedians in general are more apt to have a vuja de perspective. “Most comics grew up feeling like they didn’t belong,” she says. “They were the class clowns, the outsiders — it was natural for them to stand back and observe, and to wonder about what everyone is doing.”
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.
Vuja De and Innovation
Stanford University professor Bob Sutton, author of the new book Scaling Up for Excellence, 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. Adopting this view, business leaders and managers might be more apt to notice inconsistencies and outdated methods, as well as untapped opportunities.
But it isn’t easy. IDEO’s Kelley thinks people fail to notice opportunities that may be right in front of them because, as he wrote in his book The Ten Faces of Innovation, “they stop looking too soon.” And it’s not just how long you look, but what you choose to notice: In Sutton’s writings on vuja de, he advises “shifting our focus from objects or patterns in the foreground to those in the background.”
For a change in perspective, it can be helpful to step back from everyday routines and habitual behaviors. As Sutton puts it, if you want to open yourself up to vuja de insights, stop operating “on automatic pilot.” In a business context, 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. Getting out of the office bubble is key: powerful vuja deinsights have been known to happen in kitchens, coffeehouses, and all the places where people are living their lives and doing everyday things in routine ways that bear watching.
Of course, vuja de isn’t just a way of looking at things; it involves a certain mindset that questions assumptions and refuses to accept things as they are. Here again, there is much to be learned from Carlin, who not only studied the world around him but challenged it, at every turn. Carlin mapped all the inconsistencies and irrational behaviors, and railed against them: When we’ve lost our keys and are searching for them, why do we keep checking in the same few places, over and over? It doesn’t make sense!
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. Think of the creation of Airbnb, which sprang from a situation that easily could’ve been a Carlin bit: Did’ya ever notice that when the convention comes to town, nobody can get a room at a hotel—but at the same time, there’s all these empty rooms and unused sofabeds in people’s apartments. Hey, here’s a clue, people: Rent the damn sofabeds!
Carlin would’ve gotten a laugh out of it. But the founders of Airbnb, combining vuja de observation with entrepreneurial action, found a way to rent the sofabeds and launch a new industry. (Read the excerpt from my book about Airbnb.)