Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
To succeed, you must eat, sleep and breathe your work. You should put your blinders on, block out all distractions and keep your eyes on the prize.
For most millennials, this is our mantra. I certainly believed it until I interviewed one of today’s greatest entrepreneurs, Isaac “Biz” Stone. As the cofounder of Twitter and Blogger, his success speaks for itself.
But what’s his secret? Growing up, did he solely focus on startups until he reached 10,000 hours?
To understand Stone’s success, let’s rewind to his years at Wellesley High School. Back then, his friends were drama nerds, his favorite movie was The Princess Bride and he directed and starred in the school’s production of Robin Hood (posters around town read, “Isaac Stone presents: Robin Hood, Starring Biz Stone!”). He even found a way to put together the play after the school unexpectedly cut its budget.
“We were scrappy. I remember going door-to-door in January collecting old Christmas trees for the backdrop of Sherwood Forest,” Stone recalled. “Come show time, we drew a full house. We did matinees, evening shows, and more. It was so successful that we even took the show on the road for a little while.”
It’s easy to assume that Stone’s devotion to theater put him behind peers who spent that time hacking away in computer labs. However, University of Michigan Psychologists Mary Gick and Keith Holyoak say the opposite. In 1980, they conducted a fascinating experiment that explains why Stone’s “irrelevant” experiences actually boosted his creativity, problem-solving, and entrepreneurial abilities.
To illustrate, consider this brainteaser:
Suppose you’re a doctor faced with a patient who has a malignant tumor in his stomach. It’s impossible to operate on the patient, but unless the tumor is destroyed, the patient will die.
There is a kind of ray that can destroy the tumor. If the rays reach the tumor all at once at a sufficiently high intensity, the tumor will be destroyed. Unfortunately, at this intensity, the healthy tissue that the rays pass through on the way to the tumor will also be destroyed. At lower intensities, the rays are harmless to healthy tissue but will not affect the tumor either.
What type of procedure might be used to destroy the tumor with the rays, and at the same time avoid destroying the healthy tissue?
If you can’t solve it, you’re not alone. Only 3% of Gick and Holyoak’s subjects could. Now, read this unrelated passage and see if anything changes.
A fortress was located in the center of the country. Many roads radiated out from the fortress. A general wanted to capture the fortress with his army. But he also wanted to prevent mines on the roads from destroying his army and neighboring villages.
As a result, the entire army could not all go down one road to attack the fortress. However, the entire army was needed to capture the fortress; an attack by one small group could not succeed.
The general therefore divided his army into several small groups. He positioned the small groups at the heads of the different roads. The small groups simultaneously converged on the fortress. In this way, the army captured the fortress.
When this military story preceded the medical problem, subjects were 67% more likely to find the solution! If you’re still stumped, you kill the tumor the same way the army conquered the fortress (blast low intensity rays from different sides of the tumor and have them converge in the middle. That way, the collective ray will have a high intensity to destroy the tumor without harming the healthy tissue around it).
Drawing powerful analogies between two unrelated worlds is called conceptual blending. This process has sparked countless breakthroughs, including Henry Ford’s famous idea for automobile assembly lines, which came after he saw slaughterhouses process pigs the same way.
For Stone, conceptual blending between theater and startups was his X-factor. It gave him unique insights beyond others in the tech industry. His knack for understanding a customer’s pain points derives from his acting years, when he learned to empathize and put himself in other peoples’ shoes. His charisma on stage later translated to the boardroom, where he won over investors instead of audience members.
“If you want to be good at what you do, you have to have new, varied experiences as much as possible,” Stone explained. “I’ve always thought that creativity and problem-solving comes from lateral thinking. In other words, the ability to connect dots you otherwise couldn’t connect if you didn’t have a robust set of experiences to draw from.”
Today, Stone still adds to his robust set of experiences. Most recently, he produced a short movie for Project Imagit10n, a film festival sponsored by Canon and legendary director Ron Howard. Just like high school, Stone did it all: he spent many late nights writing storylines, casting actors and directing on set. The result was Evermore, a moving film about a girl who reunites her mother and grandfather using motifs from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven.
“I feared the ‘go back to your day job’ comment,” he said. “But it’s always worth getting new experiences when you can. The more things you do outside your comfort zone, the more you’ll make leaps and jumps when you return to your ‘normal work life.’ The more you’ll be able to see further ahead than others.”
Stone’s story shows the importance of exploring the unimportant. His outlet was theater but for you it may be improv comedy, photography, or painting.
For me, it’s writing. Stone helped me realize it’s beneficial to pursue interests outside work. Before, I felt downright guilty. I thought the time I spent writing took away from my job as a product marketer. But the opposite is true. Writing made me an organized thinker, stronger copywriter, and enabled me to learn through interviews and research I would have never done otherwise.
Looking beyond our industry helps us succeed within it. Next time you find yourself eating, sleeping, and breathing your work, just remember: taking your blinders off doesn’t mean taking your eyes off the prize.