Put yourself in this picture:
We were in Moorea, French Polynesia, at a luxury resort where the bungalows are suspended over the water with a hatch in the floor so you can feed the fish underneath. There were ten of us seated around a conference table loaded with tropical fruit, fresh squeezed juice, and coffee. The morning sun was streaming in, the weather was sublime, and the environment was perfect for a brilliant brainstorming session.
The other nine people had paid $15,000 each and flown thousands of miles to have a three-day mastermind retreat with me. I began the session by going around the table, asking everyone to summarize the one big concept they would like to strategize during the retreat.
The first guy said he wanted to do a complete makeover of his website. The second person said she needed help with a title for her next book. The third person mentioned that he wanted some input on his next direct mail campaign. It went on like this until it came back around to me.
But before we go any further, if you really were around that table in Tahiti right now – what would YOU say? Take a minute and really think about it.
Because here’s what happened next…
I closed my eyes, took a slow, deep breath, and said, “I’m going to the fucking pool now. When you guys decide you want to actually have a mastermind and go after a big idea, then somebody come and get me.”
Not sure what was said next, but after about ten minutes, one sheepish attendee came out and asked if I would rejoin the group.
So what happened?
Herd thinking happened. Like so often occurs in many situations, the person going first set the tone and everyone who followed unthinkingly shadowed the pattern. Of course, the interesting dynamic in this case was these nine people were not random souls picked up at the bus stop. They were all hyper-successful, multimillionaire entrepreneurs who had invested a lot of money and time to be there to discover their next breakthrough.
You probably think they wouldn’t fall prey to such disempowering thinking. But how did you reply to the question above? Was your answer really a big, bold, and breathtaking concept you wanted to mastermind on – or did you also default to some mundane tactic?
Even high achievers are not immune to being infected with herd thinking when they’re members of a group. You’ll see the same scenario if you start a meeting by asking people to go around the room giving their name and title, so everyone knows who’s who. If the first person says, “Aldo Gonzalez, VP of quality control,” everyone follows suit, your objective is accomplished, and you get down to work.
If the first person says, “Thanks, it’s so great to be here. My name is Mary Marcus and I flew here from the Toronto division. My hobbies are embroidery and stamp collecting, and I’m really excited to be at this conference because I was just telling my sister last week that…” you immediately know you’re screwed. The intros you budgeted for five minutes will actually eat up 25 minutes of the 90 minutes you have.
The herd doesn’t always follow the leader. Sometimes they simply follow whoever speaks first.
These examples illustrate a very important lesson about our thought processes, showing how we often go on autopilot and waste the amazing brainpower we possess.
In the case of the Tahitian retreat, the first person made a mistake in thinking that many other entrepreneurs fall prey to: believing success to be about the tactics. But the genuinely important stuff is never about the tactics – it’s actually about the big idea. When you get the big idea right, the tactics become readily apparent.
And that is what led me to write my new book Mad Genius. (And this post is actually how I begin the book.) Find the big idea and everything flows from there