Nick Hanauer, a “High-Functioning Contrarian,” on How to Think About Breakthroughs in Business and Society (Part 2)

3/30/10Follow @gthuang

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how the world works. Humans are social creatures, and getting along, conforming, is an unbelievably important part of the essence of what it is to be human. We conform in ways in which we don’t perceive. When you see the world the way someone else does, you conform. If you’re missing the conformity gene, you get to see it different ways. You get to rearrange it in ways that other people aren’t willing to, or wouldn’t consider rearranging.

I don’t think it’s IQ. Being smart helps, but you don’t have to be a genius to see the world differently. You have to have the capacity to disagree, to take the road less traveled. I guarantee you I am not smarter than lots of the people you know. But I don’t need to do it the way that other people do it.

So I think that capacity is an incredibly important element of being successful in any endeavor, but particularly if you want to be an entrepreneur. Right now, this capacity would make me unemployable by a large company like AT&T. They would kick me out so fast, I’d be in and boom, out in the parking lot before I’d had a cup of coffee in the morning the first day. Because there isn’t anything I’ve ever seen that I didn’t want to take apart and [mess] with. I would be unemployable by a large bureaucratic organization. My friend Jeff Bezos calls me a high-functioning contrarian; the problem is that being a low-functioning contrarian means you’re in prison. I think that capacity to rearrange things and see if they make sense is very, very helpful.

X: Since you bring up Jeff Bezos, what is the key thing that has made Amazon what it is today?

NH: Jeff is just an incredible independent thinker. He would tell you he makes lots of crappy decisions, but they’re not bounded by what other people think, that’s for damn sure. He’s an extraordinarily gifted problem solver.

A huge part of [Amazon’s success] is force of personality. And there are good sides to that and bad sides to that. Jeff has certainly been mostly right, but he has made some mistakes. The thing about Jeff is he understands technology, but he’s not a technologist; he’s not wed to technologies. Jeff Bezos wouldn’t give a rip if the whole Web blew up tomorrow. He’d just find another way. Like, “sold books in paper form for a while, now we’re going to sell them by the bits.” And by the way, it’s kind of obvious it’s going to go that way, so we better get ahead of it. He’s not romantic about anything.

X: Bezos was in New York, so why did he set up Amazon in Seattle in the first place? Some people may not know.

NH: The three reasons were this. It’s a small state [Washington]. California was out because 25 percent of his customers were going to be from California, and they were all going to … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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