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The Innovator’s Guilt

December 5, 2018

“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.”Marcus Aurelius

Few ad campaigns have been more successful than Apple’s ”Think Different” campaign in 1997. It featured snippets of the “crazy ones”—the Einsteins, the Edisons and Earharts of the world—set to a rousing soundtrack and an inspiring monologue.

“Here’s to the crazy ones….The ones who see things differently…While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

It was an epic campaign that won worldwide praise. It cemented Apple’s place in the minds and hearts of creative talent and free-thinking spirits. And in the years since, it remains a manifesto for every innovative entrepreneur and aspiring contrarian out there.

But it misses an important point.

Thinking differently isn’t cheap. There’s a serious price to it. And it’s not one that you might expect.


Our bodies and minds are impressive pieces of hardware. Over eons we have evolved into refined, well-oiled machines. But our surroundings have changed—and our bodies remained designed for a different world.

In our primitive past we lived in small tribes. In these social constellations, leaving the group was not a great strategy. To embark on your own adventures lowered your own chances of survival. Even becoming ridiculed by the crowd meant potential exile, and potential death.

So to prevent social isolation and castigation from happening, evolution programmed an effective piece of software into us.

It’s called guilt.

Those who responded to the feeling of guilt—who felt bad for thinking for themselves and venturing out on their own—returned to their group and survived.

Those who didn’t respond to the guilt—who either didn’t feel it or chose to ignore it—perished.

And so, until this day, guilt trickles through our veins. It’s triggered when we disrupt the social fabric. It keeps us from agitating our groups. It prevents us from venturing too far out into the unknown. It hinders us from becoming too independent. And it makes sure we adhere to our need for belonging.

Guilt is a leash that keeps us close to those we love. It has noble intentions. But anytime we’re confronted with moving forward, we’re faced with the fact that we’re leaving our group behind.

That brings us back to Think Different.


In entrepreneurship and investing circles, “to be a contrarian” is a central commandment. “Betting against the consensus” and “seeing things differently” are keys to success, as these figures describe:

When you hear these types of statements, it’s easy to conclude that the key is to think differently. The challenge appears to be coming up with new ideas that go against the grain.

But the difficulty is not coming up with the ideas. The tough part of thinking differently is sticking with it.

Why? Because of the guilt that comes with thinking and acting for yourself.

Remember, every step toward independence is a step away from the group. It doesn’t matter whether it’s our family, our group of friends, or society at large. Thinking and acting differently is always a step away from what we know and what has kept us safe until now.

These steps into the unknown, these innovative moves, are what lead to progress. But there is a tax on such progress, and that’s guilt.

The guilt manifests itself in different ways. It can be thoughts like, “Who I am to pursue this? Kids are starving in Africa, after all.” It can be crippling, paralyzing feelings of fear. Or it can be catastrophic predictions of inevitable failure, and the threat of condescending I-told-you-so’s. Whatever the case, you feel bad by merely thinking about doing things differently.

It’s literally painful. Research has shown that social exclusion lights up the same parts of the brain that are triggered by physical pain.

Guilt becomes an invisible wall that keeps you stuck right where you are.

Moving forward

Courage isn’t the absence of fear. Courage is acting despite of fear. In the same way, innovative progress is “thinking differently and acting upon those ideas despite the guilt and shame they generate.”

The key here is not creativity. The key is perseverance. It’s about keeping your eye on the target, on the world you want to create, and to withstand the guilt and shame that comes with every step forward.

So how do you persist? You persist by making the alternative—stagnation and the status quo—even worse.

If guilt is the price of progress, then you need to make sure that the cost of stability is even higher.

Many successful entrepreneurs come from challenging backgrounds riddled with heartache and insecurity. Terrible as it must have been, in some ways they have been lucky in their misfortune. To them, guilt is nothing compared to the conditions they faced in their childhoods.

“Many of the best entrepreneurs don’t need social approval,” says venture capitalist Josh Wolfe. “Or they thrive precisely because they never got it. They reject the rejectors. They give up on fitting in and they move to stand out…When you come from nothing, you have nothing to lose“.


What to do about it?

Know that the price of innovative, contrarian progress is guilt and shame.

Build a solid personal foundation to be resilient enough to withstand the waves of guilt that will hit you, so that your self-worth isn’t dependent on your need for belonging.

Create a cost of the status quo that is greater than the price of guilt.

And, paradoxical as it might seem, follow your guilt. The more you feel guilt, the more you know you are breaking out. The more guilt you feel, the greater the crimes you’re committing against the status quo. The more guilt you experience while not giving in to it, the more of a contrarian you are.

So here’s to the crazy ones….The ones who see things differently…and who feel the guilt of moving forward but persevere despite of it.


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