When The Dumbest Idea Is The Best One

This post is an excerpt adapted by Brian Carter from the forthcoming book The Cowbell Principle: Career Advice On How To Get Your Dream Job And Make More Money, by Brian Carter and Garrison Wynn. Brian and Garrison will be giving away a limited number of digital copies at launch time. To get notified when they’re available, sign up at http://thecowbellprinciple.com/getnotified

Have you seen the More Cowbell sketch from Saturday Night Live? It’s more than just funny. Believe it or not, it’s a powerful metaphor for a successful work life. And it provides insight into the kind of people you need on your team, and what makes an effective team.

Everyone has at least one cowbell — it’s your unique, profitable talent people pay you for or your company’s unique offering. It’s something people have a fever for. When you discover it and give those people a ton of it, you gain success and happiness for both yourself and others. It’s a win-win.

A cowbell is simultaneously something you love doing and something other people really want as well (although, as we’ll see, you still will have detractors and critics). A cowbell creates joy for you and other people. It makes them yell for more. They can’t get enough.

Sometimes the Dumbest Idea Is the Best One

 “I’m telling you guys, you’re going to want that cowbell.”

TheBruce Dickinson (Christopher Walken)

Garrison once worked for Hendee Enterprises, a company that came up with industrial solutions. When one customer approached the company looking for a way to prevent moisture from getting into its paint vats, Garrison suggested a simple alternative to the warping, leaking covers the customer was using: “Why don’t we put a giant shower cap on there and you can throw the caps away every day?” Five engineers said it was the dumbest idea ever, borne of Garrison’s lack of education and understanding of the idea. But the covers had to be disposable because any wood or metal fabrication would warp or degrade. And caps made of special plastic and elastic wouldn’t cause static electricity.

The customer bought 250 boxes of 500 covers each. Now every paint vat in the country is required to have this cover and it’s sold in 30 countries. Not bad for a dumb idea, huh?

“I’m telling you guys, you’re going to want that gargantuan shower cap.”

— slightly modified by TheGarrison Wynn

We often confuse simplicity with stupidity. It’s easy to think that if something is simple, it must not be the best or most effective. Wrong! Sometimes an idea seems dumb because you’rebeing dumb. Or snobby.

Ignore the Snobs… For the Most Part

There’s a big difference between what movie critics like and what the mainstream public will pay to see. In the 2000s, Brian often looked at Rotten Tomatoes to decide whether to see a movie, until he realized that he often disagreed with the critics whose reviews were featured on the site. Sometimes you want to see a mindless action flick, and most of those are disliked by movie critics. And some of the top-grossing movies are universally panned by the critics.

IMDB is a great resource, because it contains both mainstream viewer ratings and metascore, which is a measurement of critical response to the movie. If you’re in the mood for something mainstream, ignore metascore. If you want to have a great time AND have your mind blown? Look for a movie that does well with both metascore (over 70) and high user ratings (above 7.0).

Movie critics are, at worst, snobs. They want something new and unpredictable, but often what people like isn’t much different from what they liked 10 years ago. At best, because critics watch more films and think about them more than others, they have more insight than the average person.

What underlies snobbiness is nothing more than a kind of elite stubbornness. We have a way of doing things that has a tradition to it; it’s the “right” way to do it. If you’re doing something in a way other than that, we know it’s not as good.

A snobby high school girl says, in essence, “My situation is far superior to yours. You can’t make a contribution to me. By virtue of your birth, I should not even acknowledge your existence.” What is this? Nothing more than a defense mechanism. High school is tough, so to look unafraid and invulnerable —to prevent people from bullying you — you look down on others first.

For us, the question is whether snobbiness — whether it comes from outside or inside ourselves — helps you create things that tons of people like. Sometimes, you definitely need to have standards. But sometimes snobbiness creates an intellectual paralysis that leads to creating things that only a small number of other snobs like.

One thing we’re sure of: If your inner snob is causing writer’s block, you need to exorcise that self-judging demon.

Try Something Stupid

Is there something you’ve been afraid to do that you thought was a pretty good idea but you believe others would view as stupid?

Exercising through stupid ideas leads you to better ideas. Look at all the stupid contraptions we humans tried to fly in our quest to get airborne! Sometimes the onlyway to genius is through stupid.

We can guess that Formula 409 means the other 408 spray cleansers didn’t work. Number 17 probably sprayed dirt onto dirt. And Fantastik may have had had an earlier version called Purty Good. “How’s that clean?” “Oh, Purty Good… a lot better than Not Bad Spray!”

Are stupid ideas a good idea? Yes.

Since when is the first idea the best idea? If the first idea were indeed the best idea, then progress makes no sense.

Be Willing to Be Crazy

Every city has some local dealership with a crazy commercial. If you were an intellectual, acting like that would kill your career, but nobody cares about the sophisticated furniture guy. Crazy Eddie Furniture beats that guy every time.

Mattress Mack is one of the most successful businessmen in Houston, Texas – so successful he once lost a $7 million football bet. In his commercials, he held a big wad of money and yelled, “We’ll save you money!” Mattress Mack did, however, lose to chainsaw-wielding Hilton “That’s a Fact Jack” Koch in a Conan O’Brien contest for most annoying advertiser.

If you’re buying cheap local TV ads, it’s good to be crazy. Crazy can be an advantage in certain other industries too; it depends on the market. And even if you’re not the craziest person or company in oyur market, a little occasional craziness reassures your customers that you have a pulse. Which is good, because, most of the time, dead people don’t sell a lot of stuff.