There are enough examples – from history, the world of business, and the arts – that show how one person’s unconventional thought process and alternative approach can transform an existing landscape or situation. A closer look at such individuals reveals some essential personality traits that hold the key to their change-making ability.
Maverick. According to some dictionaries, the word was originally used to indicate an unbranded calf that had steered away from its herd or mother. Over time, it has come to define a person who resists adhering to a group or its rules. It’s an intriguing definition that makes you want to know more. Who are these people? What makes them tick? And where does one find them?
My own interaction with many such creative individuals – largely unhampered by group think – has helped me arrive at a better understanding of their psyche and their particular brand of independent thinking.
If one were to try and nail down that one trait that defines maverick thinkers, it probably would be the ability to visualise possibilities that are not constrained by the current scenario or framework. As a result, the solutions they come up with may seem outlandish or preposterous at times. But I believe that this ability to question prevailing wisdom at a very fundamental level is vital to the maverick way of thinking. Mavericks also seem to have a built-in resilience, an ability to move on quickly from failure or rejection of their ideas. That doesn’t mean they are unaffected by the opinions of others. On the contrary, many of them are sensitive and thin-skinned but they have the capacity to counter skepticism with their own robust conviction.
These are usually (but not always) multi-faceted individuals with several different interests and hobbies. Scientist, cyclist, musician, artist…it is sometimes hard to find a readymade label that fits them completely. A historical case in point is Leonardo da Vinci, the archetype of the Renaissance Man, whose talent profile spanned a host of different disciplines. This aspect of the maverick persona allows for examining difficult problems from more than one angle in order to come up with innovative solutions to them.
And if they can’t go it alone, they find others to enable the ride. Inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk whose assortment of ventures includes Paypal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX, exhibits a quality that is intrinsic to the maverick character: a knack for aligning himself with others who have complementary skills. As a result, Musk has been able to ignite a diverse set of realms – online payment processing, space travel, electric cars, solar energy – with his creative vision and spark.
What now motivates this multimillionaire and others like him is more than just the prospect of material gains. There is an internal drive; a voice within pushing him to the next challenge or outpost.
And by that token, it can be a little lonely for mavericks. It takes courage and conviction to withstand public opinion, which is likely to be turned against you until such time as you prove yourself. Once you hit the success jackpot, you are celebrated for being a nonconformist. Until that time, however, you may be viewed as odd, idiosyncratic, a misfit. Vincent van Gogh’s work has greatly influenced 20th century art but was barely acknowledged in his lifetime. Lonely and tormented by his personal demons, he still created what he knew best – art that is rough, raw and beautifully emotional.
There are several other creative souls whom I have had the good fortune to get to know over the last few years. There is the Chinese artiste from Bangalore who defied convention and his own roots to seriously pursue Bharatanatyam as an art form. There is the Assamese musician whose music blends the classical and contemporary through soulful compositions in the local language.
Intense, mercurial, and temperamental to a large degree, mavericks are often not easy to live or get along with. Nobody is a better example of this than the late Steve Jobs whose whims and personality quirks are, of course, legendary. But he also embodied what is an essential characteristic of the maverick way of thinking – the ability to view problems as opportunities and to ask ‘why not’ where others would see barriers and roadblocks.
Their existence is definitely not constrained by time, place or culture. When I think of mavericks, I think of the entrepreneur from Tamil Nadu who developed a cost effective sanitary pad manufacturing unit to improve access for the Indian woman. There is the professor in Berkeley who studied the movement of cockroaches to design robotic legs. There is the visiting masseuse in the Bangalore community I live in who used to clean homes for a living until she discovered and tapped into the demand for therapeutic massages among a certain demographic of battle-weary professionals.
I have seen evidence of maverick thinking in other seemingly unlikely places. In a remote part of Andhra Pradesh, for example, during a tour of micro-loan funded ventures run by female entrepreneurs in the area. I saw a home-based print shop and a weaving outfit before walking into one woman’s timber shop. It was physically demanding work and I noticed that she was doing a lot of the heavy lifting with a few helpers while her husband sat at a desk through much of the time.
This bothered me. It was her loan and business, after all. Shouldn’t she be the one in charge? I confronted her about this and was completely blindsided by her response – delivered with a laugh, in Telugu: “Madam, he works for me. If he doesn’t treat me well, I can let him go”.
That, to me, was an incredibly creative way to secure her place in the household and to move from a position of vulnerability to one of strength.
This story and others like it illustrate that most important facet of maverick ability – the power to overcome inertia, fear, convention and rules in order to change things for the better.