This post includes extra content from Startup Mixology, my upcoming book on starting up – including how to prepare yourself for the harsh reality and celebrate positive moments along the way. Go here to pre-order the book (due July 8) and subscribe to updates.
It’s no surprise that the startup community has embraced the term “hacker,” which once referred to illegal activities. Programmers spend their days hacking, marketers are now growth hackers, and you can even hack PR. Startups may be following the laws these days – or so they claim – but they’re not following the rules.
Y Combinator cofounder Paul Graham defines a hacker as a great programmer, but also someone who does something clever to thwart the rules of the system. The term is said to date back to the mid-1900s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, when students who didn’t go to class and devoted their energies to a hobby were called “hackers.”
Even outside startups and tech, the word “hacker” can be used nowadays to refer to anyone coming up with a shortcut, a “hack.” For example, you might want to hack travel and figure out a way to earn extra miles when taking flights. Or you might want to hack your body, losing weight with the least exercise possible. Often these hacks are done for intellectual curiosity; often, they break the rules that the rest of the world is following.
Rule-breaking goes hand in hand with entrepreneurs’ bias for action: they don’t seek permission, but just do it and (if necessary) ask for forgiveness after. Working at a large organization or corporation, some of the most effective intrapreneurs use this technique. Intrapreneurs are employees who have that strong entrepreneurial mindset to drive change. If you ask permission for everything first, especially in a large organization, you’ll never get your ideas past the first line of management, who is comfortable with the status quo and doesn’t want to put their career on the line for your changemaking ways.
As entrepreneur Zainab Zaki says, “Entrepreneurs don’t take anything at face value. They are careful of jumping to conclusions and are wary of first impressions. They look closely, read between the lines, turn corners, and dig deeper. There is always another way to look at things and there is always a hidden layer of information. This ability to probe deeper and take nothing at face value allows entrepreneurs to think out of the box, not be fazed by obstacles, look for creative solutions, and not make hasty decisions.” Rule breaking is creativity.
So how do you forget the rules and think more creatively? If you’re just starting out, you might want to consider a startup outside your field of expertise, since creativity often involves combining disparate ideas. Outsiders aren’t constrained by what the perceived “rules” are. (You also don’t know the lay of the land, so there are advantages and disadvantages of this approach.) If you’re already starting up, you can talk to people from other fields to hear different perspectives, open your mind to new possibilities, and spark ideas.
When you actually sit down to do something creative, have an open mind and brainstorm without judging or rejecting ideas. Just get it all out first – don’t put rules on your own mind. And remember that you can come up with the best ideas when you’re taking a break from thinking. I come up with more ideas while on vacation than I do the rest of the year. And Albert Einstein was famously quoted as saying, “Why is it I always get my best ideas while shaving?” Don’t stress yourself out with deadlines to come up with ideas; free your mind and the rebellious ideas will find you in that “aha” moment of clarity.