Last night, as I was skimming through Joseph Sugarman’s book The Adweek Copywriting Handbook (sounds like a thriller, doesn’t it?), I came upon a section on page 56 called Assumed Constraints.
And believe it or not, this section of the book truly captivated me. This section proved that no matter how crazy, stupid, whacky, ridiculous, unheard of, or out-of-this-world your idea may be—it can be great.
“Have you ever looked at a circus elephant anchored to the ground? If you have, you might notice that the elephant has a metal collar around its leg to which it is attached a small chain. And the chain is attached to a wooden peg driven into the ground. Pretty good protection?
Pretty lousy, if you ask me. That 12,000-pound elephant could very easily pick up its foot and with one fell swoop yank the peg out of the ground and walk away. But the elephant doesn’t. Why? I’ll explain.
When that elephant was still a baby, that same collar and chain and peg were used to hold the elephant in place. The restraint was sufficient to hold the baby elephant in place even if it wanted to break way. And break away is indeed what the baby elephant tried to do.
So every day while the baby was chained up, it would pull at the chain and pull and pull and pull until finally a cut appeared on its leg exposing the sore sensitive layers of deep skin tissue. It hurt to pull like that and soon the baby elephant, realizing the effort was both futile and painful, stopping trying to escape.
As the baby elephant grew older, it never forgot that bad experience with the chain and the peg. And so whenever it was anchored down in a sport, it would think, ‘Hey, it’s impossible to break away and besides, it hurts.’
The adult elephant had what I call an ‘assumed constraint.’ And all of us have the same problem to one degree or another.”
In my option, this is especially the case for entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurs: Today, I challenge you to break free of your chain and peg and collar and cause a circus of your own. When people tell you “it can’t be done”, then it’s time to show them that it can. Here are a few examples of individuals who broke free of their own assumed constraints to take on the world:
- “Consumers will rip you off if you let them buy using their credit cards over a toll-free line without having them sign anything.” – What people said to Sugarman himself. He then launched toll-free order taking in the US.
- “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” – Ken Olsen, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977.
- “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” – Popular Mechanics magazine, 1949.
- “The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C’, the idea must be feasible. – Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. Smith later founded FedEx.
- “Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try to find oil? You’re crazy.” – Drillers whom wildcatter Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist in his project to drill for oil in 1859.
- “Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.” – Ferdinand Foch, professor of military strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre, later commander of Allied Armies in World War I.
- “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” – Irving Fisher, professor of economics, Yale University, 1929.
- “I think there is a world market for maybe 5 computers,” –Thomas Watson Sr., president of IBM, 1943.
- “So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it back to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary; we’ll come work for you.’ And they said ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.’” – This was related to Steve Jobs, Apple Computer co-founder, on his attempts in the mid 70s to get Atari and Hewlett-Packard interested in his and Steve Wozniaks personal computer.
- “A cookie store is a bad idea. Besides, the market research reports say America likes crispy cookies, not soft and chewy cookies like you make.” — Response in the mid-70s to Debbi Fields’ idea of starting Mrs. Fields Cookies.
- “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” Bill Gates, Microsoft founder, 1981.
So when people tell you that you can’t, my solution is this: Think Big. Get out there. Prove ‘em wrong.