Why winners never follow the rules

You'll never make anything if you're scared to break anything, says Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino.

by Francesca Gino
Last Updated: 04 May 2018

Break, transform, create. There’s a lot of power in these three words. I first learned this from the Italian chef Massimo Bottura. His restaurant, Osteria Francescana, holds 3 Michelin stars and took first place in the Best Restaurants in the World in 2016.

Take the traditional Italian dish called Bollito non Bollito: he transformed the not-that-tasty heavy meat stew into a very popular dish cooked delicately, sous vide. The meat is arranged on the plate as little skyscrapers, with colourful sauces that mirror the grass and flowers of NY Central Park.

Or the well-known deconstructed dessert called ‘Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart’. Bottura came up with this when a lemon tart accidentally fell on the ground. The broken pieces of the tart served as the base of the new dessert with cream literally splashed over it. It almost looks like the lemon tart is in motion on the plate.

When I first met him, Bottura showed me a picture of a Chinese conceptual artist, Ai Weiwei, smashing a 2,000-year old vase—a ceremonial large clay urn, shaped like a contemporary flower vase. In an instant, two millennia of history was broken. Why had he done it? I asked. A new beginning, Bottura explained. The destructive gesture was in fact a constructive one.

When we think of rebels, we think of trouble. But all rebels really do is take the habits that hold the rest of us back and break them. Most of us lean toward what’s comfortable and familiar, failing easily into routines. We prefer certainty over doubt. We accept the social roles that are passed onto us, almost without question, and go along with the majority view rather than sticking our necks out.

Rebels ask questions and look at the same problem or situation from multiple perspectives. They aren’t afraid to express opinions at work or to make themselves vulnerable in front of others. Bottura broke tradition by transforming Italian recipes that have been passed on for centuries. He questioned cooking procedures, and was therefore able to create innovative, often startling versions of traditional dishes.

Find your inner rebel

Rebels are all around us. Film director Ava Duvernay; Doug Conant who turned around the iconic company Campbell Soup when he took the lead in 2001; Captain 'Sully' Sullenberger, who ditched a plane with 155 passengers safely in the Hudson River; Pixar President and co-founder Ed Catmull; Greg Dyke, who brought yellow penalty cards into the BBC to make sure change happened.

Rebels have made their mark on history too, from Napoleon Bonaparte to 16th Century pirates sailing turbulent seas to the legendary magician Harry Houdini.

Despite their differences, they all have something in common: they live rich and incredibly satisfying lives. All rebels also share a secret: You don’t have to be born a rebel. At some point in their lives, they decided to break the bad habits that hold people back. They discovered their rebel talents and transformed themselves, creating their own success. And we can too.

Francesca Gino is professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. Her book Rebel Talent: Why it Pays to Break the Rules in Work and in Life, is published by Pan Macmillan.

Image credit: Tamara Kulikova/Shutterstock


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