Lesson #3: Question Convention
“The most important aspect of my personality, as far as determining my success goes, has been my questioning conventional wisdom, doubting the experts and questioning authority,” says Ellison. “While that can be very painful in relationships with your parents and teachers, it's enormously useful in life.”
Ellison has made a career for himself out of going against the norm and innovating where others never thought possible. Had he listened to the conventional wisdom at the time, which said that relational databases would never be commercially viable because they were too slow, Ellison would have missed out on the success he has achieved today.
“When you're the first person whose beliefs are different from what everyone else believes, you're basically saying, ‘I'm right, and everyone else is wrong,’” says Ellison. “That's a very unpleasant position to be in. It's at once exhilarating and at the same time an invitation to be attacked.”
Ellison believes his ability to question authority stems from his childhood. His father was a Russian immigrant and a bomber pilot in WWII who loved his new country whether right or wrong. Ellison’s teachers would also try to dismiss questions the young inquisitive mind would pose if they challenged what they were saying. He was told that intelligence was based on how well he could repeat something back to his teachers, as opposed to challenging them. “I had a real problem with that as well. I had very strong authoritarian figures, both in school and at home, which served as wonderful examples of how not to be,” recalls Ellison.
From an early age, Ellison had learned the importance of thinking for himself. “Come to your own judgments,” he advises. “Don't simply conform to conventional ways of thinking, to conventional ways of dressing, conventional ways of acting. A lot of things are based on fashion, even morality at times is based on fashion.” Ellison points to slavery, which was once considered not to be immoral. “Whether they're scientific principles, or moral principles, or business ideas or product ideas, you have to think things out for yourself,” he says.
Ellison learned to never except things at face value, never accept something as true simply because it has been labeled a truth by someone else. “I think we have two fundamental drives in our life,” says Ellison. “We want to be loved, and we want to please people; but we know how to think, we know how to reason.” Only by listening to this reason and being willing to be unpopular for the sake of what you hold true will you be able to succeed, believes Ellison.
“I do not give fashionable answers to questions,” says Ellison. “That's what shocks people when they ask you a question and expect everyone to answer it exactly the same way…Whenever you give your own answer, what you really believe to be true, rather than the fashionable answer, these people are shocked, or amused or even horrified.”
From interviews to product innovation, Ellison has reached new heights of success by understanding that the truth was what he believed it to be, not what he was told.
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