Conventional Wisdom

Before I flew out of New York last week, I went to a fancy dinner.

The dinner was held around a long table in a famous restaurant, hosted by a man who prefers good conversation to the city’s other pleasures.

I found myself breaking bread with the artistic elite, with captains of industry, with leaders in law and finance.

My job was to discuss the Internet (no problem there) and to listen thoughtfully to everyone else’s contributions.

What I heard might be dismissed as “conventional wisdom,” except that it was coming from the sources of said wisdom. Anything these folks said would be “conventional wisdom,” in other words, because they said it.

The general economic opinion was that we’re either headed for a nasty recession or a “soft landing,” a slowdown that readjusts expectations and makes everything all right. I joked that I’ve personally predicted nine of the last four recessions.

A little worry can be a good thing, and everyone around the table had something to be worried about. There are fools at the top of the pyramid (not us, of course, not us), and it’s always a fight to keep them from pressing the down button on the escalator.

But as I returned to my hotel room and settled down to pack for the flight back, I thought hard about conventional wisdom and its purpose in the world we’re making.

The fact is, every field (including e-commerce) has its own conventional wisdom and that wisdom is constantly changing.

The sky’s the limit, we’re heading through the floor, the leaders are established, leadership is up for grabs. At one point or another, all these views have been our industry’s conventional wisdom just this year, and all have been superseded in their turn.

But conventional wisdom can’t be ignored or dismissed. To a great extent it defines our reality. When conventional wisdom held that Internet stocks could only rise, or they could only fall, you couldn’t afford to be on the other side, even if you knew prices were certain only to fluctuate.

When everyone assumed Bush would win, it was hard to be a Democrat. Now everyone assumes Gore will win, and it’s hard to be a Republican. The fact is, no one will know until after the votes are counted, and then they’ll have known it all along.

So what are we to make of conventional wisdom? If your career path is to rise within a hierarchy or respond to short-term market trends, then, of course, you have to take it seriously. Traders and price-setters who don’t respond to conventional wisdom don’t stay in business.

But if your path is that of the entrepreneur, if you want to lead or create something entirely new, shut your ears to conventional wisdom. Nod, smile, and ignore it until it says you’re golden.

That’s the only path to leadership.

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