Winston Churchill one wrote “History is written by the victors.” Some version of this has been passed on over the centuries, but this statement, by a British statesman, is particularly relevant. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, the first five presidents, were perilously close to being hanged as traitors to the British Crown. Washington led the revolution, Jefferson was the primary writer of the statement we no longer were going to put up with the British treating us like colonials, and Adams was one of the primary agitators for separation. And had it not been for a victory at Saratoga and Benjamin Franklin bending France’s ear for years, that hanging may have been a reality, and I would be typing this with a British accent.
The great presidents, like all people who leave their mark on history, are known for breaking the rules to create something new and enduring. George Washington enforced the first tax on products in the United States, making sure people knew that the federal government had authority. He gathered militias from across the states, the show of military force being enough to shut down the Whiskey Rebellion. Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory, not having any idea if he had the authority to do so. There was a long debate, but the purchase was still made. Abraham Lincoln did everything he could to drag the rebel states back into the Union, including attempting to violate the Constitution by suspending habeas corpus. Teddy Roosevelt, among many other things, helped to liberate Panama from the control of Columbia to build a canal where he wanted it, not where he was told to build it. Another Roosevelt, Teddy’s cousin Franklin, ignored convention and won four terms in office, prompting the creation of the 22nd Amendment. These are just some highlights. Every president has left a mark, simply because of their place in American government, either for good or for ill. All of them because they took chances and pushed the boundaries.
We are in an age of business when boundaries are being stretched everywhere we look and we are creating a Mt. Rushmore of business. In April 2008, Wired penned an article about Apple was doing everything right by doing everything wrong. It was titled “Evil Genius”, and details how not being all inclusive and listening to the rules was turning the company into a computing powerhouse. This was less than a year after the iPhone was introduced, shifting how we use our phones and making the rest of the industry play catch up. Elon Musk and Tesla are trying to break the mold in industry after industry, from privatizing space exploration to reimagining how automobiles fit into society. At the moment, 10 states have banned sales of Tesla in their state, mainly due to the innovative way they are being sold. The thousands of brewers that make up the craft beer industry are still fighting laws in many states, from where they can sell their beer to how strong they can brew it. Corporate beer is a part of the fight as well, picking up some of the top brewers to add to their portfolios. Even the workplace is evolving, from rows and rows of cubicles to open plans and foosball tables to mobile workers in coffee shops. All of these changes have been struggles, yet all of these changes are having a big impact on work culture today.
Look around right now. At your business, at your industry, at the environment that your business is a part of. Do you know where the edges are? What models are you breaking? Where are affiliated industries that you can be making inroads? One thing you do not need to look for is permission. FDR did not look for it when he ran for his third term. Musk was not looking for it when he came up with his sales model. Andrew Jackson did not ask anyone when he appointed his friends and aides to positions within the government, heralding firmer party lines (every innovation can’t be a winner, right?). As the chief executive of your business, or the very least the chief executive of your career, now is a golden time to innovate. There are opportunities to redefine and expand current industries or create new ones. Chances to connect to people that only a few years ago were inaccessible. Of course, with the right innovation, you may not even need to connect to the “decision makers”. The internet has opened up a world of possibilities, from Kickstarter-funded projects to self-publishing writing and art on any number of platforms. Where are you even going to begin?
It is a daunting task. Benjamin Harrison, who had the vision to install electricity in the White House, spent his entire presidency avoiding using it for fear of electrocution. There are risks. You will have to fight the status quo, the industry you are working in, and public opinion. But the rewards are mighty. The Founding Fathers, at incredible risk, went out and did not just win a war, but forged a country. Lincoln, after loss upon loss, was able to win the Civil War and free and entire race. Teddy Roosevelt improved trade, and the military capacity of the United States, by carving a complicated path to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It cost the lives of thousands of people and millions of dollars, but the work was done. Taking the risk is worth it. If it does not work, you have learned something valuable in the process. If it is successful, you will have made some type of impact on something you are passionate about. Go out and write your own history.