Of Groupthink and Other Stories

Human beings are far more comfortable in tribes, it’s the way we are wired. And being in a tribe is not an exclusive thing. One person can belong to several tribes at the same time. For instance, the first and most tightly-knit tribe a human usually belongs to is the family- close-knit ties, bound by blood. Now you will agree that most parents naturally accept their children at first, that is until a child decides (s)he wants to go the other way and stops doing the things that made them belong in the first place. But that’s by the way. Other tribes people belong to are religion, sexual orientation, culture, nation and so on. For each and everyone of these tribes, an individual has to think a certain way and do certain things to fit in. An outlier is a complete no-no. Now when a group of people think the same way and do things the same way, a herd mentality is being built and whoever opposes that(Angel Gabriel help him), is considered an outcast. Why is this so? Being part of a tribe is cosy and fills a basic human need for love and acceptance. Belonging to a tribe is cosy and anyone who threatens the fabric of a tribe by thinking or acting different would have to face some consequences.

The 2015 movie “Concussion” is the true story of a Nigerian doctor, Bennett Omalu. Omalu was a pathologist performing seemingly routine autopsies on bodies in his Seattle office. What stood Omalu out was that he did his work like an artist- attention to the tiniest detail, obsession with your subject(which in his case was dead bodies. Jesus.), and an eccentric attitude (dude actually spoke to dead bodies as he did his work). Let’s not go into the fact that Omalu has about 8 degrees under his belt (including an MBA, how cool is that?).

A Burning Question

All was bright and shiny until one day when the body of Mike Webster was brought in for an autopsy. Now Mike Webster was an American Footballer, a former Pittsburg Steelers centre, who died a homeless lunatic. The cause of death was known, Mike died from a heart attack. But the reason for his death wasn’t. This was what kept Omalu awake at night. How can a successful and prominent sportsman go from healthy to being a homeless lunatic within the space of a few years, with no known disease present in his body? He had his burning question, so Omalu went to work. A burning question is that ever-present hanging question mark which our outlier wants to solve. I read somewhere that instead of parents asking their children what they want to be, they should ask them what problems they want to solve. This is sound advice because it opens up a world of possibilities instead of caging one to a place. Asking questions have a way of opening up the deep possibilities that exists in any situation. Asking questions unclogs minds like you unclog your kitchen sink. The Six Sigma methodology of the “5 Whys” is particularly helpful. Asking why five times, will practically reveal the cause and effect relationship underlying a particular problem. Why do you want to start a business? Because I want to build something significant. Why do you want to build something significant? Because I want something that will outlive me. Why do you want to build something that will outlive you? Because.. Ok you get the gist.

A Calculating Contrarian.

Many people like being contrarian for the sake of it- being eccentric, different or rebellious is probably the cool. Their contrarianism has no basis, no hard reasoning or logic backing it. They just do it for the sake of it.

Omalu was a calculating contrarian. What these people do is that that they don’t take risks without first doing the ground work of knowing the facts, seeing what is possible and working from there.

Omalu had the facts- Mike Webster was a footballer, he died of a heart attack and he was mad when he died. Omalu also had the knowledge base and skills- he was a trained pathologist who knew his shit. Now it was time to figure out what his strategy would be and how to determine the true reason behind Mike Webster’s death. Now note that everything was physical fine with Mike Webster, no symptoms of any disease, and his CT Scans came back clean. The next thing Omalu did was to section Mike Webster’s brain and sent tissues to the lab for examination. He result that came back astonished him. It turned out that even though Mike Webster’s brain looked normal, he had a degenerative brain disease. Now the problem was that this disease was new. No one had a name for it. American football is a very dangerous sport. Players know this and wear helmets and shoulder pads. But the human body can only survive so many impacts over a career spanning several years. Mike Webster’s brain had been “battered” from all that hitting from his team mates and opponents on the field. Mike Webster had paid for his football career with the ultimate price-his life. Omalu moved quick and named the disease he had just discovered- Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy(CTE). He and some colleagues wrote and submitted a scientific journal about the disease.


The Outsider Syndrome

Dr. Omalu was an outsider. Period. He moved from Nigeria to the United States for a better life, working hard and schooling while on a work permit. And he didn’t know the next thing about American Football. Coming from a country where soccer is the main sport doesn’t give you a lot of background knowledge of another sport or why Americans live and die for it. He didn’t even know who Mike Webster was as his body was brought to him for examination. Omalu was the outsider looking in.

Being an outsider does something to you. Yes, you think and act different from the members of a group, but it makes you unattached emotionally. It frees you from the burden of conforming. It gives you the ability to see what the members of the group can’t see, because you are detached. It gives you the courage to speak up when it matters, because you don’t care what people will think. Omalu submitted his journal about the CTE disease and instead of being praised for his work to save the lives of footballers, the criticism began. The NFL (National Football League) was not pleased. Here was this outsider, this nobody, this voodoo doctor from Nigeria who came into their well-established and influential industry, literally telling them what to do. He was also threatening their livelihood, keep in mind that this is a billion dollar industry, only next to soccer.

When an outlier steps up to disrupt a group, there will be consequences. And Omalu got his. He started to receive threat calls at home, the NFL wanted his paper recalled and he was labeled a fraud. Anyone who has ever built or done something significant has had that outsider moment.

The principle of Association

The brain is a very powerful tool. In fact, man hasn’t discovered the true limits of its power. Over a lifetime, one’s brain accumulates knowledge and experiences from several sources. What the principle of association does is that when faced with a problem or task, the brain links and associates several related knowledge or events to help with solving the problem. In Omalu’s case, his knowledge of medicine, pathology, business, human nature, all came to play. And this helped him solve the puzzle. What you want to do is to fill your knowledge bank regularly (through reading or experiences), so you can call on them to help you in times of need.

Gut feeling

Intuition. We have heard so much about it. And it is true. It exists. It actually is a

thing. Trust it and use it regularly. Omalu’s guts told him he was on to something. It was why he paid about $20,000 from his own pocket to fund his research on Mike Webster’s case, when the organization he worked for wasn’t willing to pay for it. Little did he know that he was going to discover a disease.

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