Lessons from twenty exciting years as a black sheep

Lessons from twenty exciting years as a black sheep

Published On:
May 22, 2023

Unbelievable! I just realized that twenty years have passed since I had my great awakening and was reborn as a black sheep. It happened in Bangkok on Chinese New Year’s Day 2003, and it was the first day of the year of the Black Sheep. As the sun began to set on that day, I suddenly experienced a life-changing, consciousness-expanding Eureka moment of realizing who I really am and what I should do with my life. From one moment to the next, I was not the same person anymore. I had no option other than to eventually leave my old, comfortable, and secure job as a corporate banker at Deutsche Bank (a fine institution that I still hold in high regard today for the many good things I learned and received in the 17 years I worked for it) and to embark on a new journey into the unknown world of business creativity and innovation.

Since then, I have evolved from an absolute beginner in these domains to an international business creativity and innovation expert. Today, let me share eight lessons I have learned —sometimes the hard way— on my path as a black sheep over the past twenty years.  

1. Life is easier as a white sheep.

Being a black sheep in a world full of white sheep is quite frightening. Society encourages everyone to behave as a white sheep, even if they are black at their innermost core. Over the years, I have noticed numerous other black sheep who, unfortunately, pretend to be white. Putting on white sheepskin makes their lives easier in many ways, as I will explain more below, but ultimately, it also makes them live a fake life where they constantly live in fear that someone recognizes their hidden blackness. As Abraham Lincoln put it: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

2. Life is more colorful if you dare to show your true colors.

Acknowledging your true black sheepishness gives you at least one great reward: It allows you to live life in harmony with who you are. Accepting your true self is the prerequisite to doing those things you enjoy and eventually getting more of those things you want. After all, you must first be who you are, then do those things that naturally come easy to you to have the desired results. I can tell you that on most days, I feel deeply satisfied when reflecting on what I have done that day. And deep satisfaction is the more permanent feeling that most people crave but few achieve: happiness.

3. Be ready to work twice as hard.

Talk to anyone who has witnessed my journey closely over the past two decades, and they all will tell you: They know no one who worked harder and more than me. I worked seven days during most weeks of the last 20 years and typically took less than two weeks off for vacation a year. Why this heavy load? I worked in two careers as an entrepreneurial innovation company founder and a university faculty at various Asian business schools over the past years. (Fortunately, and by design, there was extensive overlap between these two roles as what I taught and researched academically equaled what I created and worked on entrepreneurially).

4. Life is more passionate as a black sheep

How could I possibly cope with this impossible schedule and workload? Because I am deeply passionate about my “black sheep” career as a creativity expert, and I deeply love my work as a creator of creative methods, tools, and people. So even when I intend not to work on anything on a particular day, I often can’t help but do something directly or indirectly related to my work. As Confucius recommended: “Find a job that you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

5. Be willing to make sacrifices.

If you dare to be a black sheep, accept to live life in a freer but also humbler, less exuberant way, at least initially. Why? In a world run by white sheep, all sheep that are white —or at least pretend to be and make an effort to blend into the herd— tend to be rewarded more handsomely and reliably than these unconventional, abnormal black sheep.

6. Brace when crisis strikes.

Life doesn’t evolve in a straight line but in curves with many ups and downs. And sometimes, we have to deal with a personal crisis (such as a major health problem) or a broader societal crisis (such as the recent global pandemic). My experience is that black sheep tend to get hit harder by crises as they’re out of the mainstream (or even going against it). Due to their greater flexibility and more resilient mindset, however, I believe they can cope better with crises and bounce back faster and higher after coming out of the experience. “Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom,” as the American General George S. Patton once said,

7. Be willing to take a big bet, not knowing if it will pay off in the end.

Truth be told, had I continued my comfortable life as a corporate banker, I would have earned much more income over the past two decades than I did as a black sheep. So, while I surely would have spent much more money playing my banker role, I probably would own a seven-digit dollar amount in hard assets that, with intelligent investment, might produce a million bucks more.

As a result of opting to live life as a black sheep my way during the past decade, I now have a few million dollars of intangible assets “on paper” that, according to my business plan, have an imminent potential to produce a few hundred million dollars in the future.

If I continue to work hard on my path and am a bit lucky, I stand a chance to earn much more in the long run, living my humble, risky, and genuine life as a black sheep compared to having stayed in a safe, but ultimately incongruent white sheep career. But even if I hope to increase my odds of success by working extremely hard, there is no guarantee that I will hit the entrepreneurial jackpot eventually. For every black sheep that gets famous (such as Thomas Edison), many other unsung heroes die poor, lonely, and unrecognized (like Vincent van Gogh).

8. As a black sheep, dare to be disliked.

If you choose to live life as a black sheep, one thing is certain: you will polarize and be disliked by most people. Black sheep are, by definition, the oddball members of a family or society who do not fall in line with the others. They are abnormal cases that deviate from the norm. As an innovator, I like to explain this with Everett Rogers’ innovation adaption curve that follows a normal distribution and describes how new technology is adopted over time by an overall population:

  • In business and society, black sheep are often innovators who drive change and refuse to fit in (2.5%).
  • The only other people who like what these frontrunners do are the early adopters (13.5%), who equally favor progress and change and support it by endorsing and talking about the work of the innovators.
  • The remaining 84% of people dislike change and look at you as an innovative black sheep, either with quirky amusement (early majority – 33%), mild annoyance (late majority, 33%), or great disapproval (laggards, 18%).

So living and working as an innovative black sheep requires the courage to be disliked by at least half of the people you encounter. But if you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one, least of all yourself. So follow the advice of the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

Conclusion: Focus on the journey, not the destination

To sum up, don’t become a black sheep if you’re in business for the money, but only if you’re in it to realize your true self and make meaning. If you make meaning, you’ll eventually make money while continuing to make meaning. In any case, the important thing is to enjoy your journey with all its ups and downs and not focus too much on the destination. As the German saying goes: “Der Weg ist das Ziel.”

  • Learning the ways of a black sheep is aligned with developing the abnormal success mindset of an outstanding creative leader that we teach in our training courses on Genius Journey, Thinkergy’s creative leadership method.
  • How can we support you in leading innovation in your industry or category from the front instead of following the lead of others? Contact us to tell us more about your innovation agenda and get a free consultation session.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2023.