We’ve all had a moment of inspiration that comes out of nowhere. Maybe it’s an idea for a product that will change people’s lives, or a way to solve a conflict. No matter the epiphany, this surge of excitement is often as fleeting as the good ideas we abandon too quickly. But what if we took a chance? What if we used our momentum to see our ideas through?
Our ancestors used their ideas for change. They took big risks to improve the lives of future generations, doing whatever it took with few alternatives. Now it’s our turn to take the risks and change the world, but we’re comfortable and complacent—even when we shouldn’t be.
Jon Bostock wrote The Elephant’s Dilemma to share how he took a chance with his career, and how readers can do the same. He shows how we’re chained to our current reality, and what can happen when we break free and reimagine our future. I recently caught up with Jon to learn what inspired him to write the book, his favorite idea, and how that idea changed his life.
What happened that made you decide to write the book? What was the exact moment when you realized these ideas needed to get out there?
My grandmother passed away in 2017. During her funeral, I found myself sitting in a room with people from all different backgrounds and faiths. Every single one of them spoke about her passion to unite the community regardless of background and faith. That moment was significant. My grandmother fled to Belarus and took on extraordinary risk to make her way to the United States with the goal of creating a better life for her and future generations. She not only survived the journey but she dedicated her life to making the world a better (and more united) place. Even in her final years, she was still focused on the broader cause.
I flew home wanting to do more. I spoke with my wife and we decided to fund a program at our alma mater designed to support people like my grandmother who are enrolled at the college. We took action because we wanted to pay it forward.
Around that time I had dinner with a former colleague. He had no idea my grandmother had just passed away and also did not know the story of her journey that has inspired me. The surprising part of the conversation was rooted in the context. He wanted to better understand how I was willing to “take the risk” of leaving GE to join Big Ass Fans. He had been “stuck” at GE for a decade and couldn’t generate the courage to do something bigger, even though he wanted to contribute more. He felt unfulfilled. I shared the story about my grandmother. I told him about her journey from Belarus through Russia, Japan and then to the USA. I explained how she was willing to take risks and we all simply get stuck in our bubbles.
That conversation inspired him to take a leap and I realized we all have an amazing opportunity to inspire others to take leaps too. There are those moments where we all want to do more and make a bigger impact. We simply need a reminder about those who have walked in our shoes generations before us and better understand the leaps they took to make the world a better place. My hope is that, with my book, I can do that for a wider audience.
What’s your favorite specific, actionable idea in the book?
My colleague I went to dinner with was determined to step out of stagnation, but he didn’t know how. If you have that same desire, but try to eat the whole elephant at once. Start small.
Stepping out of stagnation and finding more fulfilling work starts with testing the water, just a little, before jumping all the way in. That’s all you can reasonably expect to start with if you’ve spent your whole life being risk-averse, getting up at the same time every day, wearing the same color pants and putting on your black socks in the same order: right, then left.
If this sounds like you, start with something that feels crazy: wear red socks to work. I dare you. If that’s your starting point, then great. Recognize that and build up from there.
Start with the step that feels radical to you, even if it’s small by other people’s standards. This is your life, your achievements, and your sense of contribution to the world. Don’t measure what you’re doing with someone else’s measuring stick because you’ll never measure up.
Once you’re comfortable switching up your socks, try a bigger risk. Speak up in that meeting. Take on a special project. Move to a different company within your industry.
This is the only path forward: understand where you are in terms of risk-taking and start making decisions that push you forward from there. There’s no inventory process to assess your current risk profile. There isn’t a five-point plan to become more risk-tolerant. You just start moving.
What’s a story of how you’ve applied this lesson in your own life? What has this lesson done for you?
I had a lot of options after I left Big Ass Fans. Most of the options paid really well, but they didn’t solve my desire to play a bigger role in the reduction of waste associated with consumer products. I had spent my entire career “selling things” but never had the chance to try and fix an industry on a larger scale. Similar to the choice my grandmother made of taking a leap, I chose to start a company from the ground up to solve the issues versus simply going back to being tethered to a large company that really doesn’t make a big impact.