Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It

Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It

by Dorie Clark
Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It

Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It

by Dorie Clark


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Standing out is no longer optional

Too many people believe that if they keep their heads down and work hard, they’ll be recognized on the merits of their work. But that’s simply not true anymore. “Safe” jobs disappear daily, and the clamor of everyday life drowns out ordinary contributions. To make a name for yourself, to create true job security, and to make a difference in the world, you have to share your unique perspective and inspire others to take action. But in a noisy world where it seems everything’s been said—and shouted from the rooftops—how can your ideas stand out?

Fortunately, you don’t have to be a genius or a worldwide superstar to make an impact. Drawing on interviews with more than fifty thought leaders in fields ranging from business to genomics to urban planning, Dorie Clark shows how these masters achieved success and how anyone—with hard work—can do the same. Whether it’s learning to ask the right questions, developing and building on an expert niche, or combining disparate fields to get a new perspective, Clark outlines ways to develop the ideas that set you apart.

Of course, having a breakthrough insight is only half the battle. If you really want to share your ideas, you have to find a way to build an audience, communicate your message, and inspire others to embrace your vision. Starting small is fine; Clark provides a step-by-step guide to help you leverage your existing networks, attract new people to your cause, and, ultimately, build a community around your ideas.

Featuring vivid examples based on interviews with influencers such as Seth Godin, David Allen, and Daniel Pink, Clark shows you how to break through and ensure that your ideas get noticed. Becoming a thought leader in your company or in your profession is the ultimate career insurance. But—even more important—it’s also a chance to change the world for the better. Whatever your cause, perspective, or point of view, the world can’t afford for the best ideas to remain buried inside you. Whether it’s how to improve the educational system or how to make your company more efficient, your ideas matter. The world needs your insights, and it’s time to be bold.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781591847403
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/21/2015
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

DORIE CLARK is a marketing and strategy consultant and frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur, and Forbes. She consults and speaks to a diverse range of clients, including Google, the World Bank, Microsoft, and Morgan Stanley. She is also an adjunct professor of business administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Her first book was Reinventing You. You can access more than four hundred free articles on her Web site,, and follow her on Twitter @dorieclark.

Read an Excerpt


You have something to say to the world. You have a contribution to make. Each of us has ideas that can reshape the world, in large ways or small. It might be developing a new business process, creating a new literary movement, or finding a new way to deliver humanitarian aid. It could be changing how the world looks at a political cause, or how students are taught, or how the corporate world should handle work-life balance. Whatever your issue, if you really want to make an impact, it’s important for your voice to be heard.

Yet too many of us shrink back when it comes to finding and sharing our ideas with the world. We assume the leading experts must have some unique talent or insight. We assume that our own ideas may not measure up. We assume that working hard and keeping our heads down will be enough to move our careers forward. But none of those things is true. Most recognized experts achieved success not because of some special genius, but because they learned how to put disparate elements together and present ideas in a new and meaningful way. That’s a skill anyone—with hard work—can practice and learn. And more and more, it’s essential. In today’s competitive economy, it’s not enough to simply do your job well. Developing a reputation as an expert in your field attracts people who want to hire you, do business with you and your company, and spread your ideas. It’s the ultimate form of career insurance.

It’s overstating the case to claim that there’s a surefire formula for becoming a recognized authority in your field. But are there patterns? A common set of principles that almost every respected leader follows, consciously or unconsciously? Without a doubt. With hard work and smarts, almost any professional could become a thought leader in his or her company or field. Few ever try—and that’s your competitive advantage. If you’re willing to take the risk of sharing yourself and your ideas with the world, you’re far ahead of the majority, who stay silent.

You were meant to make an impact. Now is the time to start.


Let’s get clear on definitions. In this book, I’ll be talking about how to become a recognized expert—a thought leader—in your field. First, if you are a thought leader, you’re known for your ideas. If you have celebrity without intellectual content backing it up, you might as well be a reality TV star. Kim Kardashian, whatever her other virtues, is not a thought leader. Second, you must have followers in order to be a thought leader. Being an expert is great, but it’s not sufficient—it merely implies you know what you’re doing. Thought leaders strive to make an impact, and that requires them to get outside the ivory tower and ensure that their message is accessible and actionable. It’s also important to note that you don’t need to be the world’s leading authority on a subject; you can be a thought leader in your company or in your community as well.

Recently there’s been some cultural blowback about the concept of “thought leadership” itself (a term coined in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, then the editor in chief of Strategy + Business magazine, regarding thinkers whose ideas “merited attention”1). In a Harvard Business Review article, Sarah Green pushed back on the notion, asking, “Don’t we have enough ambitious workers leaning in so far that they’re toppling out of their desk chairs? Enough ‘thought leaders’ selling dubious credentials and platitudinous advice? Do our workplaces really need more ladder-climbing, cheese-moving self-promoters?”2

The underlying assumption seems to be that aspiring to the creation of new and important ideas is somehow sleazy, or a form of strategic puffery. Admittedly, some advice on thought leadership is vapid and banal, just as some advice on marketing, or strategy, or finance can be. But sharing your ideas with the world—when done right—is a far more meaningful act. Often, it looks like bravery.

When Diane Mulcahy was hired by the $2 billion Kauffman Foundation to manage its private equity and venture capital portfolio, she realized something was wrong. The foundation had invested in more than one hundred VC funds over two decades, but as a former venture capitalist, she realized the returns were far less than they theoretically should have been. Figuring out what was going wrong was important for the foundation’s finances, but also for its mission. If venture capital was broken, the Kauffman Foundation—which focuses intensively on supporting entrepreneurship—needed to understand why.

Mulcahy began investigating, and the numbers weren’t pretty. “Venture capital has had poor returns for over a decade, and the analysis we did on our own portfolio showed VC returns had not beaten the public markets, which is a terrible thing to have to say,” she recalls. “Venture capital promises to beat the public indexes by a fairly high margin—that’s the only reason you’d invest in a private partnership that ties up your money for a decade and charges high fees. It was a very big deal to come out and say, with a lot of data to back it up, that venture capital doesn’t deliver on its promises.”

Mulcahy’s report didn’t name names or criticize specific VC firms. But it laid bare Kauffman’s own investment portfolio, a striking move in an industry that’s generally opaque. She took on the sacred cows of the industry, highlighting the overly generous terms VC firms negotiate for themselves. “VCs go around talking about what great investors they are,” she says, “but in actuality, they’re paid on fees regardless of how good an investor they are.” Indeed, VCs running a $1 billion fund make $20 million a year from fees, even before a single investment is made.

She started facing resistance even before the report was published. “I had at least a handful of people say to me during interviews, ‘Diane, why are you doing this? You’ll never work in this industry again.’ Some people said it in a genuinely personal, caring way, and others said it in a mildly threatening way. There was a sense that if you’re going to write things like this, reports that are provocative and go against the accepted narrative, your career in this industry is over.”

Once the report was released, the firestorm intensified. Her report was widely discussed by industry blogs and in the news media, but it didn’t make Kauffman, or Mulcahy, popular in some quarters. Some asked why they were “killing venture capital” or trying to “make it harder for entrepreneurs to make money.” Others questioned whether Kauffman’s poor returns were the result of flaws in the venture capital system, or just its own bad investment decisions.

Mulcahy, who subsequently wrote about her findings in Harvard Business Review, believes the report started a productive conversation in the industry, but she warns potential thought leaders that shaping the dialogue in your field can be a fraught process. “I received a great piece of advice from somebody on my investment committee,” Mulcahy recalls. “‘This is going to be emotional,’” he told her, “‘and you need to be prepared for that, and for the possibility that this could get personal.’ That was a real eye-opener, and he was right: people in the industry reacted emotionally.”

When you’re a true thought leader, it’s not about advancing you—it’s about advancing your ideas. Because of her extensive knowledge of venture capital, Mulcahy understood that Kauffman’s returns might indicate an underlying problem with the industry. In saying the emperor has no clothes, she faced an enormous amount of personal and professional risk, but she followed the data where it led. To help other foundations and investors, and to spark a dialogue about how venture capital is done, she shared her research publicly.

Sometimes the process of change can be frustratingly slow. “Don’t look for immediate change,” advises Mulcahy. Following her report, there are nascent signs that the industry is beginning to shift—VC pitch decks now often list the report’s recommendations, and describe how the fund meets them. The premier consultancy in the venture capital field is now starting to track VC performance against the public markets, a Kauffman recommendation. “But let me be clear—they didn’t attribute that change to us,” Mulcahy says. “People have a lot of entrenched interests, and a lot of inertia, and things take time to change.” But eventually, with patience and persistence, they do.


Mulcahy’s decision to move ahead with the report may seem risky, but sometimes it’s riskier not to act. In a world where income inequality is at its highest levels since 1928,3 the benefits of standing out and being the best—no matter your field—are rapidly increasing. We’ve shifted much more toward a winner-take-all economy.4 During the rebound following the Great Recession, a full 95 percent of all income gains went to the top 1 percent.5 In a world where you can now watch simulcasts of the Metropolitan Opera (instead of buying tickets to regional opera performances) or “study with” superstar professors in MOOCs (instead of settling for the instructor nearby), there’s less room for average performers. You can’t get away with being the best option at hand; in a global economy, you need to be recognized as the best—period.

Meanwhile, “safe” jobs, predicated on staying quiet and doing what’s expected of you, are fast disappearing. There’s a lingering cultural belief that if you just work hard enough, you’ll be lauded as an authority if your work merits it. Unfortunately, that’s a recipe for professional disaster. People are overwhelmed by the clamor of their direct reports, Facebook friends, and Twitter followers; they just aren’t paying that much attention to you. As the average job tenure decreases, you can’t rely on your reputation as a hard worker; your new boss and colleagues have no clue. You need to be willing to share yourself and your ideas if you expect to advance.

Building a strong professional reputation is the best way to protect, and advance, your career. When you’re recognized by others as an authority in your field, clients and employers want to work with you, specifically—and if you do lose your job, you’re equipped to bounce back. That’s what happened to a friend of Des Dearlove, cofounder of Thinkers50, a biennial ranking of the world’s top business leaders. Dearlove’s friend was nearly fifty when he got laid off from his longtime employer. But he’d laid the groundwork for a successful landing. He’d volunteered for international conferences, chaired committees, and built relationships with people across his field.

“The shock of being ‘made redundant’ quickly morphed into the shock of getting offers from all over the world,” recalls Dearlove. “They said to him, ‘Why don’t you set up the UK office of this or that?’ Finally, his old company offered him a new job and he said, ‘You know what? I’ve got much better offers now.’ He was an international thought leader in his own industry, and that worked fantastically for him in terms of employability and his personal brand. He had standing and status and a reputation that went beyond the brand of his organization.” Whether you work inside a corporation or as an entrepreneur, today’s challenge is the same: how to add so much value to others that they fight to have you on their team.

To succeed in today’s economy, you don’t have to be a worldwide superstar, but you do have to be deliberate about identifying the place where you want to make a contribution and starting to share your ideas. The competition is fierce, but if you even begin to develop thought leadership, you’ll dramatically outpace your competitors, most of whom never even try.


The ultimate reason to invest in developing and spreading your ideas is—as Steve Jobs put it—the imperative to “put a dent in the universe.” Why do you go to work each day? What do you hope to accomplish? What do you want to be known for at the end of your career, and your life? Anyone can go into an office and sit at a computer for eight or ten hours a day. But some people know they’re made for more than that. They have ideas—perhaps still inchoate—that can improve their company, or even the world. They realize they won’t feel complete until they’ve made a contribution they can point to: something that’s different, and better, because they made a mark.

Whatever your cause, or perspective, or point of view, we can’t afford for the best ideas to remain buried inside you. The world needs your insights. Whether it’s reducing crime or predicting election results or improving a manufacturing process or stopping spam e-mails, there are an infinite number of ways to make a contribution. We don’t have to settle for following orders and keeping to the work we’re expected to do. Our value isn’t as robots, executing tasks. It’s as thinkers, who make connections and spark new insights and change the world by seeing things in new ways.

How are you going to make a contribution? Thought leadership is about a lot more than just making money (though, as we’ll discuss, finding a way to sustain yourself is essential). It’s not about selling books, or going on the lecture circuit, or schmoozing at elite conferences. It’s about solving real problems and making a difference in a way that creates value for yourself and others. True thought leadership is a gift. It’s a willingness to be brave, open up, and share yourself. It’s a willingness to risk having your ideas shot down, because you genuinely believe they can help others. It’s a willingness to trust that your generosity will benefit the world.


If you want to become recognized as the best in your industry, you’ll have to fight for it, but the promise of this book is that your goal is possible.

Early in my consulting career, I tried to get booked as a speaker at a local chamber of commerce. I sent them an introductory letter, a sample DVD of one of my talks, and a packet of information, and dutifully called to follow up. They claimed never to have received it, so I sent it again. In response to my second call, they once again insisted they’d never received it—apparently the party line—and then hit me with the truth. “Why should we book you, anyway?” the director asked. “We have an infinite number of consultants who are dying to speak to our members.”

To him, I was a commodity—no different from any other interchangeable speaker they could put behind the podium. I knew I was better than that, but he didn’t. I vowed that I was going to find a way to differentiate myself, to make my ideas known, and to ensure that clients and event organizers would seek me out, specifically.

I’ve spent the past decade sharpening my ideas and attempting to broaden my reach, so I can share them with others. Today, thankfully, I get paid to give talks, and no longer have to grovel to be allowed to do it for free. I teach at business schools around the world; consult and speak for great organizations, from Google to Yale University to the World Bank; and I have the opportunity to share my ideas regularly in publications like Harvard Business Review, Forbes,and Entrepreneur.

This book is the result of what I’ve learned personally, and it contains insights gleaned from interviews with dozens of thought leaders in an amazing array of fields, from genomics to urban planning to personal productivity to high tech. (All quotes, unless otherwise footnoted, come from the personal interviews I conducted.)

In the first section of the book, we’ll focus on identifying your own breakthrough idea. Using today’s top experts as examples, we’ll deconstruct the process successful leaders have used to find and develop their ideas. The path varies; for some, it’s developing one “Big Idea,” and for others, it starts with a microniche that expands outward. Still others develop unique research that sheds light on their field, or draw from other disciplines to offer a new perspective, or create a framework that helps the world better understand a complex phenomenon. There’s no one “right way” to develop your breakthrough idea; any of these approaches can yield powerful insights and generate meaningful contributions.

In part 2, we’ll turn to the question of how to build a following around your idea—an equally critical component that ensures it reaches the world. It starts with building one-to-one peer connections: a base of supporters who believe in you personally. The next step is turning outward and developing an audience—a larger group of fans who resonate with your message. Finally, it’s about connecting those followers with one another, magnifying the power of your idea and ensuring that it’s talked about even when you’re not in the room. That’s when you’ve built a movement.

In part 3, we’ll bring it together and talk about the logistics of making thought leadership happen. First, we’ll talk about making the time for thought leadership. Some people, such as university professors, are lucky enough to have jobs that allow them to develop their ideas as part of their regular duties. For most of us, though, that’s not the case, so we’ll discuss strategies for balancing existing professional obligations with the kind of research and thoughtful contemplation that’s necessary for idea creation—not to mention the social media and content development that’s required to spread the word.

Next, we’ll turn to making a living. If you’re not getting paid directly for your thought leadership, how can you make it sustainable? We’ll look at strategies that various thinkers have employed, from online products to speaking to mentorship programs. We’ll also tackle the critical question of how to make money while staying authentic, so you don’t feel like you’re selling out or cheapening your ideas. Finally, we’ll get real about the level of effort required to distinguish yourself and your ideas. We all know it’s not easy, but we’ll drill down on the specific schedules and techniques used by various thinkers so we can see what’s really involved in getting to the top.

More than ever, for the sake of your career and our society, it’s important to ensure that your best ideas emerge and take root. This book will help you develop them—and create the momentum necessary to make sure they spread. Consider this a framework to help accelerate your career, spread your vision, make an impact, and live the life you’ve imagined. What’s the idea you want to share? And how are you going to start spreading it?



YOUR VOICE DESERVES to be heard. It might seem almost impossible to get noticed amid the 1.4 million books published in 2013,1 the 100 hours of video uploaded to YouTube each minute,2 and the 500 million tweets per day.3 But it is possible, and in part 1, we’ll break down the process by which successful thinkers have been able to find and develop the ideas that have made their name, and made an impact on the world.

We’ll start with how to develop Big Ideas—the bold, industry-changing insights that most people associate with thought leaders. We’ll also talk about cultivating an expert niche—a narrow specialty that can provide a crucial toehold—and about the power of independent research. We’ll look at how to combine ideas from various disciplines, a mix-and-match that can take your ideas in powerful new directions. Finally, we’ll discuss codifying a system to help others better understand complex phenomena.

In today’s crowded marketplace of ideas, you need to be able to show others—quickly—why they should listen. By following the templates forged by some of today’s top thinkers, you’ll be able to coalesce your ideas, show how they’re valuable to others, and break through the noise.


The Big Idea

Einstein’s theory of relativity. Gandhi’s vision of nonviolent resistance. Jung and the collective unconscious. Those Big Ideas upend our beliefs and expectations and make us see the world in new ways. To create them, a genius is struck with inspiration—Newton gets bonked by an apple, Archimedes shifts in his bathtub—and in an instant, it all becomes clear. Right?

The truth is a lot more complicated. Big Ideas aren’t hatched by a rare breed of intellectuals living in isolation. Instead, they come from regular people who are willing to ask the right questions and stay open to new ways of looking at the world. To assume that creativity is something that other people do—that you aren’t capable of it—is an abdication of responsibility, says Professor David Burkus, author of The Myths of Creativity. It’s incumbent upon us to open our minds and try, rather than shutting down before we even begin to engage.

True thought leaders are driven by asking questions that others have not, and question assumptions others take for granted. Of course ulcers are caused by stress (an accepted medical “truth” until an obscure Australian doctor shunned by the medical establishment proved—by infecting and then curing himself—that they were actually the result of a bacterial infection1). Of course something as high stakes as space flight should be run by the government (until entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Richard Branson began aggressively creating successful private ventures). And of course the only right way to teach college classes is by having a professor lecture in front of a small group of students (until Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun gave up his tenured teaching position to launch Udacity, an online MOOC provider, after seeing that his first pilot course attracted 160,000 students—more than he could reach in dozens of lifetimes teaching in a traditional classroom).

Finding the next Big Idea is about cultivating a questioning mind-set. It’s easy to accept established wisdom—which is usually, though not always, correct. But it’s in those moments where conventional wisdom fails that the biggest breakthroughs occur. Thrun had no idea how many students would register for his first class, but when he saw the overwhelming results, he was willing to jump on board and explore. Barry Marshall, the intrepid Australian doctor, couldn’t be 100 percent sure of his hypothesis until he drank the H. pylori concoction himself, but he was willing to step forward and test his beliefs. In this chapter, you will learn how to challenge the implicit assumptions you’re making, and test whether something is really impossible—or just difficult enough that most people haven’t bothered to look further. We’ll examine the importance of asking what’s next—a critical question in a rapidly changing world. It’s easy to see what’s right in front of you, but if you broaden your perspective and think critically about the next year, or five or ten, you can add real value to the conversation. Finally, we’ll look at how your own personal experience can lead you to Big Ideas.


Every field has useful guiding assumptions. Received wisdom saves time—you don’t have to reinvent the wheel—and stops you from pursuing fruitless leads, but it can also be a trap, preventing you from exploring new ideas. To find a Big Idea, you have to question the assumptions that are keeping everyone else in check. You don’t succeed by following the rules and thinking exactly like everyone else; you need to ask “what if?” and “why not?” Try to put yourself into the mind-set of an outsider, who doesn’t know all the rules. What would they make of how things are typically done? Are there practices they might find counterintuitive or outmoded? Might there be a new or different way of doing things? Finding that answer could be the seed of your Big Idea.


Excerpted from "Stand Out"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Dorie Clark.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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