Francesca Gino is an award-winning researcher and the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. She has been honored as one of the world’s stop 40 business professors under 40 by Poets & Quants and one of the world’s 50 most influential management thinkers by Thinkers50.
Her most recent book, Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life, dispels the myth that rebels are simply troublemakers, outcasts, and contrarians. In fact, the rule breakers are often the ones driving innovation and setting the stage for massive success. After the book was selected as a Next Big Idea Club Spring Finalist, we asked Francesca about the story behind the book, what surprised her during the writing process, and what she hopes readers will take away from her groundbreaking work.
NBIC: In two sentences or less, can you sum up the “big idea” of your book?
Francesca: Breaking the rules can be constructive rather than destructive. Yet, in our roles as leaders, partners, colleagues, friends, teachers, and parents, most of us do not know how to encourage the right kind of rule-breaking — or how to best do it ourselves. Rebel Talent shows you how.
What surprised you the most in your research?
The potential to rebel in positive ways exists in all types of contexts, even when the work appears to follow a set (and tedious) script. Rebelliousness can be a productive part of settings where you might least expect to find it — call centers, fast food chains, loan-processing offices.
Did an event from your personal life inspire or affect the book?
One morning when my son was 4, he asked during breakfast for the coloring bottles we had used to color Easter eggs — he wanted to color his cereal milk. “We don’t do that,” my husband and I told him. But our son wasn’t giving up — and we weren’t getting off — so easy. “Why not?” he pressed. The question made us uncomfortable, not only because we lacked a good answer, but also because it rubbed our noses in our own rule-bound tendencies, and forced us to consider that maybe we needed a little more “Why not?” in our lives. The milk ended up pink, leading to big smiles all around.
Do you have a favorite quote or motto that guides your life?
Break. Transform. Create.
There’s a lot of power in these three words. I learned them from Italian chef Massimo Bottura, during an interview when I visited his Michelin 3-star restaurant. I had asked him what inspired him, and he told me about a piece by Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, Dropping the Han Dynasty Urn. For the piece, the artist smashed a 2000-year-old historic vase. “Why break thousands of years of history in an instant?” Bottura told me. “Ai Weiwei’s destructive gesture was actually a constructive one. A beginning. Break, transform, create.”
Bottura once snatched a dessert from the jaws of disaster at his Michelin 3-star restaurant, transforming a sous chef’s mishap into the masterwork “Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart.”
Bottura also taught me that you don’t have to be born a rebel — you just have to break the bad habits holding you back. Discover your rebel talent. Transform yourself. Create your own success.
What is one book that you wish everyone in the world would read?
Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg. It’s a children’s book, but the main message — mistakes are OK — applies to all of us. In fact, we should celebrate mistakes as drivers of curiosity, learning, and creativity. As in the case of the dropped lemon tart, discovery awaits on the other side.
What was your most humbling moment?
As I was working on the book, I often found that my assumptions were wrong. I thought of pirates as evil, only to discover in my study of 16th-century ships patterns of diversity and equality impressively at odds with the dictatorial (and slave-holding) spirit of the times. I thought of rebels as people who are dismissive of existing traditions, when it turns out that the true rebel respects and masters the old ways before breaking with them. I thought I had a good grasp of American culture, and then found myself in improv comedy classes missing all sorts of cultural references (which, as it turns out, is a good way of making others laugh).
What trivial trick, talent, or feat can you do to impress people?
I often show up for teaching in Executive Education classes, where the students are experienced leaders. In class, I have participants dance with a partner to “Call Me Maybe,” or engage in other improv exercises as a way of demonstrating that it’s OK to feel uncomfortable. I’m not sure if this is a “trick,” exactly, but getting a group of respected executives to dance to Carly Rae Jepsen is not something a lot of people can do…
What’s something that is really easy for most people that you find really challenging?
The Italian saying “Saltare di palo in frasca” — which literally translates to “to jump from a pole to a tree branch” — captures it. In conversation, I have a tendency to follow my own, not-necessarily-linear logic, which can be confusing. Just ask my husband.
What would you like readers to take away from your book?
I’d like readers to feel as inspired as I was by the many rebels I met and studied. There is a way of being in the world, as I learned from the time I spent with them, that is more engaged, and makes for a more meaningful and delightful life.
To read about the rest of the Next Big Idea Club‘s Spring Finalists, click their Q&As below: