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If You Think You're an Iconoclast You're Probably a Fool

Posted: 10/18/2013 9:03 am

I was this month called a "research iconoclast" with a "big idea" by ESOMAR's Research World, a leading global journal for marketing intelligence and decision-making. Hmmm...is this a compliment in today's business world? "Rough work, iconoclasm, but the only way to get at truth," said US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Sounds compelling.

But just because you challenge cherished beliefs does not mean you are an innovator. Just because the most influential provocateurs in history were iconoclasts -- Darwin, Galileo, Richard Pryor -- does not make you one even if someone really smart says so. To be labeled an iconoclast, and then, to believe it, is delusional. Labels such as "genius" are just that. It is statistically certain that the vast majority of people who have been labeled geniuses, savants, prodigies or iconoclasts -- if they believe it -- are fools.

The Oxford English Dictionary advises the first literary use of the word "iconoclast", from the Greek, sprung up in the work of Leslie's History of Scotland (1596): "A counsel of thrie hunder and fiftie Bischopis haldne at Nice against the secte of Jmagebrekeris, thair name Jconoclastæ." So I'm part of a very big sect, us crazy iconoclasts.

What's more interesting is that the word came into popular usage later, in the 17th-century, as a result of the genius -- and here I use the word "genius" carefully, with demonstrable proof -- of the poet John Milton, most famous for the epic masterpiece, Paradise Lost.

Milton had a grander post-life ambition to change public opinion, in the interests of democracy, not fame, nor being seen as right in his own era, but rather to fight the "divine right of kings" forever, long after king Charles I of England's execution for treason.

According to sources culled from Wikipedia -- co-founder Jimmy Wales, being another iconoclast, and one of the greatest Internet visionaries in history -- Milton was commissioned to write Eikonoklastes as a response to Charles I's Eikon Basilike (1649).

Milton's riposte was designed to be the definitive argument by the Commonwealth government. Eikon Basilike was published just after the King's execution (decapitation), and the work portrayed the King as a martyr. Milton undoubtedly was an iconoclast: as the Wikipedians put it: "Milton believed, certainly, that the Eikon Basilike created a false idol and he wanted to destroy it with truth."

Here's where iconoclasm meets genius. In his era, Milton's work was panned as not having refuted the claims of the Eikon Basilike. Yet, astonishingly, this was the first work by Milton to reach a wide audience.

Public sentiment still supported Charles I, but Milton's work was accessible. After the English Restoration of 1660, Milton's supporters grew and grew. A new edition was published in 1690 after the "Glorious Revolution".

We will never know what was going on in Milton's mind, but two things are clear: he was an iconoclast; and he had an agenda to fight the establishment by circumventing scholars; he made his appeal to the people.

And yet today it is politically fashionable to be affirmed as special, entitled, affirmed, actualized, an iconoclast, as if those titles (usually bestowed by a loved one) alone bestow innovator status. No. You are not an innovator unless your iconoclasm (which may, perhaps, be a DNA requirement for innovation) drives you to develop a curiosity to solve a wicked problem that is game-changing. That's what Jimmy Wales did. That's why he matters.

 

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