Branding expert and thought leader Rohit Bhargava is the founder of the Influential Marketing Group (IMG)–and the mind behind the “non-obvious” philosophy, which seeks to gather and understand useful, potentially revolutionary ideas on the cusp of breaking through to the mainstream. Though Rohit’s background is in marketing, production, and coding, he has applied his skills to multiple disciplines.
As part of his work, each year, Rohit curates a number of interesting, non-obvious trends and developments. In this interview, we speak about curation, going beyond the obvious, and the value of uncertainty.
NSLS: By their very nature, non-obvious trends aren’t easily noticed. Why is it important for students to hone their skills at spotting the non-obvious?
Rohit: Let me clarify. My process is going beyond spotting; instead, I curate ideas, and from that, better understand new developments and events.
It’s important because ideas are the source that allows us to think differently about challenges in our life. Trends are just an output for me; I come up with a book on trends each year, and it’s a useful output for me. But the skillsets and outputs for others will vary. For example, one person could shift to a more fulfilling career after reading about an idea for them. Someone else could start a business in an emerging field (or even just use a new, unorthodox insight), and gain a significant head start on their competitors.
It boils down to this: curating ideas is seeing connections and coming up with an insight or point of view. The important part is that we have to be better idea collectors and curators.
NSLS: It seems in our entrepreneurial age that there’s more of an emphasis on inventing new solutions and technologies rather than utilizing existing ones–especially if these extant ideas aren’t so obvious.
Rohit: That’s true in the sense that a lot of people will tell you about execution and how important that is. But not many will tell you about how to filter out the noise–some of which is generated by yourself–and hone in on ideas. The important thing here is to go from noise to meaning: how do we put the pieces together, and make it more meaningful? That’s a skillset that we all must learn.
NSLS: That brings us to our next question: what works? That is, how do people create a process to identify–and execute on–these ideas? Put simply, how do we find–and jump on–the non-obvious?
Rohit: There’s a lot of individual variation here when it comes to process. With that being said, there are more general parts of the process that can be applied to plenty of people.
For instance, you can learn to more effectively take notes. People often don’t have a system; they’ll usually write something down, stash it somewhere, and then forget about it. Then the idea is gone!
Further, when it comes to curating ideas, pattern recognition is crucial. You have to be able to look through all these stories from various industries, and come up with a few key takeaways. What does this tell you about the direction an industry is moving in? What possible effects could this have?
NSLS: That’s interesting. In fact, what you mention almost seems a lot like groupthink. People are often surrounded by others with the same viewpoint, and as a result, the group becomes a closed-loop system. No new information is introduced.
Rohit: Absolutely. The easiest advice for breaking out of groupthink is this: when you’re travelling or at a bookstore, buy a magazine that’s not targeted at you–something totally different. For instance, try a sailing magazine, even if you’ve never been out on the water. If you’ve lived your whole life in urban areas, buy Modern Farmer.
In order to find diverse, actionable insights from different industries and fields, you have to consume media that’s not meant for you. Otherwise, algorithms will serve up what you agree with. You must get outside your own bubble, and consciously choose to consume something different.
Groupthink is a huge obstacle to non-obvious curation. People fall into the trap of thinking that, if I don’t agree with someone else, than his/her opinion doesn’t have value. But that’s just not true: creatives and innovators always have people who disagree with them.
Even worse, groupthink can lead to otherwise smart, highly qualified people doubting themselves and even shooting down their own ideas. That’s not just a tragedy, but it’s also a barrier to progress.
NSLS: That seems especially relevant, given that we live in an increasingly divided country with a polarized political culture.
Rohit: Well there’s a totally false idea in our political discourse today: if I’m right, then you’re absolutely wrong. If I believe in something and you disagree, then you disagree with me 100 percent, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
But that’s just not true. Now, my least favorite food is cauliflower. To take an analogy, imagine a plate full of delicious foods–mangoes, potatoes, tomatoes, grilled meats, and yes, even cauliflower. If I told you that you had to eat everything on this plate–including the cauliflower–simply because it was there, would it make sense?
NSLS: Would you recommend any apps to help students curate ideas?
Rohit: I rely on two: Pocket and Feed.ly. Each week, I comb through hundreds of different sources with Feed.ly, looking for stories. Once I find one that’s interesting and has potential, I save it to Pocket. In this way, I’m using Pocket as a pool of sources from which I will draw on later.
NSLS: Can you share 1-2 trends that students should keep their eye on?
Rohit: Lately, I’ve noticed the following:
- Fierce Femininity, by which I mean the changing role of women in culture, media, and society. How are businesses evolving? Teams? Leadership?
- Passive loyalty. In the past, customers and employees were far more loyal to companies, working and shopping at the same brands for much of their lives. But today, that’s not the case anymore: both consumers and workers will leave at the first opportunity, particularly if they find something better, whether it be a cheaper deal or more opportunity to grow? With this in mind, we have to ask: what is loyalty in the workplace? How can companies meet these challenges?
NSLS: What would you say are the most important skills for recent graduates (and current college students) to focus on?
Rohit: Storytelling is a key one, and perhaps not in the way that you may think. Now, many people hear about storytelling as a crucial skill–and immediately reject it because they don’t understand how to do it, or they’re not a filmmaker or writer.
But really, all storytelling means is to be persuasive, to win audiences over, and to do more than just reciting facts. The power of storytelling can be used by many people today, and not just creatives: marketers use storytelling to convince you to buy a product or service, for instance. When storytelling, use details to build an emotional connection–and don’t be afraid of vulnerability.
Curiosity, and a willingness to ignore your job description. Remember, no one has ever hired an employee hoping that they would do exactly their job–and nothing else. Half of these job descriptions are cut and pasted from Google searches, because most people don’t know how to write copy for job boards. Besides, job descriptions are the end points: people ultimately want you to make their lives easier, to show up, and think for yourself.
So just do it, and don’t stick to specific rules about your job. Those who are indispensable are those who do what it takes to get their job done, and more. If you just show up and do what it takes (and nothing else), your ego will be a damper on your ambitions. That’s not the attitude that gets you ahead.
NSLS: Immediately after college, you left for Australia. Can you tell us a bit about what you wanted to do so, and what lessons you learned from this unorthodox move?
Rohit: Be comfortable with uncertainty. When I went to Australia, I planned to stay one year–and stayed five. Through this, I learned resilience–the idea that I could go to a totally different environment and place, and figure out what it takes to be successful. True, Australia is still similar to America (no language barrier, for instance), but if you can go to a place where you don’t know anyone or have no connections, and from that make new friends, a new career, and even a new life–that’s a pretty cool self-confidence booster.
NSLS: When you switched careers and later founded IMG, you went through a very grueling process. You cold-called a lot of people. What do you have to say to those students who may still be unsure about cold-calling or cold-contacting others?
Rohit: Think back on your past achievements, especially to the ones where you overcame a great challenge–one which didn’t think you could pull off. This gives you confidence, and if you can, say travel overseas and build a new life totally from scratch–then you can cold call others. Remember that the only person that can give you confidence is yourself.