Dare to Be the Nail that Gets Hammered?

Ex·cep·tion·al (k-spsh-nl) adjective

A nail sticking out from a block of wood.

1. Being an exception; uncommon.


The Japanese have a proverb: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.

That saying applies in most parts of the United States as well. “Be different” and suffer the consequences.

Unless you’ve got sufficient leverage through power, position, or extraordinary credibility, when someone proposes something different – risk taking or going against business or societal norms, people have a habit of hammering back.

License to innovate, doing something bold or different can feel narrow, handed out a little like Scrooge handed out free holiday food: miserly.

People mostly don’t like change that they think will inconvenience them even though it may help them in the long run. You can see it in the debate about health care reform (odd, isn’t it, that health care inflation is at a 50-year low since the the Affordable Health Care Act has been put in place), or even whether Apple execs [DisclosureI’m an Apple fan from way back]  should be more diverse.

Status quo, unless you’re in a bit of hurt, plays well. Denial is big. And making changes can be many time downright hard.

As one mom blurted (“too many, too fast“) when I suggested we aim for 40% kids of color in a child-centered program that’s at 30% in a state, California, where 75% of folks age 25 and below are people of color. People like what they have even if often it’s frankly not worth much; it’s comfortable, it’s what they know, and it’s “theirs.”

Oddly, even in the entrepreneurial mindset where I live and work that is San Francisco and Silicon Valley, there is huge pressure to conform as well.

That conformity comes though in very different flavors. One expectation is that you’re successful; just ask anyone who has worked in a startup how many times they’ve been asked about their IPO or some other successful exit. As I joked to a CEO client, you’re really not a success unless you’re acquired for a billion dollars or more given the raft of acquisitions at the dollar level.

But fortunately there is also the expectation in San Francisco and Silicon Valley that on your way to success and you will likely fail a time, or two or three – and that failing is OK. It’s a “if you take risks, you’re bound to have failures” mindset.

As (successful) actress Connie Britton has said, “The thing about taking risks is, if it’s really a risk, you really can fail. It’s only a pretend risk if you really can’t fail.

So this year’s resolution should be to keep taking risks; be exceptional. And prepare to be that nail that gets hammered.

When my perseverance starts to tap out after another week of feeling like that nail, I remember the original Star Wars trilogy: Episode IV, A New Hope; Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back, and my favorite; Episode VI, Return of the Jedi.

Here’s to trying and failing. And returning to succeed.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub.

A nail sticking out from a block of wood. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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