Adam Wren

Roving journalist filing dispatches from the Midwest and beyond.

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Why I Don’t Want to Be A Thought Leader

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Because I believe there are problems in the world that are so nuanced they can’t be solved with acronyms.

Because I believe we should aspire for our books to be more than business cards.

Because I believe we should aspire for our books to be more than recycled blog posts.

Because I believe attending and learning from conferences is great, but learning from immersion and reality and reporting matters more to me.

Because thought leaders sometimes formulate their thought leadership in an idea closet—devoid of facts on the ground—and I’m interested in what’s actually happening outside of their ivory towers.

Because I believe that whatever success you’ve attained, you must factor in a certain amount of epistemological humility in explaining it to others. Your story about how you landed a publishing deal is compelling, sure, but there were a lot more variables at play than your 7-step plan takes into account. In fact, I’d rather not hear about your proven plan for collecting more Twitter followers or launching a business if your work hasn’t yet helped hundreds of other people reproduce those results. In the meantime, perhaps present your experience as a case study—not a methodology. Or, just keep your head down and keep churning out great work for now.

Because very rarely are individuals thought leaders. Let’s agree that Steve Jobs was a thought leader. Richard Feynman, too. But many people we refer to as thought leaders are actually thought popularizers. They curate ideas from others—academics, researchers—and promote them. Think of people such as Malcolm Gladwell, who popularized the work on violinists and practice by the Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson. Or, think of the work of David Brooks, who popularized the findings of modern neuroscience in his great book The Social Animal. We need thought popularizers, translators who connect us to groundbreaking research—who doesn’t enjoy reading the latest Gladwell? But real thought leadership tends to emerge from associations and insitutitions and loose networks: the Clapham Sect, for example. Or the new urbanists.

Because in the end I want to tell true stories—stories that recalibrate our understanding of the world around us—not neat stories scrubbed of complexity to support my thesis.

Question: Who are some genuine thought leaders who have shaped your understanding of the world?

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