08/28/2013 05:36 pm ET | Updated Oct 28, 2013

Use Your Own Brain (Career Advice With Extra Pickles)

I must be getting old, because people are starting to ask for my advice. And not in the "where is the bathroom?" kind of way, either. It's more like "what do you wish you knew back when you started out?"

See? Getting old. And, I might add, less and less fond of the notion that my career started back so long ago! But I digress.

It's tempting, easy, and probably quite useful to respond by parroting advice from celebrities. One personal favorite is from Steve Jobs: "Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice." This resonates deeply for me, and I would have done well to have it written across my bathroom mirror in my early career. I practically have it written there now.

But to cite celebrity is to duck the question. For better or worse, these people aren't asking Steve; they're asking me. And following examples like his, my counsel should be specific yet broadly applicable, pertinent yet timeless, and somehow reflective of my personality.

I've been working on it. Are you ready for my rough draft?

"When surrounded by people who love the color orange and hate the color blue, become comfortable expressing a preference for pickles."

What do you think? Is it worthy of one of those popular internet text-and-photo jobs with my picture next to it? Or, at the very least, a picture of a cat?

Wait. Before you answer, maybe I should explain about the pickles.

If there's one giant, important, disturbing fact that gets ever clearer to me, it's the size and scope of the imperceptible influence other people exert upon us. I wrote about one of the most famous demonstrations of this phenomenon -- and a high-tech update to it -- in Make Work Great:

Social psychologist Solomon Asch orchestrated a series of "perceptual problem-solving" sessions, meetings in which a group of strangers were asked for answers to obvious questions about the lengths of various lines... [But] all of the strangers except one were actors carrying out specific instructions -- in this case, to answer unanimously and incorrectly. In the majority of cases, the subject, who was always asked last, would give an answer that matched the obviously incorrect opinion of the majority

Asch himself never concluded whether his subjects simply subverted their own opinions to the majority, or whether their perceptions were actually altered by it. But in a recent study, psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dr. Gregory Berns led the recreation of a similar scenario with a twist: the addition of functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans measuring the subject's brain activity. In the cases where subjects went along with incorrect group decisions, their brain activity suggested that it was not a conscious choice to conform but a potential change to their perception of the truth

This scares me. See, in Asch's original work, we had an out: We could blame the subjects for weakness, cowardice, and failing to fight the majority opinion. We could just know, deep in our hearts, that we would have triumphed where they failed. But Berns showed us that the pressure of majority opinion isn't vulnerable to a fight, because it simply changes our perception of truth. Resisting peer pressure -- or groupthink, or whatever you want to call it -- can't just be handled consciously; it must also be handled preemptively.

So, at the very least, "if the majority chooses orange, choose blue" would be a good start. Asch demonstrated that even if one actor went against the unanimously wrong answer, it helped subjects to find their own voice and do the same -- even when the single actor went even further afoul of the truth than the rest. So if "choose blue," would be pretty good advice, "choose fuchsia" would be even better.

But, really: Pickles?

Bear with me; I'm not going for pretty good. I'm in the shadow of Steve, and I'm aiming for greatness.

The truth is, the hypothetical majority pushing you toward preferring orange to blue is only the small problem. The big, huge problem is that they're defining the question. They're making it all about orange versus blue -- about this color versus that color -- while a much more important question may be left ignored.

Maybe they're making it all about this job versus that job, when the better question is whether you should stay with the company. Maybe they're making it all about car versus SUV, when the better question is whether you should drive or take the bus. Maybe they're making it all about liberal versus conservative, when the better question is what legislation would best accomplish the goal.

Thus, the pickles.

In another famous experiment, social psychologist Stanley Milgram demonstrated our overwhelming compulsion to follow authoritative and situational cues, even despite inner guidance to the contrary. Here's a second excerpt about that:

Subjects were led to believe, through falsified screams and groans, that they were administering electrical shocks of increasing intensity, pain levels, and danger to a fellow experimental subject in an adjacent room [by following a white-coated experimenter's instructions]. About two-thirds of those subjects continued to "shock" their counterparts according to the authority figure's directive, despite pleas, screams, and even a seeming loss of consciousness from the supposedly suffering person

...When asked many years later how many of the subjects in his experiments actually went so far as to check on the health of the person in the adjacent room, Milgram didn't need to consult his notes for the answer: "Not one, not ever." Even those who "successfully" chose to deviate from the directives of the authority figure never went so far as to deviate from the framework set up by that figure, despite the fact that from our outside perspective doing so would seem the natural -- and moral -- choice to make.

To prefer pickles is to say to the person in the white coat, "I'm worried about that person" and then go down the hall and check. It is to think independently, to question not only the group's answers, but the questions and the framework too. To prefer pickles is to remind ourselves that compliance and rebellion are but two sides of the same coin, a coin handed to us by someone whose interests might not match our own. It is to seek a third alternative well outside the established framework.

Please understand, I'm not downplaying collaboration, advocating some sort of never-ending game of devil's advocate, or proposing a world filled with permanent contrarians in eternal disagreement. All I'm saying is that occasional games of devil's advocate and temporary contrarianism are useful. They build solid thinking, keeping the thinker in the driver's seat. And, they enhance collaboration. Brains in driver's seats bring real information to the table and analyze new information more effectively than brains asleep in other parts of the car.

So there you have it: It's sometimes necessary to ask such a different question, or exhibit such a different preference, that you seem a little weird to everyone around you. In those weird but crucial moments, you not only find your own clarity, but also help others to do the same.

I suppose I could just say that. Or, maybe I should go with my old catch phrase from back when I managed a large team of technical professionals: "Use your own brain." But for some reason, I'm drawn to the oblique imagery of the pickles. Maybe it's because it seems more memorable. Maybe it's because the metaphor is itself a little weird. Maybe it's because I like pickles.

Or, maybe, I'm just getting old.