False Negatives and Little Voices with Good Intentions

False Negatives and Little Voices with Good Intentions
Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. When the Pope first commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling – today considered one of the greatest masterpieces of all time – he declined the offer. Source: Calvin Craig for Unsplash

The idea of a false negative is most often understood best by women who have had the fortune or fear of taking one of those at home pregnancy tests like Clear Blue. Declared a false alarm by that all-too-well-known single blue strip, only to have your doctor announce you are in fact pregnant.

False negatives, however, are much more common, as luck would have it, in the grander scheme of things. A false negative is, simply put, a test result that indicates that a condition does not hold, while in fact it does. The reality of the matter is that false positives are much more popular than we had first thought and are indeed amongst the biggest celebratory milestones in history and modern day culture. The examples are as plentiful as they may be surprising:

Exhibit A: Seinfeld, the popular television series which brought unexpected and unprecedented ratings in. As Adam Grant noted in Originals, “the one hundred viewers who were assembled in Los Angeles to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the show dismissed it as a dismal failure.” A summary report drafted after a further six hundred people concept-tested the show deemed that “no segment of the audience was eager to watch the show again.” Somehow, the pilot still aired on TV and earned a little more longevity courtesy of another show being cancelled. Seinfeld became the last resort gap filler, in many ways. Over the next decade, everything changed; Seinfeld brought in over UD$1 billion dollars in revenue, became the most popular TV series in the US, and was named the greatest show of all time by TV Guide. From dud to veritable G.O.A.T (greatest of all time for those who have also only just gotten in on cool people lingo). False negative, I tell you.

Exhibit B: When the Pope first commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling – today considered one of the greatest masterpieces of all time – he declined the offer. It is reported that Michelangelo fancied himself a sculptor, not a painter, and it is alleged that he fled to Florence for nearly two years, for he believed this was never going to be a great opportunity. A voice within him ushered him, whether out of fear or skepticism, to make a run for it. It was only after the Pope insisted, two years later, that the famed painted retuned and set out to complete the task at hand. False negative, artist edition.

Even modern society is filled with commercial and professional false negatives, from the invention of the Segway to Steve Wozniak’s initial hesitation or lack of faith in 1977 around Apple. False negatives vary in degree, and yes, in complexity, but somewhere, deep in the heated depths of their molten formation, one cannot escape the very fiery idea that when something so damned ridiculous or even inconceivable arises, there must be a reason for it to succeed. There’s a certain tensity or even poetry or karmic justice in their need, desire, and fated success.

After all, the very best of what we know was once cast out as a silly idea, and ultimately became a force to be reckoned with. I wonder, then, how much merit and weight we place on focus groups and concept tests in the marketing and communications industry is ill—fated or even mis-placed? Have we tossed out some of what may well have been our best work, all for nothing? For all we know, false negatives are what birthed Tesla, PlayStation, Coca-Cola and some of the biggest brands and innovations we use every day.

And so, I cannot help but wonder if the most radical or ridiculous ideas are dismissed far too soon, before they have been given a fighting chance to show their false negative status. I’ve even given Exhibits and they’re pretty strong if I do say so myself. Think about it: we often read of how famous individuals landed a ground-breaking, almost “Aha!” moment that changed the very course of their future - are we missing ours because we are too quick to throw out the perceived likely failures.

Dear reader, I am not suggesting one of us is the next Michelangelo, and there is no doubt more complexity to Wozniak’s fate with Apple, but if Jerry Seinfeld, described by an initial critic as “just a loser, who’d want to watch this guy? still draws the best minds to the TV screen for his re-runs, then perhaps we need to re-evaluate what we toss out in the early stages of ideation because it seemed to take the course of an erroneous single blue strip, a false negative that even Clear Blue lets through once in a while.

Here’s to more false negatives (outside of pregnancy tests), less investing our creative potential in the hands of a few strangers gathered in a room for and “audience text,” and more Sistine-Chapel-epic-ness. Why? Because sometimes first instincts are just plain wrong and the little voice in the depths of your gut that urges you to “see what happens” is the very voice you should be nurturing.

Try it; I bet you’ll like her. I’m willing to bet she’s a right riot, perfectly primed to give you just the right kind of false negatives you need now and then.

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