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When Something Doesn’t Sound Right, Listen Harder

Akaash Nanda, Stanford University December 8, 2015

If there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s that entrepreneurship is an uncertain and risky journey where surprising discoveries often lead to breakthrough progress. So, how do we set ourselves up to be open to these “aha” moments and learn from them?

In our daily lives, we tend to have certain expectations about what will happen in any given situation. But it’s when actual results don’t line up with those expectations that we should learn to really pay attention. Let’s take Intuit as an example. In the video below, Scott Cook, co-founder of the accounting software maker, describes how he ignored one bit of customer feedback year after year because it didn’t make sense to him … until it finally did. And once he accepted the unexpected data, it opened the door to a whole new market.

Welcoming cognitive dissonance isn’t trivial. As we’ve now seen, for entrepreneurs, puzzling findings can lead to lucrative opportunities. And this can also hold true for the venture capitalist who invests in them. Here in Silicon Valley, where perhaps the world’s highest concentration of VCs hear pitches from an equally high number of potential founders throughout the year, it’s easy to see how startup investors eventually adopt a “seen it all before” swagger.

But it’s the ones who resist thinking that way, and remain open to letting their beliefs be challenged, that increase their chances of discovering the next big thing. Rebecca Lynn, co-founder and general partner at Canvas Venture Fund, emphasizes the importance of paying particularly close attention when something doesn’t make sense. She explains that her ability to hone in during these moments has opened her up to some of the most interesting ideas she’s ever come across.

Even opportunities for self-development come by way of opening up ourselves to contrarian views. As Mike Rothenberg of Rothenberg Ventures discusses in the video below, growing as an entrepreneur hinges on relentlessly inviting feedback from others. And beyond listening intently when we experience cognitive dissonance, Rothenberg says we should express our gratitude for the new learning.

The truth is, expectations, beliefs and worldviews are uniquely personal and, as a result, are bound to vary from one person to the next. But as entrepreneurs and growing individuals, moments of utter surprise that challenge our deeply held beliefs should be reframed as valuable opportunities to pause, listen and learn. Insights about how to grow our careers, our businesses and, most importantly, ourselves come disguised as experiences that cause cognitive dissonance. The key is to embrace the anomalies, not ignore them.