Yeah, Maybe: Letting Ideas Live Past Their Expiration Date
Becky Brinkerhoff is the social media manager for 3% and a copywriter at Arnold Worldwide in Boston. She’s a diversity and inclusivity activist in all things and hasn’t been “chill” a single day in her life.
Emma Mcilroy was seven when she announced that she found a mammoth’s foot. It didn’t matter that it was too small to belong to a six-ton creature. Or that it really just looked like a grey rock. Instead of moving on with a pat on the back or a condescending sure sweetie, Emma’s mom said, “Yeah, maybe. I guess that could be a mammoth’s foot.” They deposited the rock at a local museum, only to find it wasn’t a mammoth’s foot. It was, in fact, a 2-million-year-old ichthyosaurus skull.
Cut to a 27-year-old Emma. She’s gone from hunting fossils to hunting down blazers and graphic tees with her best friend in the men’s section. Quality versions of those items in the women’s section are a rarer find than a mammoth’s foot. They tried on the menswear, only to find the items were too big on their feminine frames.
“What if we started a clothing company that allowed women to wear whatever the hell they wanted?” Emma asked her friend. Seeing as the two had no experience in e-commerce and Emma had a propensity to wear her pants very high, her friend could have rationally shut the idea down. However, she responded with a simple, “Yeah, maybe. Maybe we could do that.” And with that non-committal response, Wildfang was conceived.
Mcilroy, a heavy hitter for this year’s conference, began her keynote with these stories. And stories of how she would lie awake at night thinking about how there wasn’t a space for her in the market and how, maybe, she could make it for herself and everyone else like her. Maybe she could “disrupt some of the gender norms in fashion.”
“Maybe there are women who are masculine and feminine,” she said. “Maybe there are other women who aren’t one thing because none of us really are.”
22,000 people signed up for Wildfang in the first thirty days. Without any paid media. Sure, they got a lot of things wrong. But the hunch behind their main maybe, the one that said millions of women like them needed a home, was correct.
“Every single day, you guys have a choice to make,” she said as she paced across the stage. “Yeah, right or yeah, maybe.”
Yeah, maybe. It’s a lax, non-committal phrase that let’s creative ideas live past the expiration dates we typically impose. And choosing to look at our ideas with that lens could make the difference between just seeing menswear or seeing a women’s revolution.
“You cannot change the world and operate firmly within the status quo,” Mcilroy asserted.
Being a yeah, maybe person doesn’t come easy. And to ignore the societal factors that inhibit our thinking would be naive. Mcilroy addressed this through the phenomenon of Functional Fixedness, or when we see something’s familiar use as its only use. Like the idea that period underwear is only for women. Or men don’t wear nail polish.
“Functional Fixedness is quite literally the enemy of creativity. It’s the enemy of innovation,” she said. “So what do we do about it?”
Her first piece of advice was to fail fast, hard, and often. As she said this, she flipped to a slide of stick figures face planting.
“This is like my Monday through Friday,” she pointed at the screen. “In both of the stories I told you, I was wrong. The rock wasn’t a mammoth’s foot. And the business I started did need a team…a website…and investors. But when did we learn to equate being right with being successful?”
She went on to tell us her second piece of advice: find your yeah, maybe people. Do the people around you automatically shut down your ideas or do they let them live? At the point, it is worth asking yourself if you are being the yeah, maybe person to the people around you.
"Yeah, maybe doesn't mean taking each idea as gospel."
Ideas are hard enough to come by; why are we so mean to them? It's good to poke holes in them. It's good to question execution and viability. It's good to critique. But we need to repair the holes in our ideas, put the air back in them, and let them go a few more rounds. Yeah, maybe doesn't mean taking each idea as gospel, but it does mean taking each idea seriously.
June of 2018 was a “really shitty” month for Mcilroy. Business was bad, internal problems were worse. And to top it off, she sees an article about Melania Trump wearing a cheap military jacket with “I Really Don’t Care, Do You?” painted on the back of it to visit immigrant children who have been put in cages.
It upset her deeply, but it gave her an idea. Wildfang had plenty of military jackets. Could they rewrite the narrative by releasing a jacket and donating the profits to immigrant family reunification efforts? Could they plan that and get it up on the site in 24 hrs? Her team responded with a resounding, “Yeah, maybe.” And with that, the I Really Care collection was a huge hit, raising over a quarter of a million dollars for RAICES.
“So, in the next two days, is one of you going to find a dinosaur bone?” Mcilroy asked the crowd.
They responded aloud with a “yeah, maybe.”