It is clear that we are in unique times.

No matter where you are on the political spectrum or where you live, opening the newspaper or checking your news feed these days can be downright discouraging. Today's global challenges--poverty, civil unrest, political stalemates, economic divisions, climate change--play out daily against the backdrop of our living rooms and seep into many aspects of our daily lives.

While this can lead many of us to seek escapes or to hang out with those who agree with us and don't challenge our perspectives, the truth is that through time and across the globe, these moments of fear and uncertainty have played a powerful role in moving people to find new solutions, take forward their own ideas and act with urgency. This can take all forms, from starting a new business or nonprofit, to stepping forward with a solution to a challenge you've witnessed in your community or to seize a big opportunity in your professional or personal life.

In my new book, Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose (Simon & Schuster, 2019), I describe the core qualities, as identified by my foundation's research, that all successful changemakers, entrepreneurs, and innovators share. What we discovered seems somewhat obvious at one level: transformations start with a commitment to make a Big Bet, not settling for incremental change. But what does it really mean to make a Big Bet? What separates a Big Bet from any other endeavor? It starts with defining your objective and then adopting the approaches highlighted below:

1. Start right where you are.

Launching a Big Bet doesn't require a large budget, proven expertise, or the underpinning of a large company or organization. Indeed, the stories in my book feature numerous examples of innovators who leveraged elements of their daily living to advance their idea. Like the Airbnb founders who started by renting out air mattresses on the floor of their apartment to help make rent. As Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky has said, "One of my biggest strengths was precisely how little I knew."

Or Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, who as she was readying herself for a party realized traditional pantyhose wouldn't work under capri pants and sandals -- she wanted the smoothing effect but without the "webbed feet" that traditional pantyhose required. She simply cut off the feet and suddenly realized she might be on to something that other women would need, too. With no background in fashion or manufacturing, Blakely set out in her free time to learn everything she could to develop her idea while working a full-time job selling fax machines. Blakely likes to say, "Don't be intimidated by what you don't know. That can be your greatest strength to ensure that you do things differently from everyone else."

2. Be audacious.

It could be said that the very founding of America was a Big Bet: the fearless idea that control could be wrested from what was then the most powerful nation in the world by a motley citizens' army, and that this people's rebellion could form a new nation based on principles of freedom, equality, peace, and prosperity. It would have been so easy for our founders to have continued negotiating their individual grievances with the British as just another colony looking for incremental concessions. Instead, they chose to start a revolution that would honor their convictions and invent a new form of government. When making your big bet, think big and be audaciour 1,80s. These times, like those that founded our nation, are ripe for big, impactful ideas.

3. Burst through assumptions.

Many transformational ideas begin with an understanding of what doesn't work, and new breakthroughs often benefit from learning about what's been tried before. This is good news for all of us who think, "I'm not creative enough." Examples abound, including when the founders of Warby Parker were told that no one would buy glasses online and that the glass wear industry's traditional players had a lock on all sales. Yet today, Warby Parker is valued at nearly $2 billion, with over 1,800 employees and over 90 retail stores, and their impactful model of buy-a-pair, give-a-pair has distributed more than 5 million pairs of eyeglasses to the poor.

And we see the same thing in the extraordinary work of National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala, who set out to create 20 marine protected areas around the world, comprising the most pristine areas of our oceans. He was told time and time again that protecting fragile areas of the ocean from overfishing and pollution was impossible. Today, Enric and National Geographic have surpassed the original goal of 20 and have been successful in protecting more than 5.3 million square kilometers of the most wild and remote pristine areas in our oceans, thanks to partnerships with leaders around the world.

4. Peek around corners.

Invention isn't ruled by public opinion. "If I'd asked people what they wanted," Henry Ford famously quipped, "they would have said, 'faster horses.'" The visionaries who create new realities must be able to peek around corners and see what others can't. Many of history's most significant innovations have come from visionaries who had to then wait for the world to catch up. And when an advancement becomes mainstream, it is easy to lose sight of what life was like before.

Who can even imagine life without the Internet anymore? But when the AOL service was introduced, only 3 percent of people were online and they were online one hour a week. By 1995, still only one in four households owned a computer. Later, at its peak, AOL went on to carry 50 percent of the nation's internet traffic. What would it mean for you to think futuristically and to refuse to accept life's presumed default positions? 

5. Now go, make your Big Bet.

Do you have a Big Bet for your professional or personal life? Inside of a company or something that will be a new creation? Decisions you make today can affect what happens down the road. Do one thing a month, a week, or a day to move toward your big goal. Keep pushing forward and learn from any setbacks that you face. You may face criticism or naysayers. But keep asking: What kind of world do you want to see? What kind of future do you want to build? Don't overthink and over analyze. Simply do. Take inspiration from the words of Amelia Earhart: "The most effective way to do it is to do it."

Innovations come from people living with real frustrations, who get to a point where they realize, "There has to be a better way." So they set out to create one. If you are one of these people, face your fears, follow these five steps and make a big bet to transform your world in a way that will have real impact. In short: now go, be fearless.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the total number of Warby Parker employees and retail stores. The company has over 1,800 employees and over 90 stores, not 1,400 employees and 65 stores.

Published on: Apr 10, 2019
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