The Sydney Opera House: The Power of Ridiculous

The Sydney Opera House: The Power of Ridiculous

I was in Australia week before last to give three speeches and lead the Bolder Board Training in Brisbane, which was wonderful. We now have 100 new Australian nonprofit board members committed to being bold!

Since the trip I cannot get the Sydney Opera House out of my mind. The reason I cannot, after having seen it and toured it, is because the idea to build it was utterly ridiculous. The architect who designed it — Jørn Utzon — was an unknown 38 year-old Dane when his entry was announced as the winner in an international competition to build a great opera house for Sydney. His vision for a "sculptural, curved building on the Harbour" broke radically with the linear shapes of modernist architecture. And here’s the thing: in the 1960s, they had no idea how to build it. You know those iconic shells or sails that define it? The challenge of how to build them confounded the engineers working on it for years, even after the foundation had been poured! Imagine pouring a foundation for a building you don’t yet know how to build!

Pouring that foundation, without knowing how to build the building, was a commitment - a declaration of possibility. It was impossible, but their commitment to it transformed it into reality. It now not only defines that city, but in many ways that nation.

Imagine if it had never been built. Imagine if some smart expert or group of experts put a stop to it because of its ridiculous shape, or the imprudence of trying to build something that they didn’t know how to build. Imagine if people of lesser constitutions had been in charge.

If you’re not being ridiculous, you’re not exploring your organization’s true potential. Everything in the world that makes us go, “Wow,” was born of some absurd human being with a ridiculous, impossible idea — from the Eiffel Tower to landing on the moon to the idea of America herself. We are taught in the nonprofit sector that we must have data on how it’s been done in the past. Yet we need to achieve things that have never before been achieved! They cannot be found in the past! We are taught — especially in the nonprofit sector — that prudence is sophistication. That practicality is wisdom. The opposite is true. The most sophisticated things I’ve ever seen in my life - the most intelligent solutions to the greatest technical challenges in history — all came from someone being utterly ridiculous. Ridiculous is what really tests us. Stretches us. Forces us to use the full measures of our intelligence, creativity, fortitude and strength. 

Anything less than ridiculous and our true potential for intelligence, creativity, strength and fortitude gets left on the table, never to see the light of day.

Ridiculous is the real prudence.

Resist the temptation to be safe, cautious and normal. Resist it in all things. Resist it with every fiber of your being. Peoples’ lives are at stake in the work of the nonprofit sector. If ever something called on us to try a ridiculously new way of doing things, those peoples’ lives are it.

Dan