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Ignore the signs: unthinking compliance with the 'behavior police' can undermine your efforts as an entrepreneur.

The mantra of today's personal performance gurus is: "Think outside of the box." Alas, they never admonish us to "look beyond the signs." It is the hundreds of signs we routinely see each day that cumulatively conspire keep us from getting out of that proverbial box.

Just think of how many behavior constraining signs we come upon each day: do not enter, employees only, no parking ... and the list goes on.

Of course, many of these signs are necessary to protect and preserve a semblance of order in an otherwise chaotic world. Nevertheless, most of us display little or no indignation when confronted by these commands. We've learned a long time ago that it's easier to "go along to get along."

Generally, it's not the corporal penalties associated with sign defiance that cow us, it's the threat of public disapproval and the chagrin it can evoke. Therein lies the problem.

Given most sign authors have good intentions, and given their work product probably improves the quality of our lives to some degree, the big problem is the subconscious behaviors that everyday signs evoke to us over the long term.

Over time, signs breed automatic, unthinking behavior modification, a willingness to blithely accept the direction of others no matter how gratuitous it may be, and to studiously avoid any behavior that raises the specter of public disapproval. While there may be some chump change penalties for non-compliance, the real price we pay is in the form of the impacts we suffer because of compliance.

It's not just the limitations on our actions in the instant circumstance, but the long-term behavioral habits that we acquire, the kinds of changes in attitude, outlook and self-control that influence our power and ability to do positive things, especially things that society disdains as "out of the box."

Signs are probably big contributors to the forces that cause our personal creativity to decrease by more than 80 percent between birth and age 40.

They may be only minor constraints in each individual instance of confrontation, but the effect of our rote regard for them cumulates over time and constrains the entire corpus of our potential. They induce us to self-limit our more expansive, off-the-wall and societally unpropitious behaviors that might very well lead us to acting out in ways that would ultimately produce new and better results for us and society at large.

By their nature, signs condition our behavior and expectations. If not put in proper perspective, the directions proffered by signs will tend to collectively shift our locus of control from within ourselves to external, third-party conditioners. Our innate authority to freely act and to be maximally creative will be diminished by the authority we surrender to each sign. Over time, our natural inclinations to think and act freely and expansively will become less natural and spontaneous.

This is not to say that all signs should be banned, however, to retain our valuable spirit of individualism, we can't let signs add to the maw other creativity crushing pressures we face each day. This ain't easy. Who among us is willing to risk the ridicule and character assassination that accompanies bucking the status quo?

Unthinking compliance with the hordes of today's self-proclaimed behavior police can seriously encumber our efforts as an entrepreneurial leader. The kinds of personal attributes that nurture creativity and foster innovation can be hobbled or stopped outright by a predisposition to self-limit our behavior.

Admittedly, this kind of self-curbing behavior is not solely the result of the printed and painted signs. It is also the result of our learned disposition to satisfy the expectations of others. Sometimes, to be all we can be, we have to unlearn that which makes us less. This means risking public wrath, anonymous disapproval and temporary personal failure. These are small prices to pay for the progressive, profitable results that will come our way if we are willing to step over the line.

Paul Willax is a professor of entrepreneurship and chairman of the Center for Business Ownership Inc., Amherst, N.Y. If you hove d question or suggestion for his column or to receive a free, weekly e-mail newsletter, "Brass Tacks Brainfood," or Brass Tacks BrainFoodToGo audio PODDZ that can be listened to on computer, iPod or MP3 portable audio players, write to
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Title Annotation:BRASS TACKS
Author:Willax, Paul
Publication:New Hampshire Business Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 15, 2006
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