Where Do Brilliant Insights Come From?

CIBs and F1Ys often ask me, "Where do brilliant insights come from?"

My first reaction was... geez, that's a good questions. I have to think about that one.

Certainly at a basic level, insights come from asking the right questions to elicit the most useful data -- but in my experience that's where EXPECTED insights come from. Brilliant insights are often unexpected.

In pondering this question for quite some time, I realized that insightful observations come from equal parts analysis and previous exposure to comparable situations -- in short experience.

In looking at my own career, I've become more insightful with time. It's not so much that age = experience (a major fallacy), it is the [deliberate and intentional exposure to other ideas] = experience.

I was driving my oldest daughter to her scheduled activity for today, and she asked me (since I home school her) how come I know so much about so many things. I told her it's because I keep choosing to learn new things. Some people learn one thing and repeat it for their entire career. Others learn new things all the time. I explained to her that I was in the latter category (Hint, hint: she should be too! But I digress..).

It is also this on-going learning and exposure to different ideas, situations and concepts that has allowed me to be increasingly "insightful" because I have a deeper and deeper well of actual and synthetic (learned from others' experiences) to draw from.

BUT, there are two twists to this approach that I personally use that's different from a lot of MBB consultants and those in industry.

Sure I learn from Porter, Christensen, Collins, Welch, Buffet & Munger like the rest of the MBB crowd, but I also learn from reading materials, people, and ideas OUTSIDE my "industry" and very much outside the "norm". I'm not afraid to learn from controversial, non "prestigious" people.

For example, though I have two degrees from Stanford, I count several high school drop outs as my teachers. Most people with elite educations would not deem this kind of activity worth their time. They are foolish to think this way. If you're astute enough, you can learn something from just about anybody.

Of the early teachers and mentors in my career, one was a former crack cocaine addict in NYC turned entrepreneur who built a $8 million a year business inside of 18 months.

Another was an entrepreneur who built a company from 30 employees to 30,000 employees in 10 years -- creating Fortune 500 company from scratch in less than a decade.... who is now in prison due to an enormous multi-billion dollar accounting scandal (needless to say, I chose not to learn accounting and finance from him! But I learned a lot about scaling operations and people management from him).

It has been my experience that the interesting lessons often come from interesting people, with interesting backgrounds, working in interesting situations.

The hard part about learning from unusual sources is often times the core lesson they have to offer is wrapped in a "package" that's socially unacceptable, hard to justify to others, and in many cases outright disagreeable.

The trick isn't to avoid the exposure, but rather to seek out such knowledge and FILTER that which is useful to you, and discard that which is not. When you're willing to do THAT, you get access to a body of knowledge that others refuse to seek (to their own detriment).

The other thing about learning from multiple disciplines and industries is often the immediate application of this knowledge is not obvious. But, over time this aggregate knowledge provides a mental database from which to compare every situation against.

So the big lesson here is to reserve a portion of your time and energy devoted to learning things that are outside the norm for you -- things that broaden your perspective over time.

I get a lot of questions from CIBs asking me what I reading now. I'm in the middle of several books -- one on the US tax system, another on writing Hollywood movie scripts, and another on the mathematics of human emotion.

However, the book I've been most anticipated reading is a book that has just come out called Trust Me, I'm Lying - Confessions of a Media Manipulator.

It's a book written by Ryan Holiday who I've gotten to know a little over the past year. Ryan dropped out of college (oh the horror to mothers everywhere!) at 19 years old and has had a meteoric career in industry -- specifically in marketing and publicity.

By day he is the Director of Marketing for American Apparel - the large retail chain in the United States. It is a position he obtained in his early 20's (I think 23 years of age) which is definitely NOT the norm in industry.

By night he works as a public relations (aka publicity stunt) consultant to best-selling (and absurdly controversial) authors like Tim Ferriss (author of The Four Hour Work Week) and others so controversial I don't even dare write their names for fear of even being remotely associated with them in any way, shape or form.

In his book, Ryan reveals the unethical underside of today's modern news media -- and exposes how he has systematically exploited the unethical practices of others for his client's own gain.

This of course begs the question is it wrong to exploit someone else's (predictable) unethical-ness, for your own gain?

For example, this is an excerpt from the first paragraph of the book:

"If you were being kind, you would say my job is in marketing and publications, or online strategy and advertising. But, that's a polite veneer to hide the harsh truth. I am, to put it bluntly, a media manipulator--I'm paid to deceive. My job is to lie to the media so they can lie to you. I cheat, bribe, and connive for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands and abuse my understanding of the Internet to do it."

Needless to say, they do NOT teach this stuff at HBS! (Now that's an understatement).

Do I endorse all of Ryan's marketing practices? I highly doubt it.

Do I think that by understand HOW his practices work and WHY they work, I'll better understand how the "game" of news work? Absolutely.

Will this knowledge help me advise my clients in defending against some unfair PR attack or to use the underlying principles with above-board practices to achieve my clients' goals? Possibly.

Will this insight help protect myself (and enable me to teach my kids to protect themselves) from being tricked by news that's "engineered"? Definitely.

Is Ryan a superstar at what he does (even if I don't approve of everything or even anything of what he's done in the past)? Most definitely.

Do I like learning from superstars who are the top of their fields (filtering out that which isn't appropriate to me, but finding them gems that ARE appropriate for me)? Absolutely, positively Y-E-S.

This is just one (of many) example of how and from whom I add to my on-going base of knowledge (that then become the raw materials for my insights). I did say it is NOT what most people do. And hopefully now you understand my point about "filtering".

It's an overall practice that might not be for you -- but at least I've made you aware of it so you can decide for yourself.

To get unique and novel insights, you have to be willing to go to unique and novel sources of learning that are overlooked or ignored by the majority. The example above, is just that - an example -- of an overall approach to learning that I've found useful. You might too.

Also, if the topics of advertising, tactical marketing, or media manipulation happen to be of personal or professional interest to you, you can click here to get a copy of Ryan's book Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator or watch the 2 minute video commercial below (which actually includes a few insights of its own).

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8 comments… add one
  • Victor Cheng Sep 14, 2012, 4:33 pm


    I didnt quite understand your question, but since it has to do with Deloitte and legal/tax, I think we’re at the limits of my knowledge of that field.

    I hope everything works out well for you.

    Best wishes,

  • Ricardo Sep 14, 2012, 3:55 pm

    Hello Victor:

    Here I go telling you what happened in the interview; a HHRR consultant received me very kindly, she let me sepak as much as I like, she did´n´t cut my word, only pinting some particulars, giving me the chance to comment relevant stories of my professional background.

    I even dared telling her that I was very surprised (gratefully surprised) by the firm calling me for interview, not only cause it´s my favourite firm for legal and tax, but because I had been commenting these points with experts two years ago watching movements in big four workforce politics, and I saw myself now sitting in front of her (borh lady and firm), like predicting what was to happen, and this made me very happy both for job interest and for economic prediction.

    What is your opinion, taking in account firm manager for north Spain region has interested in my profile; it would be strange he wouldn´t call me to know me, wouldn´t it.

    I´d appreciate very much your feedback,

    Thanks very much for all your knowledge,


  • Ricardo Sep 11, 2012, 1:28 am

    Hello Victor:

    Thank you very much for your lesson, there I go, I will let you know what happened. Although I did not have the time to go through all your training ressources, I could have a quck glimpse on your materials that is given me a very useful mental frame of what a high caliber interview like this must be faced.

    I hope being at the expected level, and so passing the interview,

    Congratulations for your site,


  • Ricardo Sep 10, 2012, 4:31 pm

    Dear Victor:

    Fantastic article, I really appreciate your knowledge.

    Apart, I got one case for you, to be sorted quickly, tomorrow 12 o´clock I have appointment with Deloitte for job interview, quite particular way; I am 40 year old, don´t come from big four, independent for years, rather outsider for honest saying, no teachers, no nothing; work on my very own for about ten years, starter late in advocacy, and went for criminal law as i was chosen by clients. Then to avoid this dark world, went for both masters in tax (also intnal tax), and finance at humble BS in Madrid (CEF, famous on town but, nothing to do with these cathedrals of management you ussually talk about).

    The question is; I predicted with witnesses the cahnge of paradigm in big four soul a couple of years before, cause feeling strange moves in infojobs page (few informations, for then I still missed linkedin). The fact it is that I see myself being called by deloitte, my favourite company, to pass interview, having been summoned by branch manager for a posisition they still did not tell me, they just said it is special position brought up for me, starnge isn´t it, I do not give credit, and the business people at those levels I spoke in Spain, they say it´svery strange, surprised cause they never ever hire outsiders.

    But one thing is secure, he got interested in me through linkedin, cause there was where I knew him (God bless linkedin, I don´t have words to thank it).

    The matter is; how will interview be, exam, proofs, simple conversation, the hhrr consultant told me that there would be two interv, one with her, and possibly afetrwards short cut with big manager, and if passed, one with who called me.

    I don´t know what to do, can you help me please, I feel like I am going to appear in newspapers, by being the rarest individual getting hired by deloitte, is it so, what is happening, are they just experimenting?

    Thanks for feed back, you can call me whenever, preferavly tonight before 12 hours from now, more than anything to be able to take profit on your advice.

    Thank you very much, you are a true guru, I would be really pleased if you accepted linkedin with me, taking in account my speciality (rarest man ever hired by deloitte).

    I do not sign

    • Victor Cheng Sep 10, 2012, 5:07 pm

      Hi Ricardo,

      Good luck on your interview with Deloitte. It is hard to say what format the interview will be in as Deloitte has many different practice areas.

      If it is their general management consulting / strategy consulting, then the format will likely be a case interview. You can refer to my videos at https://www.caseinterview.com/login or my book Case Interview Secrets http://www.caseinterviewsecrets.com for guidance on that.

      If it’s operational or technical consulting, than the format is more like a general job interview. You’ll be asked questions about 1) experiences on your resume, and 2) technical knowledge (if the role is deeply technical like IT or tax). For resume questions, see my article https://www.caseinterview.com/parade-method which is a good way to answers such questions. For technical knowledge, there isn’t much I can help you with there as its a function of whether or not you know your area of expertise.

      Good luck,

  • RK Jul 19, 2012, 3:39 am

    Hi Victor

    Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to my query. I am sure there must be lots of other people in the same situation as mine, and I hope this posting would have helped them too. I will save up some cash to purchase your LOMS program, and aim to pursue MBA, and try to find a role in MBB.

    Good Night!


  • Victor Cheng Jul 19, 2012, 1:22 am


    The future of management consulting as you describe it doesn’t really seem all the different than the past.

    Management consulting has always been competitive. I don’t know if it is actually shrinking or not, but even if it shrank in half, it would still probably be a bigger industry with more job openings then when I was at McKinsey.

    Other types of firms have always been trying to do the work MBB does, and they’ve always been trying to do it at reduced prices. This has been going on for decades.

    There’s a reason it has not worked that well. With the exception of about 5 firms, it’s very, very hard for other firms to deliver MBB caliber work without MBB caliber people.

    When a senior client is betting his or her career on a critical decision, there is a point where saving the company’s money by using a lower priced firm will result in that person losing his or her job due to flawed decision making. Senior clients realize it and anytime they can spend someone else’s money to boost or protect their career, they will do it.

    Here’s my take.

    If you’ll be attending a top 50 MBA program and you have a strong interest in consulting, you might as well try for it. If you try and get rejected that’s one thing. It happens. There are many other things one can do for a career.

    But if you reject yourself by not even bothering to try, that’s another thing entirely.

    In short, if you really want to work in consulting, don’t reject yourself.


    Now if you’ve d

  • RK Jul 19, 2012, 1:11 am

    Future of Management Consulting

    Hi Victor

    I have been a long time subscriber and I absolutely love what you do. And this article is a fine example!

    I am considering attending a top50 B-School with a hope to land a role in MBB upon graduation. Over the past few weeks, I have discussed this idea with more than 10 highly experienced professionals from diverse High-Tech and Business backgrounds, each pertaining more than 10 years of international experience, and they advised me to stay away from global management consulting market as it is shrinking at a very rapid pace, which implies that there will be less jobs in the management consulting world, and those very few jobs would be ultra competitive and cut-throat.

    In addition they also mentioned that Big4 audit/assurance/advisory firms (tier1, 2 and 3), the Big High-Tech firms, and other specialty firms, are also establishing themselves in the management consulting world, and offering similar services as MBB at reduced prices.

    What are your thoughts on the future of management consulting whilst considering the content of my message, as well as the rapidly changing global and unpredictable economy? Your thoughts/views would definitely help me in making an informed decision. Thanks Victor!


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