For three years, while I helped run a non-profit in Kenya, I flew back and forth on a regular basis. On my flights to Kenya, I packed a suitcase full of Victoria’s Secret lotions. On my return trips to the U.S., I stuffed the suitcase with dismantled African spears. This may surprise you, but I wasn’t a smuggler for the lotion/spear black market. My reasons for doing this were less profitable, but so much better.
It started in 2014, as I was packing my bags to return home from my first trip to Kenya. I almost placed a half-filled bottle of perfume in my cosmetic case, but instead spontaneously handed it to a young Kenyan friend. It was as though I had just presented her with a priceless treasure. Her face lit up, and she seemed to be overflowing with excitement. She smelled the perfume bottle, made a dainty spray on her wrists, and, in total rhapsody, smelled it again. In that moment, I knew that I had discovered something special. And so, in typical fashion, I went home and then went big.
Right before my next trip abroad, I went to Victoria’s Secret during their semi-annual sale, and I believe that I single-handedly raised their stock by five points. I filled up their oversized shopping bags with lotions and perfumes. I sampled everything, and if I liked it, I bought it.
Why Victoria’s Secret? First, it sells lotions and perfumes, which can be difficult to acquire in developing nations. More significantly, it’s an internationally recognized brand. It’s known not only as a quality product, but also as an indulgence. This item of luxury, encased in such fashionable wrappings, was a special way to thank the local community for being so friendly and welcoming me so graciously.
Then, after searching for the perfect novelty to bring home with me, one day I discovered the just the item. The Maasai tribe, who I worked with, are renowned for their bravery and courage. They use spears with wooden shafts for hunting and to defend their tribe. However, the spears also have two traits that made them exactly what I was looking for: they’re beautifully carved and easy to dismantle. I bought several, packed them in my suitcase (checked, not carry-on), and brought them back to the U.S.
Although these spears are not uncommon in Kenya, most people from home have never even seen — let alone touched — an authentic spear. Whenever I gave one to a guy friend, almost invariably I saw the same reaction. With a look of manly pride, he’d grasp the spear and pure joy would radiate from his face.
And really the best part is that this idea isn’t limited to international travel; it can be harnessed in our professional and personal lives. Everyday life can, at times, become a bit mundane. We crave uniqueness, something that ignites an inspirational spark and snaps us out of our routine. When we encounter these moments, they remind us that there’s a whole world out there to be experienced.
Now for the hard part: are you able to identify what could be novel in your work or add a unique twist to a project? If you need help, try asking yourself these questions:
- What skills, connections, or other resources are available to me? (Just start jotting things down. Nothing is too random)
- Which items on that list would be novel in my field?
- How can any of the items on this list be leveraged as a tool, anecdote, fun fact and/or memorable moment?
Still struggling? Here are some ways I’ve applied this:
- When meeting people at networking events, I sometimes mention that my hometown is Hicksville, Ohio. It has served as a memorable, fun fact that helps break up the monotony of networking small talk.
- I caught people off guard by beginning my Toastmaster speech in Swahili – which provided an opening that they were certainly not expecting. The evaluator said he really liked this as it grabbed the room’s attention and set my speech apart from the others delivered that day.
- Back when we had in-person conferences, Verizon did this (pictured) really well at the Training 2020 Conference & Expo. Their immersive and interactive experience showing 5G was novel compared with all the traditional exhibitors’ booths featuring other vendors’ products and services inside the conference’s convention center.
In this technological time when robotic process automation has taken over routine tasks, it’s vital to capitalize on our capabilities that can’t be as easily duplicated by machines. Essential skills such as innovation, creativity, presentation skills and ingenuity are now valued at a premium.
If you can find something that’s fresh, original, and authentic, people will appreciate it. In a world that craves novelty, the person with lotions and spears is queen.
Jacquelyn Adams, an IEEE Senior member, is a nationally-recognized leader in employee learning and development. Find more of her Lessons on Leadership columns here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.