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How to be Nimble and Bold When You Need It Most
By Jonah Sachs
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“Unsafe Thinking delivers an array of fresh insights on creativity, motivation, and staying in ‘flow.’ Packed with powerful case studies, it will propel you out of your rut and onto a path of better, sharper thinking.” — Daniel H. Pink, author of When and To Sell Is Human
How can you challenge and change yourself when you need it most? We’re creatures of habit, programmed by evolution to favor the safe and familiar, especially when the stakes are high. This bias no longer serves us in a world of constant change. In fact, today, safe thinking has become extremely dangerous.
Through stories of trailblazers in business, health, education and activism, and leveraging decades of research into creativity and performance, Jonah Sachs reveals a path to higher performance and creativity for anyone ready to step out of their comfort zone. He introduces troublemakers willing to challenge corporate culture like the executive who convinced CVS to drop its multibillion-dollar tobacco business. She now leads the pharmacy giant. Readers will get firsthand accounts of breaking from the status quo from a Nobel prize winning doctor who nearly got himself thrown out medicine, a two-time NBA championship coach who brought joy back to his team by tuning down the focus on competition, a CEO who rebuilt her reputation and life from the ashes from one of the biggest flops in internet history and a Colombian mayor who started an incredibly successful career of political reform by mooning an angry crowd.
Unsafe Thinking is full of counter-intuitive insights that will challenge you to rethink how you work. You’ll learn:
- Why your area of deep expertise is often where you’ll find your biggest blind spots
- Why anxiety can be fuel for creativity
- When to trust intuition and when to challenge it
- How collaborating only with those that share your values stunts your creativity
- How to build an organization that embraces intelligent risk.
INTRODUCTION: THE PATH TO UNSAFE THINKING
Unsafe thinking: The ability to meet challenges with a willingness to depart from standard operating procedures; to confront anxiety, tolerate criticism, take intelligent risks, and refute conventional wisdom—especially one’s own views—in order to achieve breakthroughs.
In a rapidly changing world, unsafe thinking is an indispensable skill. But it doesn’t come naturally because the basic structures of the human mind prejudice us against changing ourselves and how we approach problems. In fact, the more we gain experience and expertise, the more we tend to stick to familiar approaches. This is in part because we overrely on a decision-making tool that psychologists call the “hill-climbing heuristic.” In pursuing solutions to challenges, this subconscious rule of thumb tells us that at each decision point, we should choose the next step that seems to lead most directly toward our goal, which usually means opting for tried-and-true routines. We produce the sequel to last summer’s blockbuster. We devote most of our research and development to an incremental upgrade of a proven product. We send out the same fund-raising letter that worked so well last year. We copy our most successful competitors. The problem is that in changing environments, hill climbing, as shown time and again, leads to mediocrity.
And hill climbing is not the only unhelpful mental shortcut we have to contend with. It’s just one of dozens of quirks of the human psyche, implanted through evolution, that make us favor safety and familiarity. A need to project authority and surety instead of admitting we need to ask more questions, an involuntary drift toward conformity when working in groups, and a knack for internalizing conventional wisdom until it appears to be our own gut instinct are but a few of the tendencies that prevent us from forging and then sticking to new paths. Ironically, the pull of safe thinking gets strongest when we’re in unknown territory that requires new approaches. As our standard operating procedures begin to fail us, the discomfort of uncertainty and fear of failure push us even more urgently to seek safety.
At these times, safe thinking, ironically, can be quite dangerous. It leads to failures of all sorts—for individuals in their lives and careers, for once market-leading companies, and for society as a whole. Medical surveys show that when doctors recommend critical lifestyle changes, up to 70 percent of us choose to stick to our comfortable, unhealthy ways. Gallup reports that more than two-thirds of Americans are disengaged at work. They have settled for the safety of a job that doesn’t excite them—and they’re sometimes miserable in—rather than risk pursuing a passion. The value of their untapped creative potential is beyond measure.
We’re even modeling safe thinking for our children in the American educational system, which is still, despite ample evidence that it’s not working, teaching to the test. Thanks to more than a decade of “test and punish” rules that fire teachers and close schools that don’t meet standards, American students are falling further behind on basics, while measures of student creativity (the most important competitive skill of the future) are plummeting, threatening to produce yet another generation of safe thinkers. The most common response to these disappointing results? More standards and testing.
While science tells us we face an uphill battle in changing ourselves and our institutions, it also offers plenty of reasons for hope. Over the past several decades, the science of creativity has undergone a revolution. Where once creativity was assumed to be a fixed trait that we can’t influence, more recent research tells us we have far more control when it comes to being far more creative.
Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile began her illustrious career with a rather simple experiment involving a small group of elementary school students, some art supplies, and the help of her two sisters—the only people she could afford to hire at the time.
Amabile organized two parties for the students, who were asked to make collages at both. At one party, the children were told their work would be judged and that the best would win a prize. At the other party, they were told that they’d all enter a raffle at the end that would determine who won rewards for their work. Amabile then took the collages to three professional artists for independent evaluation. The judges unanimously determined that the collages made by the group not expecting to be judged were significantly more creative.
The kids produced better creative work when there was no incentive to do so. These results had enormous implications in Amabile’s view and gave her an inkling of a theory that she wanted to develop further. But her mentors advised that, as a woman trying to crack into the notoriously male-dominated field of experimental psychology, she not pursue the work further. It was too far outside the mainstream of research, they told her. It would kill her career prospects. Thankfully Amabile is, herself, an unsafe thinker. She plunged ahead.
In experiment after experiment, she found that the prospects of both reward and punishment quash creative output, while those who engage in work from intrinsic motivation, because they find pleasure in it, are consistently more creative. These findings on motivation and creativity would become widely influential, but they taught Amabile an even more important lesson: individuals’ creativity can be enhanced or depressed. We’re not just naturally either creative artists or analytical accountants. Certain factors can change our creative ability, and just as Amabile did at her art parties, we can control them.
As Amabile extended her research, she discovered that there are a total of four key components in boosting creativity. Her widely accepted “confluence theory” asserts that when we confront a creative challenge, our ability to break from the status quo to discover novel and useful solutions comes largely down to whether
• we are driven from within to solve a problem.
• we have developed deep knowledge relevant to the problem we’re working on. To avoid hitting constant dead ends, we need to know what’s been tried before, what’s worked, and what’s failed.
• we approach the problem through what Amabile describes as a creative workstyle, meaning that we are willing to break old habits, to entertain unfamiliar ideas, and even to break rules.
• the social environment in which we work is conducive to creativity. A management focus on mitigating risk, overly rigid procedures, and politics that pit colleagues against one another can easily squash creativity.
Amabile’s findings offer an evidence-based road map for increasing our ability to think beyond the boundaries of safety, but as I tried to apply them to my own conundrum, I quickly discovered that acting on them raises tricky difficulties.
Take intrinsic motivation: the fact of working life is that most of us can’t escape outside pressures. We have to please others with our work, be it our bosses or clients or customers, and we have to meet schedules not of our own making. Along the way, we’ve all got to do at least some work that we just don’t find intrinsically motivating, even when the larger mission aligns completely with our passions. Can we optimize our intrinsic motivation, I wondered, even while staying mindful of external pressures?
What about the need for deep knowledge? My own experience as a so-called expert had convinced me that expertise can be a terrible thinking trap. I’d also read a recent study showing that just believing we’re experts on a subject makes us more prone to basic factual errors. Given that, I wondered, how can we both build up and draw on expertise and yet not let it blind us to any novel possibilities we should entertain?
Perhaps most challenging: How do we make room for casting aside convention and experimenting with new ideas, given the enormous time and productivity pressures we’re under? The management cultures and systems of most organizations squelch our freedom to challenge conventional wisdom and take risks. We can be subject to ridicule, resentment, and even reprisals at work when we rock the boat. How can we cope with anxiety about, and often outright fear of, these possible consequences? And for those of us who are managing teams we’d like to free from these shackles, as I was, how can we do so without tearing the whole company down and starting again?
It took me several years of research, experimentation, and failure to find a path that—I can now confidently say, based on the science and my own experience—can lead us out of the myriad traps of safe thinking to more open, creative, innovative, and joyful ways of operating. Though I’ve learned along the way to be wary of too much structure, I’ll offer a little here as a road map for the journey ahead.
I’ve organized the book in six parts. Each explores a key component of unsafe thinking and practices that help us overcome the impediments to its use. While many of the tools and actions I’ve identified take deliberate practice before they begin to feel natural and show results, I can attest that they have provided fuel for my own work. They have allowed me to regain my creative edge and unlocked the creativity of those around me.
Part 1, “Courage,” explores the role discomfort, and sometimes outright fear, plays in trapping us in safe thinking. I examine some pernicious myths about anxiety and provide ways to accept, even welcome, the feelings of discomfort that come from challenging the status quo. While many pathways are open to us when we decide to break our old thinking patterns, we can’t take the first steps down any of them without the foundation of courage.
Part 2, “Motivation,” looks at the energy we need to sustain experimentation with new and uncomfortable approaches to our work, even in the face of setbacks. It goes beyond the usual either/or view of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and reveals simple means of harnessing the power of both in order to keep creative drive at a consistently high level.
Part 3, “Learning,” untangles the seeming paradox that while we need expertise to do successful creative work, we often suffer a decline in learning and performance once we become experts. I show how to reap the advantages of expertise while retaining the nimble thinking and curiosity of a beginner.
Part 4, “Flexibility,” provides insights into the power and limits of intuition and the advantages of generating ideas that seem counterintuitive, even ridiculous, to most but in fact contain hidden genius.
Part 5, “Morality,” looks at the challenging notion that a strong commitment to do the “right” thing can sometimes be a dangerous commitment to do the same old thing. We’ll discover the creativity-enhancing practices of intelligent disobedience and look at why we need more friends who look like enemies.
Finally, Part 6, “Leadership,” focuses on working with others and breaking through the social pressures that work against creativity. We’ll look at techniques for leading teams, whether you’re an officially recognized leader or not, to a more consistent practice of unsafe thinking.
As I’ve explored the timeless tensions between predictability and innovation, structure and freedom, safety and risk, I’ve discovered that success lies not in any preordained rules or predetermined ways of breaking them. The breakthroughs of unsafe thinkers often lie in using all the tools available. Rationality and creativity, intuition and analysis, intrinsic and extrinsic drive, expert and beginner mind-sets, these are all essential aspects of human thinking. The most adaptive of us rely on those tools that come most naturally and intentionally work to hone those they are less naturally inclined to use.
This whole-brain way of operating is not automatic or instantly achieved. It seems to me, however, to be urgently needed in an era when automatic and simple solutions, appealing as they may be, are unsuited to the challenges we face. We are confronting social, technological, and ecological problems unimaginable to our ancestors. We also have, for the first time, opportunities to finally eradicate poverty and most diseases while designing far more just communities. Safe thinkers relying on standard approaches won’t overcome these challenges or seize these opportunities.
I hope the stories of unsafe thinkers and the science I present will inspire you to experiment with practices that will unlock your own unsafe thinking potential and, if you work within a team, the potential of those with whom you collaborate. My journey into the world of unsafe thinking has shown it to be the route not only to satisfying success in work but to a more fulfilled, exciting, and joyful life.
The Safe Thinking Cycle
Why we stick to our guns even when we know we shouldn’t
It’s 2015 when I arrive in Austin, Texas, at an intimate gathering of about one hundred CEOs who are there to share their stories of challenge and breakthrough. I’ve made the trip on a hunch that catching someone in the midst of crisis will reveal insights that stories told after the fact simply won’t capture. And one of the planned speakers, I know, is deeply in trouble. As we in the audience take our seats, the anticipation and tension in the room are palpable. Other speakers have shared difficult struggles, but this are the main event.
Whole Foods founder and co-CEO John Mackey sits in front of an extravagant display of plants and flowers meant to communicate well-being and serenity, but his face shows the strain of attempting to match the mood of the backdrop. Nervous whispers ripple through the crowd.
Whole Foods’s stock price has plummeted more than 40 percent over the past six months as the growth trajectory of the $15 billion grocery store chain has started to flatten. It seems clear to analysts that the business is running out of market, and Mackey has recently offered compensation packages for employees willing to leave—2,000 have accepted. At the same time, the brand—once so admired—has suddenly come under serious fire. A campaign by the animal rights group PETA, an explosion of social media buzz about high-priced products, and accusations of mismeasurement by the New York State Department of Consumer Affairs have hit almost simultaneously. The press and public have been piling on the derision so quickly that it’s been almost impossible to track.
Mackey calls the attacks on the brand “fake news.” But the man who founded Whole Foods as a single store thirty-seven years earlier is clearly taking the crisis personally. He begins by describing his original dream to bring healthy food to communities across America and how he surprised himself with his success. Then he discusses how painful it’s been to see the company’s prospects suddenly turn. “Staying open, knowing something new is trying to birth itself is hard when everyone’s screaming at you,” Mackey says somberly. Then, referring to himself and co-CEO Walter Robb, he says, “Check in with us in a year. Either a new butterfly will have emerged or we won’t be here.”
That last comment elicits a quiet gasp from the audience. The stakes are so high that he’s openly talking about being removed from his own empire. But it’s the first part of Mackey’s statement that intrigues me: It’s hard to stay open when everyone’s screaming at you.
Mackey has expressed one of the key difficulties of changing our thinking when the situation demands it. When facing an unfamiliar challenge, we often know we need to open our minds to a wider field of possible solutions because the status quo clearly will not suffice. At the same time, the threat we feel switches our brains into survival mode, which tends to make us cling to the familiar and engage in safety-seeking behavior. This occurs not only in the face of major threats but also in everyday moments, such as when a project flounders as we’re approaching a deadline, when a relationship with a key collaborator turns sour, or when a work product is unexpectedly rejected.
You’ve probably already been through some version of Mackey’s struggle to open yourself to new and creative solutions under pressure, but to see how easily it can arise, take a moment to try a simple experiment on yourself. Grab a pen and paper and try to solve the following puzzle, known as the cheap necklace problem:
Imagine you want to create a closed necklace out of four chains made up of three links each. Opening a link costs you two cents. Closing a link back up costs three. Your goal is to create this necklace for no more than fifteen cents. Give yourself five minutes to solve it.
Open a link: two cents
Close a link: three cents
Goal: Spend fifteen cents
In test after test, only about 3 percent of people crack the cheap necklace problem. If you tried to solve it, you had a bit of a head start over most test takers because by reading this chapter, you’re already primed to think you should try not to narrow your focus on an obvious solution too quickly. Still, given the time pressure, I expect the simple yet counterintuitive solution eluded you. Your mind quickly jumped to what seemed the most direct solution: break some of the end segments and try to link them up. It must be right.
Long after this strategy proves futile, people stick with it, only increasing their fixation as the time ticks away.
Ready for the answer? The only way to make the necklace for fifteen cents or less is to start with what feels like a risky step backward. Break all three links on one segment (say segment A), which costs six cents. Six cents gone, no obvious progress.
Now, one of those links can form a clasp to connect B to C. Close it up for three cents, and you’re at nine.
Take your second broken link and attach C and D to each other. Close that link up, and you’re at twelve.
Take the final broken link and attach the two long segments to make a closed necklace for fifteen cents.
There’s nothing inherently complicated about the solution, but in searching for it, most people just loop from what seems the obvious starting point around and around in frustration, trying the same approach. Time expires without their trying anything new. And they usually never consider the counterintuitive step of spending nine cents without making direct progress. Even when given hints that they can only succeed by trying novel and nonobvious approaches, people only nod and smile, instantly returning to their fixations. These experiments teach us that we fixate on safe thinking even when the stakes are extremely low. In this case, the anxiety and stress are minute, perhaps barely noticeable. But even at those low levels, a desire to stick to your guns is extraordinarily difficult to overcome.
Programmed to Seek Safety
So what’s happening? Why do we fixate so easily? The pernicious dynamic of clinging to the familiar and safe is captured in what I call the safe thinking cycle. The first step of the cycle, threat awareness, gets triggered in many ways. In the cheap necklace problem, threat awareness comes from realizing we’re running out of time. In the real world, we feel it when we get negative sales information, a customer or client complains, or our boss criticizes our work. We might read about a competitor coming out with an impressive new product. Even success leads to threat awareness, paradoxically, because it propels us onto bigger stages, with greater challenges and higher stakes. Put simply, it is impossible to live our lives, let alone try to accomplish anything of value, without triggering threat awareness along the way.
In step two of the cycle, the perception of threat causes a spike in what neuroscientists call cortical arousal, a state of increased wakefulness, vigilance, and focus. Of course, some cortical arousal is often of great value. We need it to react quickly and decisively to physical threats, for example. But a low arousal state is better for creative thinking. In low arousal, the brain apportions its resources to a wide variety of neural and physiological functions, such as digestion, cellular repair, and the filing away of long-term memories. With all our cognitive systems running at normal, we’re free to let our attention roam to where our curiosity takes it, and this fosters creative insights.
Thomas Edison, ingeniously, found a way to harness the creative power of extremely low arousal states. He would sit down for a nap in a chair, arms hanging over the sides and a metal ball in each hand. On the floor, he’d place a metal pan. As he drifted toward lower and lower arousal, his brain would present images and ideas unavailable to his conscious mind. But if he fell asleep, the balls would drop, hitting the pans and awakening him in time to record his ideas. He credited these dreamlike images as the source of many of his greatest inventions.
When we confront a challenge that feels threatening, we no longer have the option of staying consistently in low arousal. We are programmed by evolution to respond with high arousal because of the need for speed of action in dealing with many of the threats our early ancestors faced. This response goes way back to the days when confrontations with large predators on the African savannah were common. Imagine you’re walking along in a low arousal state, looking around for something for dinner. With urgency low, you are free to scan and take your time searching broadly. But if a predator leaps into your path, your arousal level soars. Stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, get released, and your attention narrows. Your body also shuts down any unnecessary processes so that blood can flow directly to your muscles and your visual cortex, enabling you to meet the threat. Your vision focuses on the beast, and you are completely engaged with the need to act immediately. Neuroscientists have shown that high cortical arousal actually turns off two regions of the brain that are critical to our ability to think about the future. Who needs to expend energy on tomorrow when you might die right now? Our brains tell us there’s time only to fight or flee. This is why cortical arousal is highly adaptive when it comes to surviving in the face of life-threatening danger. But in confronting creative challenges, this response turns against us, hampering our consideration of a wider range of options.
Take the case of a new competitive threat at work, say, from a fast-emerging new technology. Though we may perceive, and perhaps even outwardly declare, that our old ways of operating aren’t adequate for this new challenge, and we may feel a desire, like Mackey, to “open up,” our brains scream at us to shut down our range of options and take safety-seeking action. These are short-term fixes that we believe will hold off the threat and lower our anxiety. We find ourselves saying things like, “Let’s do what worked last time for those guys” or “Let’s fix this quickly before it gets out of hand.” We tell ourselves that once we’ve handled the immediate threat, we’ll have the luxury of being more expansive.
Unfortunately, we’re unwittingly priming the cycle to repeat. Following an old course of action in the face of new challenges sets us up for even more threat and thus more anxiety and arousal.
A series of studies by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, who mapped the relationship between arousal and performance, demonstrated the negative effects of this cycle. The now widely accepted Yerkes-Dodson law states that for a while, arousal and performance increase hand in hand. Arousal motivates us to do difficult things. But if the problem one is solving is complex or unfamiliar, requiring more creativity than brute force, they part ways. Past a certain point, arousal increases, and performance plummets. When John Mackey talks about the difficulty of staying open while everyone is screaming at him, he’s talking about hitting that divergence.
High arousal won’t help Mackey with the threat he’s confronting as he speaks to the audience about Whole Foods’s travails. The challenge to save his company is not a fight-or-flight physical threat. He might face shame, regret, and loss of personal wealth if he fails to guide Whole Foods past its obstacles. But he won’t go hungry, and he certainly won’t die. The problem is that our bodies respond to all senses of threat through the same mechanisms with which we responded to lion attacks.
Threats to our jobs, our position in the world, or our esteem among peers don’t look similar to a physical threat in our brains. They look the same. The reason for this also lies in our distant past. Being ostracized from a tribe could lead to death for our early ancestors just as surely as an encounter with a lion. This is likely why, in a study by psychologist Michael Williams of people who had faced social exclusion, nearly all of them said they would rather have experienced physical abuse than ostracism.
It also explains why, as John Mackey divulges to the crowd before him in Austin, he must fight a strong impulse to narrow his focus and act quickly rather than opening up and widening his field of options. His biology is pushing him to swim for safe shores. One expedient option might be to concentrate on beating down his detractors through a PR war, attempting to eliminate the threat without addressing the inherent problems in the company’s business model and operations. Indeed, throughout the talk, he does occasionally drift into railing against his detractors as if talking himself into pursuing such a path. Or he might fall back on strategies he used to build the company decades ago. Leaders in Mackey’s situation often become obsessed with the lessons they learned from past successes and failures. Instead Mackey is working hard to stay open to new ideas.
As the hour-long conversation at the gathering comes to a close, Mackey explicitly expresses resolve to resist his instinctive impulses: “You want to run to safety, but there is no safety in business these days,” he concludes.
As I walk out into the warm Texas evening, I have a hunch that this crisis won’t be the defining chapter in Mackey’s story. Indeed, when I catch up with him later that night, he shares his plans to launch a completely new kind of Whole Foods, a chain of downscale markets catering to customers who can’t afford to shop at his high-priced stores. As premium pricing lies at the heart of his thirty-seven-year-old business model, this new approach sounds anything but incremental and familiar.
- "An enchanting book about how to question the conventional, challenge the status quo, and unlock the creative solutions right under your nose."—Adam Grant, New York Times bestselling author of Originals, Give and Take, and Option B with Sheryl Sandberg
- "Unsafe Thinking delivers an array of fresh insights on creativity, motivation, and staying in 'flow.' Packed with powerful case studies, it will propel you out of your rut and onto a path of better, sharper thinking."—Daniel H. Pink, author of When and To Sell Is Human
- "A deeply insightful book for creators that only a creator could write."—Peter Sims, founder & CEO, Parliament, Inc., author of Little Bets
- A practical and truly entertaining roadmap to becoming more creative and productive. A must-read for anyone facing a changing world."—Jonah Berger, Wharton Professor, author of Contagions
- "A blazingly original book. In crisp, breezy prose, Sachs details winning strategies from explorers and business organizations through history. I found the stories themselves riveting, and Unsafe Thinking is destined to become a classic in creative thought."—Mary Karr, author of The Liar's Club and Lit
- "All innovators have to have very tough skins. But beyond the peril of going against the crowd is the joy of fresh creation. Read this book and reflect on your own life. It could make a big difference."—Former U.S. Senator bill Bradley
- "Unsafe Thinking provides an inspiring and practical guide on how to truly think outside of the box and stay in productive flow. Master storyteller Jonah Sachs combines the latest research with accessible best practices to help us all become more comfortable being uncomfortable."—Lisa Kay Solomon, Chair, Transformational Practices, Singularity University, coauthor, Moments of Impact and Design a Better Business
"Posing the question of why so many people get stuck in conventional, old-fashioned thinking when it comes to work, journalist Sachs argues, energetically...that the answer lies in a mixture of fear and habit...Sachs walks through the key components of unsafe thinking, namely courage, motivation, learning, flexibility, morality, and leadership, using his interviewees' stories...to illustrate his points. The writing is lively."
- "Unsafe Thinking explores the alternative to the tried and tested solution...[A] mix of anecdote and scientific research."—Financial Times (an "FT business book of the month")
- "I found some real insights...in a new book, Unsafe Thinking, by Jonah Sachs, who is one of the influential social innovators I know. He outlines a set of straightforward practices that both he and I believe we can all use to create counter-intuitive breakthroughs ourselves. We don't need to wait for lightning to strike, if we proactively improve our ability to accept more seemingly outlandish solutions and ideas."—Martin Zwilling, Inc.com
- "Focuses on how leaders can think in new ways and encourage their organizations to think in new, unconventional ways."—National Center for the Middle Market
- "Learning to be more comfortable with uncertainty might be the most important innovation in business and life we have today, and it is just one of the many gems in Sachs's brilliant book."—Psych Central
"[Sachs is] an excellent writer whose candor and curiosity translate into compelling storytelling...A wonderful book for association CEOs and board leaders ready (or not) to recalibrate risk-taking and strategic planning."
- On Sale
- Apr 24, 2018
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Da Capo Lifelong Books