Safe thinking might just be a bit of a misnomer. For one thing, it presumes that events can be predicted, situations accurately interpreted, setbacks nimbly sidestepped, and failures deftly avoided.
Yet as anyone who has ever tried to forecast an outcome has learned, the world offers no crystal balls.
Maybe it’s time for a new way to think. Enter Unsafe Thinking: How To Be Nimble and Bold When You Need It Most, by Jonah Sachs — a book that doesn’t just question the conventional, but provides a compelling argument for why we all should too.
“Why do a small number of individuals and organizations consistently thrive in conditions of rapid change while so many more attain a certain level of success only to get stuck in a rut?” asks Sachs.
In answer to that question, Sachs, who describes himself as an unsafe thinker, went in search of those people who, like him, didn’t like rules and predetermined processes, take great risks, don’t shy away from uncertainty, and defy convention to produce things most of us couldn’t even imagine.
What Sachs found was that unsafe thinkers are not just “crazy.” They have learned that continuously facing their anxiety and tolerating a high degree of uncertainty is the only way to truly challenge themselves.
Sachs writes, “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.”
We settle for safety and the most assured route to success — what is also known as the “hill-climbing heuristic” — and in the process, allow our need to project assurance squash our creativity.
So how do we overcome the trap of conventional thinking?
Sachs offers six key components: courage, motivation, learning, flexibility, morality, and leadership. Yet the process of learning to think in unsafe ways is in no way preordained.
He writes, “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.”
One of those skills is opening ourselves up to a wider audience in search of solutions when we are in the middle of a crisis.
Sachs quotes John Mackey, Whole Foods founder, speaking about his own crisis when a social media buzz claiming that his company mismeasured products caused the stock price to plummet: “Check with us in a year. Either a new butterfly will have emerged or we won’t be here.”
Confessions like Mackey’s are rare because we are intuitively programmed to avoid situations that can result in negative evaluation. However, Sachs tells us, seeking to avoid our anxiety only narrows our focus, depletes our resources, and ultimately makes the anxiety worse.
The way out is not to avoid anxiety, but rather, to become more comfortable with the discomfort of it. “Teaching ourselves to be comfortable with a bit of discomfort gives us a far better chance of changing habitual patterns and opening space for new possibilities,” writes Sachs.
Like understanding the nature of anxiety, understanding how motivation works is a key to mastering it. External motivation is not, in itself bad. Rather, it is demotivating when external rewards make us feel manipulated, coerced, or controlled.
“Raisins are tasty, but they lose their appeal when getting them makes us feel like animals in a lab,” writes Sachs. And maintaining motivation also, counterintuitively, requires constant challenge and difficulty
The best way to describe this is the state of flow, when the challenge just barely exceeds the level of skill, where our focus, skills, and creativity heighten and our actions and awareness merge while feelings of self-consciousness fade away.
“Being in a flow channel,” writes Sachs, “allows us to maintain high levels of energy and confidence and enough love for a challenge to make risk-taking possible and worthwhile.”
Love of challenges also help us avoid the trap of thinking in patterns and missing the changing landscape in front of us.
One powerful example Sachs points to is a study demonstrating that people who had lived abroad solved the famous Dunker candle problem 60 percent of the time while those who had not lived in an unfamiliar place had a success rate of just 42 percent.
The answer might not be thinking out of the box. Instead, it may be rethinking the box itself.
Sachs tells us that in embracing our uncertainty, leaping into the counterintuitive, doing things that make us a beginner again, letting go of the need to look like an expert, practicing disobedience, resisting quick forming consensus, incentivizing risk taking and most importantly, making getting unsafe safe, we find the creative energy needed to face and embrace an ever changing world.
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.
Unsafe Thinking: How To Be Nimble and Bold When You Need It Most
Da Capo Lifelong Books, April 2018
Hardcover, 256 pages