Human Evolution Favors Safe Thinking. As an Entrepreneur, You Need to Be Unsafe.
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
Excerpted from Unsafe Thinking: How to be Nimble and Bold When You Need It Most by Jonah Sachs. Copyright 2018. Available from Da Capo Lifelong Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
For more than five years, researchers have been able to demonstrate that women-led tech businesses, though rare in the industry, tend to outperform their male-led competitors. Yet Silicon Valley investors, paid millions for their Midas touch, still give male-led startups about 34 times the venture funds. Most have seen the evidence. Few have done anything about it.
Despite watching CVS vastly increase its market share after cutting its $2-billion tobacco business, every other major pharmacy chain continues to insist there's no way it can stop selling cigarettes.
Having briefly learned a very hard lesson about the perils of over-zealous lending, big banks are once again spinning out subprime mortgages at a furious pace.
Old habits, it seems, die very hard.
It's easy to see these as moral failures, but they are more likely simply very human ones. In the face of threats that come from rapid change, we're programmed by evolution to seek what seems like safety -- fall back on what's worked in the past, choose the most obvious paths forward, hunker down and dig in -- even when it's obvious that such behaviors are incredibly dangerous. This is not just a problem for big businesses. 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.
We are, it seems, a species of safety-seekers. And then there are people like Jason Klein the young branding executive who, when hired to rename the Hartford minor league baseball team, chose the bizarre, seemingly ridiculous, and ultimately ingenious name, Yard Goats.
The Hedgehogs had been a close runner up.
At first, reaction to the Yard Goats was swift and merciless. "Worst thing I ever heard of," snarled an 87-year-old man who had been a dedicated fan of the team, formerly known as the Rock Cats. He vowed never to watch another game. Twitter lit up with derision. "Yard Goats?" the fans demanded. "That's the best you could do ?"
The anger and rejection that greet Klein's creations never feel good exactly, but by now he knows this type of response signals that he's struck a nerve. The people of El Paso, Texas had been angered when he named their team the Chihuahuas. The people of Lehigh, Penn., and Richmond, Va., had received the Iron Pigs and the Flying Squirrels with the same ire. Under pressure from fans, Klein's clients had often considered abandoning the brands he created for them and ending their relationship with his firm. But, within a year, in all these cities and dozens more where his firm's touch had been felt, sales of team merchandise had shot off the charts, setting minor-league sales records. People bought hats adorned with a slab of bacon, not just in Lehigh but across the country. They ate nachos out of dog bowls at the Chihuahua's games and then proudly displayed the empties on their mantels at home. These franchises generated buzz, and profits, that teams with respectable names, like the San Jose Giants, simply couldn't keep up with.
"If you're feeling nervous, that's a good spot to be in," Klein told me. "Stuff people expect gets forgotten quickly. On their mental computers they drag it right to the 'I've seen it before folder.' And then it's game over."
Of course, there's a method to Klein's seeming-madness. For many minor-league franchises, game over was becoming a real possibility. With the proliferation of competing entertainment options available in smaller towns and a decline in baseball interest, owners had been looking instinctively to the still-thriving major leagues to figure out how to compete. But, Klein and his firm Brandiose turned that obvious approach on its head. Minor-league teams, he reasoned, provide local family entertainment. The minors, he evangelized, can either be second-rate sport or first-rate spectacle. This assertion may offend die-hard fans, but Klein's work has had enormous influence in the industry.
Klein could have made the citizens of Hartford and his client momentarily happy with a safer team name like the Huckleberries, the choice of Hartford Courant readers, in honor of Mark Twain's history in the city. He would have gotten the high fives and the approval we're all after. And his firm would almost certainly be struggling in a sea of sameness now. Instead, he has found a way to overcome his natural bias to seek safety and approval. In doing so he's sparked a revolution of growth in what was becoming a stagnant industry.
Klein is an unsafe thinker. He's chose not to freeze in the face of the rapid changes tearing minor-league baseball apart. Rather, he saw the turmoil as an opportunity. He approached the problem with a spirit of courage and playfulness that he knew industry experts wouldn't accept and would thus put his reputation at risk. And in doing so, he discovered a kind of genius in the bizarre and counterintuitive form of Iron Pigs, Flying Squirrels and Yard Goats.
So, 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? Why do so few of us take a flexible, nimble approach to unfamiliar challenges while the rest of us hold on to outdated or incremental solutions?
This tendency to retreat to the familiar when challenging times call on us to change is not the only unhelpful mental habit we have to contend with. It's just one of dozens of quirks of the human psyche, implanted through evolution, that make us favor safe thinking. We're also pushed in that direction by a bias toward projecting 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.
While science tells us we face an uphill battle in changing ourselves and our institutions, it also offers plenty of reasons for hope. Our understanding of the nature of creativity has undergone a revolution in the past few decades. Where once creative ability 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.
Over the past three years, I've found dozens of individuals who have intentionally worked to expand their thinking patterns and broken with old habits and old ways. I spent time with economists who have upended conventional wisdom and even conventional morality by simply giving away money, no questions asked, to the world's poorest, $1,000 at a time. I've seen how an executive vastly increased her company's valuation by throwing away a $2-billion line of business she knew was undermining her company's brand. I learned the secrets of a two-time championship NBA coach who's taken the pressure out of the game for his players so they can be freed to take risks and I learned about where to find the courage to bounce back and reinvent yourself from the former CEO of the internet's most famous flop who has since rebuilt her reputation and a thriving business.
I found that the breakthroughs of these unsafe thinkers often come not from a single trick or practice but from using all the mental tools available to them. Rationality and creativity, intuition and analysis, intrinsic and extrinsic drive, expert and beginner's mindsets, 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. But, it is 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. It will take unsafe thinkers who move beyond a reliance on standard approaches, to help us overcome these challenges and seize these opportunities.