Question Popular Thinking
Economist John Maynard Keynes, whose ideas profoundly influenced economic theory and practices in the twentieth century, asserted, “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from the old ones.” Going against popular thinking can be difficult, whether you’re a businessperson bucking company tradition, a pastor introducing new types of music to his church, a new mother rejecting old wives’ tales handed down from her parents, or a teenager ignoring currently popular styles.
Many of the ideas in this book go against popular thinking. If you value popularity over good thinking, then you will severely limit your potential to learn the types of thinking encouraged by this book.
Popular thinking is…
- Too Average to Understand the Value of Good Thinking,
- Too Inflexible to Realize the Impact of Changed Thinking,
- Too Lazy to Master the Process of Intentional Thinking,
- Too Small to See the Wisdom of Big-picture Thinking,
- Too Satisfied to Unleash the Potential of Focused Thinking,
- Too Traditional to Discover the Joy of Creative Thinking,
- Too Naive to Recognize the Importance of Realistic Thinking,
- Too Undisciplined to Release the Power of Strategic Thinking,
- Too Limiting to Feel the Energy of Possibility Thinking,
- Too Trendy to Embrace the Lessons of Reflective Thinking,
- Too Shallow to Question the Acceptance of Popular Thinking,
- Too Proud to Encourage the Participation of Shared Thinking,
- Too Self-absorbed to Experience the Satisfaction of Unselfish Thinking, and
- Too Uncommitted to Enjoy the Return of Bottom-Line Thinking.
If you want to become a good thinker, then start preparing yourself for the possibility of becoming unpopular.
WHY YOU SHOULD QUESTION THE ACCEPTANCE OF POPULAR THINKING
I’ve given you some broad reasons for questioning the acceptance of popular thinking. Now allow me to be more specific:
1. Popular Thinking Sometimes Means Not Thinking
My friend Kevin Myers sums up the idea of popular thinking by saying, “The problem with popular thinking is that it doesn’t require you to think at all.” Good thinking is hard work. If it were easy, everybody would be a good thinker. Unfortunately, many people try to live life the easy way. They don’t want to do the hard work of thinking or pay the price of success. It’s easier to do what other people do and hope that they thought it out. Look at the stock market recommendations of some experts. By the time they publish their picks, most are following a trend, not creating one or even riding its crest. The people who are going to make money on the stocks they recommend have already done so by the time the general public hears about it. When people blindly follow a trend, they’re not doing their own thinking.
2. Popular Thinking Offers False Hope
Benno Muller-Hill, a professor in the University of Cologne genetics department, tells how one morning in high school he stood last in a line of forty students in the schoolyard. His physics teacher had set up a telescope so that his students could view a planet and its moons. The first student stepped up to the telescope. He looked through it, but when the teacher asked if he could see anything, the boy said no;
his nearsightedness hampered his view. The teacher showed him how to adjust the focus, and the boy finally said he could see the planet and moons. One by one, the students stepped up to the telescope and saw what they were supposed to see. Finally, the second to last student looked into the telescope and announced that he could not see anything.
“You idiot,” shouted the teacher, “you have to adjust the lenses.” The student tried, but he finally said, “I still can’t see anything. It is all black.”
The teacher, disgusted, looked through the telescope himself, and then looked up with a strange expression. The lens cap still covered the telescope. None of the students had been able to see anything! Many people look for safety and security in popular thinking. They figure that if a lot of people are doing something, then it must be right. It must be a good idea.
If most people accept it, then it probably represents fairness, equality, compassion, and sensitivity, right? Not necessarily. Popular thinking said the earth was the center of the universe, yet Copernicus studied the stars and planets and proved mathematically that the earth and the other planets in our solar system revolved around the sun.
Popular thinking said surgery didn’t require clean instruments, yet Joseph Lister studied the high death rates in hospitals and introduced antiseptic practices that immediately saved lives. Popular thinking said that women shouldn’t have the right to vote, yet people like Emmeline Pankhurst and Susan B. Anthony fought for and won that right. Popular thinking put the Nazis into power in Germany, yet Hitler’s regime murdered millions and nearly destroyed Europe. We must always remember there is a huge difference between acceptance and intelligence. People may say that there’s safety in numbers, but that’s not always true. Sometimes it’s painfully obvious that popular thinking isn’t good and right.
Other times it’s less evident. For example, consider the staggering number of people in the United States who have run up large amounts of debt on their credit cards. Anyone who is financially astute will tell you that’s a bad idea. Yet millions follow right along with the popular thinking of buy now, pay later. And so they pay, and pay, and pay. Many promises of popular thinking ring hollow. Don’t let them fool you.
3. Popular Thinking Is Slow to Embrace Change
Popular thinking loves the status quo. It puts its confidence in the idea of the moment, and holds on to it with all its might. As a result, it resists change and dampens innovation. Donald M. Nelson, former president of the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers, criticized popular thinking when he asserted, “We must discard the idea that past routine, past ways of doing things, are probably the best ways. On the contrary, we must assume that there is probably a better way to do almost everything. We must stop assuming that a thing which has never been done before probably cannot be done at all.”
4. Popular Thinking Brings Only Average Results
The bottom line? Popular thinking brings mediocre results. Here is popular thinking in a nutshell: Popular = Normal = Average It’s the least of the best and the best of the least. We limit our success when we adopt popular thinking. It represents putting in the least energy to just get by. You must reject common thinking if you want to accomplish uncommon results.
HOW TO QUESTION THE ACCEPTANCE OF POPULAR THINKING
Popular thinking has often proved to be wrong and limiting. Questioning it isn’t necessarily hard, once you cultivate the habit of doing so. The difficulty is in getting started. Begin by doing the following things:
1. Think Before You Follow
Many individuals follow others almost automatically. Sometimes they do so because they desire to take the path of least resistance. Other times they fear rejection. Or they believe there’s wisdom in doing what everyone else does. But if you want to succeed, you need to think about what’s best, not what’s popular. Challenging popular thinking requires a willingness to be unpopular and go outside of the norm.
Following the tragedy of September 11, 2001, for example, few people willingly chose to travel by plane. But that was the best time to travel: crowds were down, security was up, and airlines were cutting prices. About a month after the tragedy, my wife, Margaret, and I heard that Broadway shows had lots of seats and many New York hotel rooms remained empty. Popular thinking said, stay away from New York.
We used that as an opportunity. We got cheap plane tickets to the city, booked a room in a great hotel for about half price, and got tickets to the most sought-after show: The Producers. As we took our seats in the theater, we sat next to a woman beside herself with excitement.
“I can’t believe I’m finally here,” she said to us. “I’ve waited so long. This is the best show on Broadway —and the hardest to get tickets to.” Then she turned to look me in the eye and said, “I’ve had my tickets for a year and a half, waiting to see this show. How long ago did you get yours?” “You won’t like my answer,” I replied. “Oh, come on,” she said. “How long?” “I got mine five days ago,”
I answered. She looked at us in horror. By the way, she was right. It’s one of the best shows we’ve seen in a while. And we got to see it only because we were willing to go against popular thinking when everyone else was staying at home. As you begin to think against the grain of popular thinking, remind yourself that
- Unpopular thinking, even when resulting in success, is largely underrated, unrecognized, and misunderstood.
- Unpopular thinking contains the seeds of vision and opportunity.
- Unpopular thinking is required for all progress.
The next time you feel ready to conform to popular thinking on an issue, stop and think. You may not want to create change for its own sake, but you certainly don’t want to blindly follow just because you haven’t thought about what’s best.
2. Appreciate Thinking Different from Your Own
One of the ways to embrace innovation and change is to learn to appreciate how others think. To do that, you must continually expose yourself to people different from yourself. My brother, Larry Maxwell—a good businessman and an innovative thinker—continually challenges popular thinking by thinking differently. He says: Most of our people in sales and middle management come from businesses with products and services different from ours.
That constantly exposes us to new ways of thinking. We also discourage our people from active participation in formal business and trade associations and fraternities because their thinking is quite common. They don’t need to spend lots of time thinking the way everyone else in the industry does.
As you strive to challenge popular thinking, spend time with people with different backgrounds, education levels, professional experiences, personal interests, etc. You will think like the people with whom you spend the most time. If you spend time with people who think out of the box, you’re more likely to challenge popular thinking and break new ground.
3. Continually Question Your Own Thinking
Let’s face it, any time we find a way of thinking that works, one of our greatest temptations is to go back toit repeatedly, even if it no longer works well. The greatest enemy to to-morrow’s success is sometimes today’s success. My friend Andy Stanley recently taught a leadership lesson at INJOY’s Catalyst Conference called “Challenging the Process.” He described how progress must be preceded by change, and he pointed out many of the dynamics involved in questioning popular thinking. In an organization, he said, we should remember that every tradition was originally a good idea—and perhaps even revolutionary. But every tradition may not be a good idea for the future. In your organization, if you were involved in putting into place what currently exists, then it’s likely that you will resist change—even change for the better. That’s why it’s important to challenge your own thinking. If you’re too attached to your own thinking and how everything is done now, then nothing will change for the better.
4. Try New Things in New Ways
When was the last time you did something for the first time? Do you avoid taking risks or trying new things? One of the best ways to get out of the rut of your own thinking is to innovate. You can do that in little, everyday ways: drive to work a different way from normal. Order an unfamiliar dish at your favorite restaurant. Ask a different colleague to help you with a familiar project. Take yourself off of autopilot. Unpopular thinking asks questions and seeks options. In 1997, my three companies moved to Atlanta, Georgia. It’s a great city, but traffic at peak times can get crazy. Immediately after moving here, I began looking for and testing alternative routes to desired destinations so that I would not be caught in traffic. From my house to the airport, for example, I have discovered and used nine routes within eight miles and twelve minutes from one another. Often I am amazed to see people sitting on the freeway when they could be moving forward on an alternative route. What is the problem? Too many people have not tried new things in new ways. It is true: most people are more satisfied with old problems than committed to finding new solutions. How you go about doing new things in new ways is not as important as making sure you do it. (Besides, if you try to do new things in the same way that everyone else does, are you really going against popular thinking? ) Get out there and do something different today.
5. Get Used to Being Uncomfortable
When it comes right down to it, popular thinking is comfortable. It’s like an old recliner adjusted to all the owner’s idiosyncrasies. The problem with most old recliners is that no one has looked at them lately. If so, they’d agree that it’s time to get a new one! If you want to reject popular thinking in order to embrace achievement, you’ll have to get used to being uncomfortable. If you embrace unpopular thinking and make decisions based upon what works best and what is right rather than what is commonly accepted, know this: in your early years you won’t be as wrong as people think you are.
In your later years, you won’t be as right as people think you are. And all through the years, you will be better than you thought you could be.
Am I consciously rejecting the limitations of common thinking in order to accomplish uncommon results?