A Talk with Jonah Sachs, Author of Unsafe Thinking

Why do you think people would want to think or act in ways that are “unsafe”?

In short, because “safe thinking” is comfortable but ultimately ineffective in a world changing as fast as ours.

As we gain experience and success in life, we tend to draw lessons and form patterns. When we think and behave in ways that have worked for us before, we feel comforted at both a conscious and neurological level. But we now operate in environments that don’t stand still. All of us perceive that we need to adjust to meet a changing world, but rarely do we want to change our core patterns of thinking and acting. That’s hard work and leaving the beaten path is threatening. In this book, I tried to make it a lot less threatening, even enjoyable, by offering readers a number of evidence-based ways to expand their creative abilities by stepping out of their comfort zones.


You write that many of the characteristics we usually associate with creative leaders are outdated or just plain wrong. Can you give some examples?

My research definitely upended many of my core assumptions about what’s going on inside the radically creative people I admire. I’ve discovered that the most courageous leaders aren’t above feeling fear and anxiety, they allow themselves to feel it and are, in fact, fueled by their fears. The most valuable thinkers aren’t infallible experts, they are eager explorers, willing to admit when they’ve been wrong and to update and revise their thinking as new evidence emerges. Visionary creatives don’t draw their inspiration magically from unquestioned gut feel. They learn to rely on but also to test and hone their intuition, using their analytical minds to make their intuitive senses sharper. Those who fight most effectively to change the world for the better don’t judge and shun those who oppose them but allow their foes into their circles of influence and learn to benefit from the uncomfortable perspectives they offer. And the most valuable contributors to a team are not necessarily those who generate the answers and influence others to follow. They are often the ones that draw out the ideas from the edges and that create an environment safe enough for the genius of a group to emerge. All of these ideas run counter to much of what I’d been taught about leadership. In an effort to look ultra-competent many of us are running in the exact wrong direction.


What’s the first step you recommend taking for someone who wants to try to be more nimble and bold?

Our brains have been endowed with an amazing array of skills and cognitive tools. But over time, we each come to identify with, and overly on, only a few of them. If you’re very comfortable with analysis, the first step to becoming a more flexible thinker is to try to understand and tap into your intuition. If you tend to be extremely morally certain, the first step may be to do things that stretch your moral boundaries, or interact with people that might normally outrage you. If you tend to quickly generate and fall in love with solutions to problems, your first step might be to resist your intuition long enough to generate counterintuitive breakthroughs. So stepping into the unknown looks different for everyone, but the book addresses first steps for any type of thinker.


What’s your favorite story from the book?

I met so many fascinating characters through my research but if I had to pick one, I might choose Antanas Mockus. I came across Mockus while researching how counterintuitive, and frankly insane-seeming ideas, sometimes create amazing results. Mockus became the mayor of Bogota in the 1990s when the city was considered one of the worst in the world. Crime, pollution, corruption. Mockus felt he had to interrupt the patterns and perceptions of the citizenry to stop the cycles of chaos the city was in.

As the president of Bogota’s largest university, he first rose to prominence by silencing and subduing a crowd on the verge of rioting by mooning them. The crowd was stunned, then they burst out laughing and peacefully dispersed. As mayor, he replaced corrupt traffic cops with mimes that gently embarrassed lawbreaking drivers. He encouraged citizens to engage in symbolic violence (like creating effigies and beating them up) to replace real violence. Murders dropped by 70%, traffic accidents even moreso. He completely transformed the city. What I love about Mockus is that he was a creative iconoclast and a clown, but he was also a scientist. Everything he did was based in sound science and he measured and analyzed the impacts of each of his wacky campaigns. Mockus was equal parts magic and science, like Walt Disney meets Moneyball. I think we all can learn a lot from people like him about taking intelligent risks.


Who needs to read this book?

I wrote Unsafe Thinking for anyone who feels stuck or that they’re having trouble keeping up with the pace of change. So many of the clients I’ve worked with over the past 20 years are extremely smart and successful, yet still they reach a plateau. It doesn’t matter if you’re at the beginning of your journey or the top of your field, reaching that plateau is frustrating and can be demoralizing. People in this spot try to change their tools, their teams, sometimes their careers, but what I’ve found is that the trick is to start by changing yourself. Not the easiest thing to do without a lot of guidance. I’m hoping to provide enough guidance to really get people moving toward breakthroughs.


How did you come to write this book?

When I was 23, I started an advertising agency focused on social change. I started my own business because I didn’t much like rules or structure. But 15 years later, I found myself being forced to create lots of that. We had grown to 40 people. I was billing myself as an expert on storytelling and trying to enforce a set of rules and processes on my team so we could practice what I was preaching. Suddenly, I found the joy and creativity draining out of the company even as it grew. I felt I was on the wrong path but didn’t know how to get off it—kind of like being on a raft heading for a waterfall that will kill you but never quite being courageous enough to jump off it. Because I couldn’t figure out what to do on my own, I began to reach out to people I thought were far more creative than me. What I heard from them about facing change really surprised me. I kept these conversations going and after a few dozen of them, I started to compile the lessons I was learning into a set of ideas I thought many more people would benefit from hearing. And that became this book.


Do you have any quick tips for those who want to try unsafe thinking?

Here are a few:

  • Creativity always puts us into the realm of the unknown and that usually induces some amount of fear. Unchecked, fear drives us to think in safe, stereotypical ways. When you feel that fear arise, remind yourself that it is a sign you’re in the zone of creativity. It’s a good sign, not a sign you should retreat to more familiar territory. This type of reframing has been consistently shown to yield powerful results.  
  • Don’t strive to be an expert. It’s been shown that thinking of yourself as an expert makes you more error prone and slower to learn. It’s better to identify as an explorer—someone always in search of new information, but never having arrived at a fixed position or unshakeable understanding.
  • Pace yourself. When we set out to do something radical, we need a lot of energy and motivation to stick with it. Nothing drains energy and motivation like setting up challenges that are too much of a reach for our skills. Break your goals down into smaller, achievable milestones. Know where your skills end and you need to bring in collaborators. Make plenty of time for skill-building and learning along the way. Too many projects die because the skill/challenge balance is off. We don’t often think to manage it but we should.


Where is unsafe thinking most needed?

I believe individuals can use unsafe thinking to get unstuck on whatever career or creative path they’re on. But there are also larger institutions and global conversations that absolutely need to move beyond thinking in safe, incremental terms. Right now, there’s very little sense of hope around addressing issues like climate change, inequality, political incivility or the anxieties of mechanization. As our anxieties around these issues peaks, so too does our preference for short-term, well-tested, familiar solutions. But these have led us nowhere. We need to expand the scope of our ambitions and learn how to not simply dismiss counter-conventional, counterintuitive approaches but to embrace intelligent risk taking. The time for traditional, incremental solutions has passed for our most pressing problems.


Is our president an example of an unsafe thinker?

I get asked this a lot because in some ways he really looks like one: he breaks rules, he’s plows ahead in the face of scorn or ridicule, he takes risks others wouldn’t be able to stomach and he challenges the status quo. But in many ways he embodies the opposite of the unsafe thinking ideal. Much of my research shows that the most important tools for productively challenging old ways is to become more mindful of our thinking habits and biases, more willing to believe we might be wrong. We need to learn to listen and respect others who think differently than us and gain knowledge from them and often get comfortable with complex solutions over simple, feel good ones. From what I’ve seen, I don’t think Donald Trump spends a lot of time reflecting on how he can improve thinking, expand his influences or tap into the thinking modes that don’t come naturally to him. There’s no denying that he’s come very far with his particular style but ultimately, I don’t think he’s going to be able to create much value as a president because he’s more out of control than unsafe.

Still, I decided not to cover the politics of the moment in this book. I wanted Unsafe Thinking to take a more timeless approach to the topic I was exploring and I think this question will be answered better elsewhere.