Do you find new ideas playful or painful?

Today is September 15 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “do you find new ideas playful or painful?” People who navigate the chaos play with new ideas. By challenging their assumptions, rethinking old problems, and considering a diverse set of viewpoints, those who translate their dreams into reality know the benefit of playing with a new idea. Unfortunately, even with an overwhelming degree of evidence, many people find new ideas too painful to process. Changing one’s mind is perhaps the single most difficult thing for a person to do and often becomes the greatest barrier between living a playful life and struggling through a painful existence.

American journalist, satirist, and cultural critic H. L. Mencken knew this all too well and wrote “The human race is divided into two sharply differentiated classes – a small minority that plays with ideas and is capable of taking them in and a vast majority that finds them painful and is thus arrayed against them and against all who have traffic with them.” What happens when people find new ideas too painful to consider? Well, for one thing, they often ridicule, reject, or silence those who suggest a new way of thinking.

One example of this comes from Voltaire who wrote The Dictionnaire philosophique (Philosophical Dictionary) an encyclopedic dictionary published in 1764. The alphabetically arranged articles often criticize the Roman Catholic Church and other institutions. The first edition was 344 pages and consisted of 73 articles. In the “Men of Letters” article Voltaire noted “The men of letters who have rendered the greatest services to the small number of thinking beings spread over the world, are the isolated writers, the true scholars shut in their studies, who have neither argued on the benches of the universities, nor told half-truths in the academies; and almost all of them have been persecuted. Our wretched species is so made that those who walk on the well-trodden path always throw stones at those who are showing a new road.” Do you throw stones at those who are showing a new road? How open are you to considering a new viewpoint? If you find yourself in pain and unable to process a new idea, why do you think that is?

Researchers Kevin J. Boudreau, Eva Guinan, Karim R. Lakhani, and Christoph Riedl recruited 142 world-class researchers from a leading medical school and randomly assigned them to evaluate several proposals. Sometimes, faculty were experts in the subject of the submissions they read. Often, they were experts in other fields. But in all cases, the experiment was triple-blind: Evaluators did not know submitters, submitters did not know evaluators, and evaluators did not talk to each other. The researchers found that new ideas—those that remixed information in surprising ways—got worse scores from everyone, but they were particularly punished by experts. According to one of the researchers "Everyone dislikes novelty but experts tend to be over-critical of proposals in their own domain." As Derek Thompson wrote in his October 2014 article "Why Experts Reject Creativity" in The Atlantic “Knowledge doesn’t just turn us into critical thinkers. It maybe turns us into over-critical thinkers. In the real world, everybody has encountered a variety of this: A real or self-proclaimed expert who's impatient with new ideas, because they challenge his ego, piercing the armor of his expertise.”

Thompson went on to highlight two other studies that explained why people found new ideas painful. The first study took place in 1999 and found that teachers who claim to enjoy creative children do not actually enjoy any of the characteristics associated with creativity, such as non-conformity. The other study occurred in 2010 and showed how ordinary people often dismiss new ideas, because their uncertainty makes people think, and thinking too hard makes people feel uncomfortable. According to one of the researchers "People often reject creative ideas even when espousing creativity as a desired goal.” Thus, people are subtly prejudiced against novelty, even when they claim to be open to new ways of thinking.

The launch of Apple’s iPhone in 2007 illustrates just how painful new ideas are to experts, creative types, and industry leaders. Steve Ballmer, then-CEO of Microsoft, emphatically predicted that Apple's new phone would fail. "There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.” Additionally, Jim Balsillie, CEO of RIM that made the Blackberry, said the iPhone would never represent "a sort of sea-change for BlackBerry." Cellphone experts writing in Bloomberg, PC Magazine, and Marketwatch all said it would flop. Within a few years of the iPhone’s launch, Blackberry’s market share plummeted to near zero and remains there today.

As you navigate the chaos of today, spend some time reflecting upon how you approach new ideas. Can you play with them or do you find them so painful to even consider that you reject them outright without any thought or consideration? And if you do experience pain while hearing about a new idea, do you have the self-awareness to understand why you are reacting in the manner in which you do?