“There’s this comfortable way of thinking that we’re programmed by evolution to enjoy, which is thinking in patterns. That makes life so much easier and so much more approachable, when we rely on lessons we’ve learned in the past, when we observe other people and we do the things that they’re doing, when we create predictability. It all just makes life easy to process. It’s pretty good when the world stays still. The problem is, what feels safe is actually really dangerous if the world is changing around us.”
And that’s what prompted Jonah Sachs, storyteller, author and entrepreneur, to write Unsafe Thinking: How to be Creative and Bold When You Need It Most. In this episode Jonah reveals how he went about researching the book by interviewing high-profile unsafe thinkers (“I realised if I wanted to get them to talk to me I’d have to say I was writing a book…”) and explains how he uses stories to translate facts and findings into a narrative that readers will connect with, and therefore understand and remember more easily.
There’s some profound wisdom and practical tips for would-be business book writers, and some thoughts on what writing means for a 21st-century business owner.
This is pure gold. Put the kettle on and listen up.
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Alison Jones: Hello and welcome to Extraordinary Business Book Club. I’m delighted to be here today with Jonah Sachs, who is an author, speaker, and viral marketing trailblazer. His pioneering approaches to digital media helped bring the ideals of social change such as equity, responsibility, transparency, advocacy to the forefront of business and popular culture where they belong. He’s the author of Winning the Story Wars and most recently, Unsafe Thinking: How to Be Creative and Bold When You Need it Most from Penguin Random House. Welcome to the club, Jonah.
Jonah Sachs: Thanks so much for having me, Alison. It’s great to be here.
Alison Jones: It’s really good to have you here. I love that title, Unsafe Thinking. That… obviously kind of by definition, unsafe thinking is dangerous. It’s unsafe, but what I love is that you make the point about how safe thinking is actually more dangerous than we realise, which I like. Tell us a little bit about why you wrote the book and what you wanted to achieve with it.
Jonah Sachs: Yeah. I have this idea that in my own life and in the lives of people I observed that there’s this comfortable way of thinking that we’re kind of programmed by evolution to enjoy, which is thinking in patterns. That makes life so much easier and so much more approachable when we rely on lessons we’ve learned in the past, when we observe other people and we do the things that they’re doing, when we create predictability. It all just makes life easy to process. It’s pretty good when the world stays really still. The problem is, what feels safe is actually really dangerous if the world is changing around us. We know we need to react. We know we need to do things differently, but there’s some part of our brain that’s always like, “Well, let’s just do it the same way now. We’ll do it differently next time.” That’s really, really common.
I ran a creative agency for 17 years and I could tell that what we were doing was becoming obsolete at times, but when you go into work every single day and you’ve got to finish those projects and meet those numbers and keep those employees happy and all that stuff, you always want to push back, breaking those habits and patterns to the last moment until you absolutely have to, and then it can be too late. I kind of liken it to being a raft on a river and you can see that waterfall is ahead and you’re going to go over it and you know you’re going to die if you go over the waterfall, but you also see that there’s some piranhas in the river. When are you going to jump out of the boat and swim to shore? Eventually, you have to, but it’s better not to do it right at this moment. So how do you change your brain and your habits to break out of those safe thinking cycles when you most need, is a question I ask.
Alison Jones: Yeah. Brilliant. What I love about that is it works on so many levels because at the individual level, you’ve got that programming. Do what the herd’s doing. Stay safe, stay invisible. Just do what we know works just from generations. Then also from the organisational perspective as well. Nobody ever get fired for saying no to a risk.
Jonah Sachs: Exactly.
Alison Jones: Our organisations are kind of programmed to stop us taking risks on their behalf. Yeah. Really interesting. I did very, very much enjoy the book by the way. I can recommend it.
Jonah Sachs: Thank you.
Alison Jones: What I also loved, you drawn in your own experience. You’ve done this stuff. You’ve walked this talk, but you have also talked to a lot of other unsafe thinkers in the process of writing the book. I really want to interrogate that. How did you make that process work? Did you kind of start from no assumptions and see what came out or did you have a thesis that you went in and they confirmed it? How did it go?
Jonah Sachs: Yeah. I started with this really clear question and it came out of my own experience, which like I said, I was running this agency. A few years back, I wrote a book … Five years ago, I wrote a book called Winning the Story Wars. It was really an exploration about how to use storytelling to create social change and to do advertising. When I first started writing that book, I was this kind of … I didn’t really know what I was doing. It was my first book and I was doing a lot of stuff on feel and intuition. Now I was being asked to explain why some things I had done were successful. I became this explorer in this really interesting landscape of storytelling, which I was both becoming an expert in, but also learning as I went.
I love that period of growth and learning and my company was really kind of fun and kind of crazy at the time as we were growing. Once I wrote that book, I became that expert. I wound up on all these stages being introduced as an expert on storytelling. I found that I was much less curious than I had been and I was much more into having answers rather than having questions. I was going back to my agency after selling work based on these ideas creating more and more rules to make a growing business more predictable. I suddenly felt like we were really losing what made it all special and we were losing that creative edge in favour of growth and predictability.
I had a really urgent question myself to ask. How do you break out when you know you need to, but everything in your life is dependent on staying the same? It was really ripping me up inside. It was really hard. I needed to get answers. I knew I couldn’t just read the science on it, although I knew there was a lot of science. It’s very hard to just go and look at a bunch of psychological studies and then apply them to yourself. I knew I needed to talk to people who had done this kind of stuff, who had bounced back from failure, who have looked in the face of people telling them they couldn’t do it and done it, people who had made those hard choices and sacrifices.
That process of doing that was actually awesome. I loved it because I would just use the miracle that is modern technology, LinkedIn, and find people that I thought were fascinating. I’d read about them in business magazines, read about them wherever I could in popular culture, talk to my friends, talk to people I knew. Then, you can just sort of find anyone these days. I just started sending people notes, many of them I did not know at all. I realised if I wanted to get them to talk to me I’d have to say I was writing a book because just getting them to talk to me wasn’t going to work. That’s where I was like, “I better write a book.”
Alison Jones: Right. It’s like a magic passkey, isn’t it?
Jonah Sachs: It is.
Alison Jones: “I’m writing a book.” “Oh, okay. I’ll talk to you.”
Jonah Sachs: I know. In a world where it’s a miracle that books even still exist, they still have this interesting cachet where people are like, “Wow, what book? I could be in a book. That’s great.” Even people, Nobel Prize winners, CEOs of major corporations, some of the top research scientists in the world, they all … I wouldn’t say all. Many people ignored me, but many of them were excited and many of them want to be classified… they like the idea of being an unsafe thinker and they were somewhat flattered by the fact that someone out there was desperate for their advice. I heard back from a tonne of them and I think having really thoughtful questions, not just the usual things that they get asked by the press, but “What’s going on inside of you? What are the emotions that you’re feeling trying to be creative? What’s the personal experience and how did you change yourself?” Those are questions that few people ever get asked. I think they were kind of excited to have those conversations.
I thought that was great. As someone who is interested and known for storytelling to some degree, I couldn’t just go out and report the science. I needed to have these compelling stories. I spent a lot of time not just asking people how’d you do what you do, but getting into the grit and the detail of their actual stories. So I made a lot of new friends in the process and would just say to anybody who’s going down this path that, don’t be shy about reaching out. I’m not a kind of person who just runs up to people at cocktail parties that I want to speak to all the time, but I found that just getting more and more confidence reaching out really paid off.
Alison Jones: I love that you’re the kind of person that goes to cocktail parties. That’s pretty cool.
Jonah Sachs: I like cocktails.
Alison Jones: Did they get the unsafe thinker thing? You said they were flattered to be called that. When you talked about the thesis, did they go, “Yes.”? Did they recognise that term?
Jonah Sachs: Yes. Definitely. There’s been a lot … I’ve had an interesting experience with this branding of this book. There have been a lot of people who immediately say they get it, they recognise it as the opposite of safe thinking and they say, “I need that,” or especially, “My boss needs that,” or, “My company needs that.” I found that it’s really resonant in that way.
In the case with any person that you interview, it’s always an interesting line where I think these people who are somewhat iconoclastic, who are risk takers, they like this idea of unsafe thinking. Almost everybody has a certain forced humility where if you over-flatter them by saying, “You’re the greatest unsafe thinker I’ve ever seen,” they’re immediately going to tell you that they’re not. I think that people wanted to embrace that they saw it as a desirable trait, but wanted to caution me that they had to work hard to get where they were and it just didn’t come naturally to them.
That was one of the big lessons for me actually in writing this book, was that people who I really admired and I thought, “They never have to deal with all the stuff that I’m dealing because they just naturally don’t care what other people think and they don’t mind risk.” Almost without fail, people told me that unsafe thinking, as we were talking about it, was difficult for them, that this whole idea of the crazy ones from the old Apple ad that just break rules and don’t care, is kind of a myth and that even the biggest rebels in the world … I talk about Gandhi in the book. He was a lawyer who couldn’t even utter a word in court because he was so shy and embarrassed. It took him retraining himself to be the greatest social change activist in history.
I think that was really heartening to me is that we all deal with these kind of fears, anxieties. Nobody thinks unsafely in a natural way, but we can all learn how to do it was the most exciting thing to me.
Alison Jones: That is very cool. I didn’t know that about Gandhi. You’re right. It’s very inspiring. Now, as an example actually, you are an expert obviously in crafting stories. That’s what you do and you craft stories that change how people think and how they behave and obviously you focus particularly on social and environment issues. What’s going through your head? How do you go about telling a story that’s going to help people see things differently and change how they are in the world?
Jonah Sachs: I always start … I tell stories in a pretty structured way, which is I start by thinking about: What is the lesson I want to teach? What is it that I really want to get across? What evidence is there for that belief? If the belief that I would like to get across, for instance, is that everybody struggles with anxiety although anxiety can be fuel for creativity – that’s something that I’ve learned – I’ll start by saying, “Well, how do I know this to be true?” And try to find the evidence that I can, the psychological science or whatever. If I’m talking about climate change, the actual physical sciences.
Then also, how have I experienced this in my own life or who do I know who has experienced this? And getting down into the human scale retelling of a situation that illustrates that point or a person’s emotional journey that is indicative of it because I know from all the work that I’ve done, from all this communicating facts on behalf of social campaigns, that if you can’t put a face and a name and a feeling to a set of facts, people can always refute your facts. But if you can say, “This is what it looks and feels like in someone’s life.” …
Alison Jones: Yes. It’s people that we get emotional about, isn’t it? Not facts. You have to have that human face on them.
Jonah Sachs: Absolutely. I mean this is why tribes have always been held together by myths and stories. If you just say, “Don’t go more than a mile away from the village,” it raises a lot of questions, right? But if you tell stories from the time someone’s two years old about what happens to the children who go out into the witch’s cottage a mile beyond the village, you’re going to be implanting that belief and that idea without any facts really, because there’s no witches out there, but you’re going to be implanting that idea in someone’s mind because they identify with the child who got eaten.
That is part of the core human DNA. My belief now is get the facts and data and telling stories doesn’t mean lying at all. Get the facts and data, but illustrate the facts and data with something that people can understand, connect to, remember. If you can’t do that, you’re going to have an awfully boring book. That’s my jig on storytelling.
Alison Jones: Yeah. I totally get that. I think you’re right that the emotion creates the memory as well. There’s something about it that it stops it. There’s a bit of friction in the brain, isn’t there? When you said you create that emotion, it sticks. People can remember stories where they can’t remember … I do a little thing at the beginning of workshops where I get people to sort of introduce themselves and they do it in a really corporate way you know, “This is my job title. This is what I do.” Then you ask somebody, “Can you remember anything about this person?” They’re like, “No.” It’s frictionless. But you get them to tell a story about themselves and that’s it. It’s in. It’s really dramatic. It’s an example of how it works.
Jonah Sachs: Yeah. I mean for instance, if I tell you 75% of people believe this, this and this, and the truth is that 94% of scientists actually confirm that this … and I’m just overwhelming you with facts. Not only is that hard to remember, but also you might look at me being well, where are you getting this from? I bet I can go out and find some counter facts to that. Do I really want to change my beliefs based on this overwhelming smart-guy thing you just did to me? Nobody watches Star Wars, for instance, and is like, “That’s not true. No, come on. The power is really not inside of me.” You don’t make that logical kind of idea. “Well, there is no force.” The metaphor leaps to life and everyone leaves that movie like, “I think what I need really is inside of me. There is this force that holds the universe together.” Even if it’s not literal, it changes our beliefs without us having any resistance in a way.
Stories aren’t magic, but they certainly work on a level that is incredibly powerful and gains attention, but also memory and belief. It is a lot more fun, to be honest, to go out and read these stories. The last thing I’ll say is that people forget in persuasive or corporate or non-fiction storytelling, it’s easy to forget that great movies, great stories, great books do not telegraph the ending from the first pages. You would never read a novel where you know exactly what’s going to happen unless you know what’s going to happen in the end but you don’t know how it gets there. It’s unbelievable, interesting twists. Brands and writers sometimes have trouble taking those unexpected turns and misguiding the audiences for a little while. I find so much pleasure in doing that, in making someone wonder, “Why the hell is this guy telling this story? Where’s it going? Oh, that makes sense.” Then five pages later, it makes even more sense. I try to do that. It’s not the easiest thing to do for me, but I think that misdirecting, confusing, and then bringing it all together makes the writing more fun.
Alison Jones: That’s a really interesting point. I don’t think anybody’s ever made that point on this show before. I really like that. I’m going to go ahead and think about that, see if I can misdirect people… Let’s talk about writing more generally because you do a lot of it and you write articles and blogs and books and so on. How do you think writing fits with the whole 21st-century online-based business thing? Also, for you, not just professionally, but personally, what does writing mean to you?
Jonah Sachs: I think that writing … I think I heard somewhere that in 1992 or something like that, the average American would get out of high school and write about 50,000 words in the rest of their lives. Don’t quote me on the exact number, but it was something unbelievably small. Now we write 50,000 words a month because we’re on email, we’re writing texts, we’re producing written words at an incredible rate. Actually, I can’t even imagine how historians will look back so differently on the last 20 years than they did anytime before, seeing the quantity of writing that we’re creating. That’s been amazing, but in some ways, it’s taken away from the specialness of writing or from the, we might call it the sacredness of writing, which is: if I’m going to put something on paper or put something on the internet, am I going to … Is that going to be the tip of the iceberg of a huge amount of forethought and careful consideration of what I want to say? It’s not the same as having a conversation.
For me, there’s a mindfulness to writing that I don’t get elsewhere in my life, which is I try to see it as a more thoughtful communication in which I am bringing the best of my thinking in a way, I like to think of it, especially why I like to write books, in a way that might be around for a very long time in a way that conversation or even an email will disappear. I love the permanence of writing. I’m also seeing how people are preferring video, yes, but also just the written word to face to face or phone or other kind of communications. We’ve just gotten very good at scanning and finding those nuggets and sharing text. We’re incredibly literate in a lot of ways now as a society. Businesses that take the time to create meaningful text get all kinds of opportunities to grow virally in their message in a way that they don’t have just by sort of passing that opportunity up.
I think it’s kind of a key to business for everybody now is to create some kind of thought leadership, to be thoughtful, to share things that people find useful. That’s really key too with writing. These days, you can produce stuff that nobody is in any way compelled to read or will ever find if it doesn’t serve some real purpose. As writers now, I think we have to both express ourselves but really be clear what need we’re meeting in an audience and it becomes a much deeper relationship I think that we might have had in the past. Yeah. It’s one of my favourite things. I love stories and I love telling them and I love the thoughtful and permanence that writing can sometimes create.
Alison Jones: Do you differentiate between the writing that you do almost privately, the things that you do just to explore what it is you really think about something or rehearsing something, and the writing that you do for public consumption? Or is it all just segued, one is just the other and your private thinking becomes your public blogs and so on?
Jonah Sachs: Yeah. I have maybe a bad habit, which is that as someone who came up since the time I was 23 years old as a marketer, as someone in the persuasion business, it’s hard for me to create without thinking of an audience, without thinking of someone that I’m trying to create it for. I actually really struggle with that, to do work that doesn’t get any validation or is only for myself. Sometimes I do lose steam when I don’t have an audience. That’s something I’ve been working on. There’s a number of projects that I would like to do, that I have fleshed out, and then I stopped because I say, “Well, I don’t know if there’s a market for this. I don’t know if I can do it.” There’s a voice in my head that says, “You’ll never know if you can do it until you try,” but it always gets to the back burner. Yeah. I think-
Alison Jones: We’re back to unsafe thinking again, aren’t we? Here we go.
Jonah Sachs: There you go. That’s my unsafe edge, is to write some stuff that’s really off the track that I’ve been on. Yeah. I do always create … I think it’s both an advantage and a disadvantage to always have that sense of empathy and connection with an imagined audience or a real audience. That tends to be my way of thinking as opposed to the end product. Yeah. I do a little bit of stuff for myself. I write a birthday letter to my children every year that isn’t even for them to read until they’re adults and spend a lot of time on that. I sketch out a lot of stories, fiction stories that I never write. Right now, my daughter and I are writing a book together that is just a lot of fun, but a very long ongoing experiment.
Alison Jones: Oh, that sounds brilliant. I love the idea of the birthday letters as well. That’s beautiful.
Jonah Sachs: Thanks.
Alison Jones: A lot of the people who are listening to the show will be first time business book authors. They’ll be mired in the ‘saggy middle’. What’s your one best tip for somebody listening whose sort of beating their head gently against the desk because they just can’t get their book finished?
Jonah Sachs: Well, let me talk about maybe first the start of a book and then I can think of an answer for the end of a book. There is this great Einstein quote where he said if he had an hour to solve a problem, he would spend the first 55 minutes trying to ask the right question before trying to find the… spend the last five minutes trying to find the right solution. That really applies, I think, for me with books. Books take years to write and if you don’t love the question that you’re pursuing with the book, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, what is that thing that I’m trying to get answered for myself about how the world works? If you’re not really passionate about it, it is just a slog, period. I find that just being in love with the question before you set out to write is really the thing. If you can find the answer … In finding the answers, if you’ve made yourself a better person, you have a chance to make your readers a better person and that’s the key for me in choosing a book to write.
In terms of getting a book done, I learned something interesting in writing Unsafe Thinking about motivation, which was a very well-studied theory called flow theory, which is about how do people get in that zone of intrinsic motivation and focus and high productivity? In a lot of ways, it’s not just about being passionate about your project, but it’s about having that right mix of skill to challenge. I think we get into this slog phase of these projects because we don’t always have this balance of skill and challenge. Things either get a little too easy for our skills and we get bored or they’re just beyond our skills and they get difficult and we slow down because we get so much anxiety about them.
I find, for me, that when I’m feeling that loss of energy, I try to check in and say, “Am I being sufficiently challenged by this? If not, how do I add some more of the creative part to the slog part so that even I’m just working through the grunt work for four hours a day? I know I need two hours a day that it’s going to really challenge me.” If I’m in this part where I just don’t know what to do because I don’t have the skills, I often reach out for collaborators and bring people in and bring people into my process. I can never finish anything on my own.
If you’re stuck, flow theory is really interesting to look at. Are my skills matching my challenge on a day to day basis? Can I adjust them in some ways to get me over that hump? Yeah.
Alison Jones: That’s awesome practical advice. Thank you. Brilliant. Now I also wanted to ask you, could you recommend to us a business book? You’re not allowed to recommend your own. Sorry, it doesn’t work like that. What one business book would you suggest that anybody listening to this show should read and would benefit from?
Jonah Sachs: Yeah. A book that comes to mind for me, and when I read books to make me better at business, I often don’t just directly read a book that’s on the business shelf, but a book I read recently called The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. It’s called Why Good People Disagree on Religion and Politics. It really is a breakdown of understanding why people think so differently than each other and why people of good intention and high intelligence might be on completely opposite ends of the political spectrum. It really breaks down what motivates people and where value systems come from.
I find reading books like that, serious non-fiction, but really well-written books like that, just add this huge arsenal for me to … It just adds these tools in my arsenal to understand people better, to understand the people I’m trying to connect with better, and to get out of my own head. When I want to get better at business, I often will go out and read these books that just sort of make me a better person and more curious in the world. That one’s a really great one.
Alison Jones: This is important to remember, that business people are still people.
Jonah Sachs: Exactly, exactly.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. Now that’s wonderful, Jonah. Thank you so much. If people want to find out more about you and Unsafe Thinking, where should they go?
Jonah Sachs: JonahSachs.com is one place, or UnsafeThinking.com is another, or they can follow me on Twitter @JonahSachs.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. I’ll put all those links up on the show notes at ExtraordinaryBusinessBooks.com along with the transcript of the interview as well. Just one last note because I think this is interesting: In the UK, the book is called Unsafe Thinking: How To Be Creative and Bold When You Need it Most. But it’s not called that in the US, is it? What’s the title in the US?
Jonah Sachs: It’s called How to be Nimble and Bold When You Need It Most.
Alison Jones: Just give us a little bit of an insight into the editorial meeting that took place there. What was going on there?
Jonah Sachs: Yeah. It started out … My first publisher is my US publisher. We sat down and talked about the subtitle and there’s no avoiding that it’s a creativity book. It’s a creativity and business book, but we’re sat in a room with very smart people who said there are way too many books on creativity. We don’t want to get into that category and running a business book is a branding exercise in itself, so let’s make sure this brand doesn’t put in the conversation that people roll their eyes and say, “I’ve seen that already.”
Apparently, the word that would work … After a long brainstorm, I think nimble came out of my mind, but was chosen by a number of experts in the field, was How to be Nimble and Bold When You Need It Most, kind of gave this idea of flexibility and energy, but not having to have this creativity discussion even though the book jumps into it. I had to be very mindful because of those conversations about how often I use that word creativity in the book. Then when Random House Penguin bought it, they said, “Oh, everyone’s talked about being nimble. That’s really a dead conversation. People really buy books about creativity here.” At that point, I was like, “All right. You guys know what’s going on there.” It is a creativity book anyway, so we’ll see. The cover is black in the US and white in England and UK and that was another thing where apparently smart business books in the UK are all white, I’ve been told and in the US, we interrupt expectations and do something that’s going to jump off the shelf.
Alison Jones: Seriously…
Jonah Sachs: I have had wonderful creative control over the book itself, so I’ve been flexible. I’ve been nimble and bold, which is the advice on the cover.
Alison Jones: What’s interesting is there are real differences in the UK and the US markets and certainly the aesthetic and what would appeal to people, but there’s also… the principle at work here, I think primarily, is that if you have five people in an editorial meeting, you will get six opinions. I’m sure that’s what it is.
Jonah Sachs: That’s true. That is definitely true. I mean it’s interesting to write a book. My book’s going to be published in the UK, US, Russia, China, Taiwan, and Romania so far. The interesting thing about publishing a book, especially like this, overseas is that it does really expose my own American biases towards individualism and iconoclastic behaviour, where some of the assumptions that I have about what people want and what people are interested in, breaking from the pack and innovation and doing things differently than they did yesterday, read very differently in other cultures. It’s been an interesting process talking to folks overseas about how in these translations, the ideas will be the same, but not exactly and the starting points will be the same, but not exactly. Like for instance, for a Chinese audience. I’m just interested to learn how this gets interpreted, not just in the subtitle, but in its very content and really kind of fascinated to watch.
Alison Jones: That is fascinating. There’s another whole podcast right there, isn’t that? That’s brilliant. Thank you so much for your time today. It’s been absolutely fascinating. Thank you.
Jonah Sachs: It’s been great to be on. Thanks, Alison.