“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” — George Bernard Shaw
Have you ever sat in a meeting with 10 other people and disagreed with all of them?
If so, you’re far from alone.
We’ve all been in situations where everyone else in the room seems to agree on a seemingly-idiotic course of action. What you might not have realized is that voice in your head yelling “are you guys kidding me? This is insane!” might actually be indicative of your ability to succeed.
In his book David & Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell talks about a specific personality trait that has led seemingly unqualified individuals to the pinnacles of success.
Gladwell describes this characteristic as being “disagreeable.” Not in the common sense of the word, but in the sense that they didn’t feel the need to adhere to beliefs and behaviors that were considered normal. Put another way — they didn’t rely on the approval of others before taking action.
By veering left when the crowd turned right, these individuals were able to take the “back door,” so to speak, while everyone else was busy trying to squeeze through the main entrance.
What I found truly fascinating about this was the fact that each individual Gladwell highlighted found themselves in a position that many of us are familiar with: They were unhappy with their current situation but they lack the traditional “qualifications” to do anything else.
Their answer? Screw tradition.
Brian was born in Los Angeles, CA. He was the son of a criminal defense lawyer and, like Gary, school just did not agree with Brian.
“Through seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth grade, I was getting mostly Fs, with an occasional D…I was only passing because my mom wouldn’t let them put me back.”
Later on in high school, Brian discovered a “disagreeable,” yet, extremely effective strategy. He began to challenge all of his grades.
“Literally every time I got my grade in high school, after the report cards came out, I would go back to each teacher and do a one-on-one.
I would argue my D into a C and my C into a B. And almost every time — ninety percent of the time — I got my grade changed. I would just wear them down. I got really good at it. I got confident.
In college, I would study knowing that I was going to have this hour-long meeting afterward with my professor. I learned how to do everything possible to sell my point. It was really good training.”
Side Note: Tim Ferriss talks about a similar “disagreeable” behavior in his book, The Four Hour Workweek. If Tim got a grade he wasn’t happy with, he would schedule a 2 hour meeting with his teacher and then proceed to pepper them with questions.
His goal was to make the session as unpleasant as possible, making his professors think twice about giving him a bad grade in the future.
After college, Brian landed a 3 month internship as a clerk at Warner Brothers Studios.
Shortly after he started, he noticed an open office on his floor. He asked his manager if he could use it and got the go ahead. Brian proceeded to finish his day’s work in an hour and spend the next 7 calling people in the movies industry saying “I’m Brian Grazer. I work at Warner Bros in business affairs and I want to meet you.”
Today, Grazer is renowned film producer and co-founder (along with Ron Howard) of Imagine Entertainment. His films and TV shows have been nominated for 43 Academy Awards and 131 Emmys. His resume includes:
- A Beautiful Mind
- 8 Mile
- American Gangster
- 24 (the show)
- Friday Night Lights (the show)
None of that would have been possible if Brian was “agreeable” to everyone else.
What Does Science Say?
In 2014, psychologists Samuel Hunter & Lily Cushenbery surveyed 200 college students for five major personality traits: neuroticism, openness, extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.
After completing the survey, the students gathered in a room where they wrote down original ideas for a marketing campaign. Next, the students were arranged in groups of three and asked to create a plan based on their ideas.
Hunter & Cushenbery found that, while there wasn’t a relationship between agreeableness and innovative thinking, students rated as “less agreeable” were more likely to have their ideas included in the group projects.
Because “disagreeable” people are willing to argue and fight for their own ideas regardless of what others think.
Is this true in every case?
In a second experiment, Hunter & Cushenbery found that disagreeable people were at a disadvantage when the environment was supportive and collaborative.
For those of us familiar with the task of job searching or starting a business from scratch, we can all agree that those environments are neither supportive nor collaborative.
The bottom line is, if you want something and you are truly passionate about it, don’t be afraid to bend the rules and upset a few people. You might just find yourself leading the pack.
5 thoughts on Why Being “Disagreeable” Might Actually Make You More Successful
Wow Austin, you have the best advice. I look forward to your motivational Mondays.
How many women are considered to be disagreeable? I’m just curious as I never follow social rules. I generally know the rules but I find a lot of them to be silly and counter productive. Example I was kind of baiting my parents when I took advanced calculus as an elective (I was supposed to be finishing up economics at the time). And my parents just wanted me to finish my degree. I literally don’t know anyone who was not majoring in math at the time who would do that. I survived. I was being a bit academically reckless as I was supposed to concentrate more on improving my gpa but everyone has a degree at this point so I thought the class content and subject matter was more important and I liked math a lot more than writing papers.
Erica, this essay is written based on the big 5 personality test – and that is why agreeableness had nothing to do with creativity. Creativity is defined as its own subset, openness to experience. All five traits including agreeableness are on a normal distribution. Men tend to be one standard deviation less agreeable than women. You may just be disagreeable compared to other women, or even disagreeable compared to men. It depends on where you fall on the curve.
I’ve read most of Gladwell’s books, but David and Goliath was by far my favorite. He also has a podcast called Revisionist History and dedicates an entire episode to disagreeableness. It was really the capstone to the chapter in D&G.
I’ve found out recently that the quality isn’t just good for business. It’s good for personal mental health and relationships as well. While that sounds counterintuitive, consider those “peacemakers” who are unwilling to be tough with toxic people in their life. Toxic people cause MAJOR disruptions in the lives of those who are unwilling to be disagreeable and do the tough thing, which is to set boundaries and cut those toxic people out of their lives. That was a lesson I learned the hard way. Just a thought.
Great article. Thanks for posting.
I haven’t had a chance to listen to Revisionist History yet Rachel, but I definitely will now. Thanks for the reco!