A How-To for Heretics
The Art of Insubordination

A How-To for Heretics

Disrupters, dissenters and nonconformists make the world a better place. Here’s help for the rebels – and guidance for everyone else on how to give them a hand.

Humans are hardwired to fear change. They try to avoid it, resist it or pretend it isn’t happening – the classic fight-or-flight response. And the boat-rockers who instigate change – Galileo, Copernicus, the Wright brothers, and their ilk – all could testify to the threats and ridicule that change-makers face as they work to improve the world.

But the world needs change. Thus, the rebels, renegades, outliers and nonconformists – or, as psychologist Todd B. Kashdan calls them, the insubordinates – are essential to kick-start revolutions. The more conformist a group or society, the more vital the role of dissenters. And even when nonconformists get it wrong, their consensus-breaking helps by shaking people out of their mind-sets and stimulating creativity.

We need individuals to break free from the haze of harmony.Todd B. Kashdan

In The Art of Insubordination, Kashdan – a professor at George Mason University – offers a paean to the change-makers who keep society moving forward, and a set of recommendations to make their lives a little easier. Kashdan’s thesis: Insubordinates see solutions that the majority miss, not only in science but also in business, politics and everyday life. But to fulfill their purpose, these activists need to learn how to rebel effectively. And to reap the benefits of their rebellion, society needs to be more receptive to their radical ideas.

The Right Reasons

First, Kashdan urges what he calls principled insubordination: nonconformity for the right reasons, and not just for the sake of rebelling. While reckless rebellion can be harmful, principled insubordination is authentic; it happens when freethinkers genuinely want to improve society – and they carefully consider the ramifications before they do.

To disobey effectively, it helps to know our enemy: the overriding human motivation to fit in, stick to the herd, accept conventional wisdom and go along to get along.Todd B. Kashdan

Principled insubordinates minimize collateral damage, respect opposing ideas and avoid intolerance or hate. They take a courageous step against the mainstream, despite social pressure to conform, and they persevere in the heat of criticism.

Scoring Points

Rejecting the status quo takes uncommon courage, as unconventional thinking goes against the human need for acceptance. To illustrate, Kashdan gives a short lesson in basketball: Statistically, free shots taken with underhand throws succeed much more often than overhand shots. The prolific scorer Rick Barry sank 90% of his free throws by throwing underhand. But today’s NBA players prioritize looking cool and refuse to take so-called “granny shots.” Instead, they forgo points and earnings by throwing overhand, prioritizing style over substance.

Principles for Renegades

Kashdan offers five tips for principled insubordinates:

  1. Become part of the in-group – First, find common ground with the group whose boat you’re about to rock. Establish credibility as a values-sharing member of the group. Only then should you pitch your rebellious ideas.
  2. Don’t use scare tactics – Befriend conformists, and approach them as potential allies. Present your unorthodox views in an innocuous way. Raise people’s curiosity, not their defenses.
  3. Provide evidence to support your ideas – Objective data plays a critical role in overturning outdated beliefs.
  4. Show the price you’re paying for your dissent – You earn credibility when you let people see the personal sacrifice you’re willing to make for your cause.
  5. Be both consistent and flexible – On important points, remain steadfast; on trivial issues, yield ground.

Don’t try to change the world alone; choose allies wisely. Those who agree with your ideas and goals can offer practical assistance and lighten your load when the road gets rough. But seek support from people who hold opposing viewpoints, too; these relationships will push you to be your best self.

Kashdan emphasizes the need for resilience. Rebels and mavericks need mental fortitude and the strength to withstand rejection. Defining your goals and purpose for rebelling gives you courage. Admitting the demands and costs helps you discover methods for dealing with discomfort. To overcome temporary hardship, reconnect with your priorities; label your unpleasant sensations, thoughts and emotions; identify your coping strategies to assess if they help or hinder your cause; and recommit to being a hero, despite the difficulties. Through this process, you’ll realize that the emotional discomfort of persevering stings less than the pain of settling for the status quo.

Friend of the Rebel

Not everyone is a born maverick. For those who benefit from revolutions rather than personally fomenting them, Kashdan suggests ways to support the rebels who instigate change. First, notice your own inner resistance to new ideas: narrow-mindedness, overconfidence and intolerance. To calm your discomfort, practice distancing techniques, like imagining how you’ll feel about the idea a few years in the future. Nurture your curiosity, and practice humility by reminding yourself of your own limitations. Notice your own biases, and train yourself to consider perspectives that differ from your own.

Insubordination is a portal to the adjacent possible. It allows us access to new possibilities that, because of biases, inexperience or a lack of wisdom, we wouldn’t cultivate on our own.Todd B. Kashdan

If you lead a team, foster an atmosphere that encourages critical thinking and independence of thought. Point out the need for innovative ideas to solve problems and improve performance. Once you’ve created a dissent-friendly environment, pay attention to the group’s outliers. Clear the way for insubordination, and when it comes, make your status a little less quo.

Winning can feel unsettling. Former enemies whose ideologies you once opposed are now in the minority. Extending mercy to former oppressors can be difficult. Consider France’s Maximilien Robespierre and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, both of whom became tyrants after winning power, despite their original motivation to reform oppressive systems. During power transfers, new leaders often resent their former oppressors and discredit their contributions. Instead, Kashdan says, seek common ground with former adversaries and relinquish grudges. Stay alert to how your new power diminishes your self-awareness. Welcome skepticism from all sides, show compassion for those who have lost power, and remind them that their opinions still matter.

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