Monday, August 26, 2013

Challenge #20: Get In A Fight!

First, a little fictitious artistic difference, to set the tone.

Now let's get down to business:

Alice Stewart was a brilliant, hardworking and enthusiastic doctor working in the 1950s, but in order to gain recognition in the scientific community, she needed to solve a major problem plaguing humanity. Her research led to the discovery that x-rays during pregnancy were to blame for the rising rate of children's deaths from cancer. Except . . . people were really, really, reluctant to believe her.

Margaret Heffernan breaks it down in her TED talk:
Now that finding flew in the face of conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom held that everything was safe up to a point, a threshold. It flew in the face of conventional wisdom, which was huge enthusiasm for the cool new technology of that age, which was the X-ray machine. And it flew in the face of doctors' idea of themselves, which was as people who helped patients, they didn't harm them.
In the face of all that "conventional wisdom," Dr. Stewart found the courage to stick to her guns and to her findings -- and eventually, her research was accepted and the practice of giving pregnant women x-rays ceased. But what about at the beginning? When everyone else said differently, how could she be so sure she was right?

Take it away, Margaret Heffernan:

Here's the key moment (for the purposes of this post, at least):
So, how did she know that she was right? Well, she had a fantastic model for thinking. She worked with a statistician named George Kneale, and George was pretty much everything that Alice wasn't. So, Alice was very outgoing and sociable, and George was a recluse. Alice was very warm, very empathetic with her patients. George frankly preferred numbers to people. But he said this fantastic thing about their working relationship. He said, "My job is to prove Dr. Stewart wrong." He actively sought disconfirmation. Different ways of looking at her models, at her statistics, different ways of crunching the data in order to disprove her. He saw his job as creating conflict around her theories. Because it was only by not being able to prove that she was wrong, that George could give Alice the confidence she needed to know that she was right.  
It's a fantastic model of collaboration -- thinking partners who aren't echo chambers. I wonder how many of us have, or dare to have, such collaborators. Alice and George were very good at conflict. They saw it as thinking. 


When I heard this talk on the TED Radio Hour this Sunday, I got super excited. I mean, think about it: when have you done your very best work? Was it when everything came easily, when you had a supportive and uncritical audience, and the result you arrived at was basically the same thing you imagined at the start? Probably not.

Technically, of course, the critique and revision process isn't really like "getting in a fight." But it can feel that way -- the further from your own ideas and aesthetics this other person falls, the more likely you feel nervous about exposing your work to their criticism. It seems like such a huge risk -- what if they don't like it? What if they think it's stupid?

The truth is, no matter what field you're in, you're going to experience that kind of negative criticism. But there are also people who can challenge your ideas with positive criticism, people who come at things from an entirely different perspective, who will push you to make better work. Those people are your key to unlocking the next level in your practice.

Therefore, this week we challenge you to Get In A Fight. Go find something - whether a piece of work, or a belief you hold, or an idea you have, or a plan you've made -- and then go find someone that will force you to defend it. Maybe you'll discover something new you hadn't considered before. Maybe you'll change your mind entirely, and have to start from scratch, but that new foundation will be ten times stronger than the old one.

As Margaret Heffernan says,
When we dare to see, and we create conflict, we enable ourselves and the people around us to do our very best thinking.
Now that sounds like a plan.

Don't forget this week's Challenge Badge!

I made it using this super nifty pre-scrubbed version and font pack from (just imagine the possibilities!)

We'll be looking for people rocking it this week -- and be sure to let us know what you learned from seeking out conflict in the comments below.

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