Think of pink elephants

Going against the grain at work is a key to success, say ST readers at The Big Read Meet

New member Swapna Mirashi, with her daughter Tvisha, eight, enjoying the diversity of views at The Big Read Meet.
New member Swapna Mirashi, with her daughter Tvisha, eight, enjoying the diversity of views at The Big Read Meet. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Some years ago, Mr Richard Mak, then an accountant, decided to try for a career in which he had "zero experience". At first, he could not convince his future boss that he was the best man for the job.

He recalled: "Within 10 minutes of interviewing me, the CEO was showing me the door. But I really wanted to work there, so I handed him a 30-page report I had written on how his company could do even better."

He got the job, which was in sales and marketing. By the time he reported to work, his new colleagues had known him as "the man who had given the CEO a 30- page report".

Mr Mak, now 57 and a training consultant who also teaches creative thinking at the Singapore Management University, was among the 45 readers at The Big Read Meet on Wednesday evening, on American business don Adam Grant's new bestseller, Originals.

He shared his story during a discussion on Grant's findings that the most successful people, such as Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, actually try not to take risks, like to procrastinate and are even inefficient.

Entrepreneur Regan Rahardja, 32, noted how Grant's arguments often run counter to popular beliefs and such counter-intuition made sense because the human brain worked counter-intuitively.

"For example," he said, "if you tell someone, 'Don't think of pink elephants', that is all he will think about afterwards."

Readers then pondered why Grant found the plea "Don't be a drunk driver" far more effective in curbing drink-driving than the usual "Don't drink and drive".

Views flew thick and fast, with most readers concluding that most people heeded the plea because they did not want to be labelled negatively, such as being a drunk driver.

Also, like the point about the pink elephant, the order "don't drink and drive" would likely have people doing exactly the opposite.

Adjunct consultant for talent development Josie Ho, 55, then pointed out that Grant sometimes contradicted his own arguments. She had read his first book, Give And Take (2014), in which he cautioned against labelling donors as "givers" because that label would lull them into not giving anymore since society had, with the label, already recognised them.

She then mused on how commonsensical most of Grant's ideas were, including taking time out if one was stuck trying to solve a problem.

Meet regular Jean-Michel Bardin, 63, then cited research from the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign that showed that working amid, say, the buzz of a bustling coffee shop worked wonders for the mind.

"Researchers have found that the background noise of the coffee shop somehow helps the brain's circuits connect in different ways to help you solve your problems," said the retired IT engineer.

As the university's lead researcher Ravi Mehta told The New York Times in June 2013, "extreme quiet" focused the mind such that it could not think "in abstract". But working amid the hubbub of a cafe somehow boosted the brain's creativity.

The meet, which I moderate and which complements my fortnightly column The Big Read, welcomed many new members this week. Among them were Mr Mak and Mrs Swapna Mirashi, 39, who brought along her eight-year-old daughter Tvisha.

The Indian-born Mrs Mirashi, who has lived here with her husband and daughter for about six years, said: "It did not feel like my first time. I liked the diversity and vibrancy of the group. It was indeed an exploration of the book from all sides."

She teaches financial literacy and creative thinking.

The next Big Read Meet, featuring Connectography by Parag Khanna, will be from 6.30pm on April 27, in the Central Public Library at Basement 1 of the National Library Board headquarters in 100 Victoria Street. Sign up at any NLB e-Kiosk.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2016, with the headline 'Think of pink elephants'. Print Edition | Subscribe