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Malcolm Gladwell’s 3-Word Reminder to Stop You from Overthinking
- Michael Thompson
“Nothing kills progress faster than indecision!”
My dad was in the military. I can’t count the number of times he said these words to me when I was a kid. Regardless of the warnings, like a lot of people, I still spend an extreme amount of time in my head either ruminating over past decisions or worrying about future ones.
Recently, however, I came across a line of thinking from author Malcolm Gladwell I’d never heard before that smacked me square on the jaw.
“Hamlet was wrong!”
When asked by podcast host Cathy Heller for suggestions for how to stop overthinking so much, Malcolm immediately shared a piece of advice he learned from one of his heroes: Albert O. Hirschmann.
Hirschmann, a legendary economist and considered by Gladwell and many others to be one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, lived his life by one guiding principle: “Hamlet was wrong.”
Like a lot of Gladwell’s sharings, this may sound odd. But after hearing his explanation it makes sense. Hamlet is a classic case of someone who thought too much and did too little. He planned and plotted but his inability to make a decision and take action not only tormented his days but cost him his life.
According to Hirschmann, however, Hamlet had it backward— the uncertainty of the future shouldn’t freeze us but rather free us. This is because the only thing we will ever be able to predict about the future with any level of certainty is that it will continue to be highly uncertain.
Of course, the idea that much of life is out of our hands can be terrifying. As human beings, our brains are hardwired for security. But if we’ve learned anything since COVID came on the scene, it’s that we have no idea what’s coming tomorrow so we might as well commit to what we want to do today.
“This belief we have that the future is knowable is crazy. People need to have the freedom to take more chances.” — Malcolm Gladwell
Treat your curiosity as your primary responsibility
While giving the eulogy at his father’s funeral, Malcolm talked about how his dad married his mother, a Black woman, in 1959, because he loved her. He didn’t need any other reasons. He didn’t question what society would think. He didn’t lose any sleep worrying about if it was a good decision or not. He simply did what felt right.
In short, Malcolm’s father was a “Hamlet was wrong” kinda guy. And if you’ve read Malcolm’s book “Blink,” which is based on the idea that spontaneous decisions are often as good as — or even better than — carefully planned and considered ones, it’s clear his father’s actions impacted the way Malcolm leads his own life.
Obviously, some decisions demand more thought than others. Life isn’t always so simple. But at the same time, I can’t help but think that a high percentage of the best things that have happened in my life came when I gave myself permission to create my own green lights.
10 years ago, after being financially wiped out, on a whim I took what little money I had left and bought a one-way ticket to Barcelona in an attempt to find my smile. I didn’t have any friends waiting for me. I didn’t have a job lined up. Hell, I wasn’t even legally allowed to live in the country after my 90-day visa expired.
A gambling person would have bet their house I’d be back sleeping in my parent’s basement in less than a month. But as Malcolm’s dad would say, “I followed my nose,” and it led me to a door where waiting inside was the one person in the world who had the power to complete my smile.
I need to remind myself of instances like this more often.
I need to remind myself that the world rewards those who have the stones to keep moving forward regardless if they don’t know their destination.
I need to remind myself to treat my curiosity as my primary responsibility.
If you too suffer from paralysis of analysis at times, remind yourself of Malcolm’s advice and Hirschmann’s words. Remember that Hamlet was wrong. Give yourself permission to take more chances.
After all, the best moments are often those when we lean into ourselves and say, “Screw it, let’s go!”
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